Have you ever wondered how to make a cigar? Indeed, the craftsmanship involved is a meticulously time-consuming and labour-intensive process.
In this guide, you will learn how cigars are made as we cover each of the following processes:
- How To Grow Cigar Tobacco
- Curing The Tobacco
- How Tobacco Is Fermented For Cigars
- Sorting & Stripping Tobacco
- How To Roll A Cigar
- Quality Control
- Why Cigars Have Bands & Cellophane
Simply use the links above to jump straight to a particular step or scroll down to read it all!
See Bespoke Unit’s Cigar Reviews
Specific techniques may vary between different countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, the overall process is often quite similar.
We will highlight any differences between these neighbouring cigar cultures. Nevertheless, manufacturing a single premium cigar may consist of over several hundred individual steps.
You can also watch our full Davidoff documentary From Seed To Smoke: A Cigar’s Odyssey:
How To Grow Cigar TobaccoBefore the tobacco plant thrives in the field, it usually begins life under the shelter of a greenhouse. Typically, seeds are extracted from specially-grown fertile plants, which aren’t grown for cultivation but produce quality seeds.
A single ovule can produce over 1,000 seeds. However, only the best and healthiest ones are used, which is determined by their weight. These are then evenly scattered into a tray containing highly fertile soil.
After 21 days, the seeds germinate into small shoots. The healthiest shoots are then transplanted by hand into larger, compartmentalised trays, which allows the roots to develop separately. Several days later, the shoots grow into small plants.
The healthiest plants with the highest potential will spend 45 days in the greenhouse’s nursery where they receive consistent sunlight. Here, the humidity and temperature is kept at optimal levels to encourage growth.
Finally, the plants are sheared by a lawnmower before being transferred to the fields. Removing the top leaves encourages further root development to ensure resistance against wind, rain, and irrigation when planted outdoors.
Why Is Tobacco Grown In A Greenhouse
Interestingly, the greenhouse is a relatively recent introduction to the process that has grown to become an industry standard. Historically, seeds were planted directly into the soil. However, it often resulted in a 10% crop failure, and frequent replanting resulted in overlapping harvests.
When producers started introducing prepared shoots, it significantly reduced crop failure to nearly 1%. Additionally, the plants grew at the same rate, which permitted efficient harvests.
Once the shoots are strong enough, they will be distributed among the appropriate farmers to grow in the fields. In some cases, the producer will own some or all of the farms. However, many brands may outsource the cultivation to independent farmers.
Additionally, some farms may specialise in particular varieties of tobacco due to their specific soil or climate. For instance, Nicaraguan Ometepe is exclusively grown on its eponymous southern volcanic island. Meanwhile, the majority of other native Nicaraguan tobacco is produced in the areas surrounding Estelí in the north.
Therefore, it’s rare that all the tobacco required to produce a cigar blend will be grown locally.
Cultivating & Harvesting Cigar Tobacco
In some countries, farmers will use tractors with specialised contraptions that allow the plants to be placed directly into the soil. However, this tends to be quite rare outside of the USA. In most cases, each sprout is planted by hand.
Given that producers such as Davidoff will grow over 9 million plants a year, this is a significant undertaking!
Sophisticated tobacco fields feature irrigation systems with in-built fertiliser to ensure that the plants are adequately nourished. Few independent farmers will have these facilities, however, which requires a more hands-on approach.
Meanwhile, the majority of Cuban farmers in Pinar del Río rely on the region’s natural microclimate and soil to provide the necessary nutrients. Indeed, some producers in neighbouring countries endeavour to simulate the Cuban climate and soil through fertilisation and irrigation.
Conversely, others may exercise a terroir philosophy whereby they emphasise the local environment, which is expressed in the leaf’s resulting flavour. Nevertheless, they will likely use irrigation to ensure a consistent yearly crop yield.
As the plants continue to grow, they are carefully monitored with regular pruning and maintenance. Broken or unhealthy leaves are discarded to leave room for healthy ones. Additionally, any flowers are removed, which encourages the plant to continue growing and avoids them consuming unnecessary nutrients.
Eventually, the harvesting begins after around 100 days. This process takes place in different phases, which are referred to as primings.
What Are Tobacco Primings?Tobacco primings are of vital importance if you wish to understand how a cigar is made as well as well as how it affects the blend.
In our guide to a cigar’s anatomy, we detail the primings and how they each contribute to the cigar’s flavour. Much of their characteristics are owed to the way they are harvested in the fields.
In short, a priming mainly refers to a layer or row of leaves on a single plant. As the tobacco grows upwards, how each level develops varies according to the distribution of nutrients and their exposure to sunlight. Overall, there are four primings from top to bottom:
How Tobacco Is Harvested
The bottom row, the volado, is harvested first. In some countries like Nicaragua, it is discarded and either added to fertiliser or simply left on the ground to be absorbed by the soil. However, the volado is prized in countries like Cuba and the Dominican Republic for producing refined wrapper leaf.
As tobacco is ready for harvesting for a brief period, it cannot be sent to a laboratory to be tested as this would take too long.
Instead, the farmers study the colour of the leaves. For instance, darker leaves are too fresh. Additionally, leaves ready for harvest begin to droop towards the ground, which is referred to as a “reverence to the soil”.
Finally, a prime leaf will then break from the stem with a distinctive crack. If the leaf resists, however, it isn’t ready to be harvested.Each priming harvest will take place every 4 to 7 days, depending on the leaves and their maturity. In between each priming, the plants will continue to develop as the nutrients will be distributed to the remaining leaves. Consequently, the timing of each priming has a cascading effect on the ones that follow.
Additionally, since the tobacco leaves aren’t all harvested in one sitting, the plants are still monitored and carefully cultivated.
Immediately after each priming harvest, the leaves are transferred to a curing barn to undergo its first transformation.
How Long Does It Take To Grow Cigar Tobacco?
Although the length of time required for optimal growth depends on the variety of tobacco, a plant’s lifespan typical resembles the following:
- 10 Days – Germination
- 20 Days – Transplant To Nursery Container
- 60 Days – Field Planting
- 100 Days – First Priming Harvest
- 125 Days – Final Priming Harvest
Of course, the exact amounts may vary. However, this should provide you with a general idea of how long cigar tobacco takes to grow. Similarly, a 6-foot (1.8-metre) plant will usually give around 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of commercial tobacco leaf.
How Tobacco Is Cured
The tobacco will now be cured for between 45 to 60 days inside a specialised barn. This essential process will break down the chlorophyll and allow for future fermentation.
Through oxidation, enzymes such as polyphenol oxidase decompose the chlorophyll to produce chemic carotene and xanthophyll. Consequently, each leaf cures slowly turns from green to yellow and eventually to a light brown.
Curing barns are designed to allow farmers to regulate the biochemical transformation by controlling the barn’s interior climate. In most cases, this will consist of doors and shutters that can be opened and closed when necessary. In short, the curing barn is a giant humidor.
An ideal curing requires a consistent temperature of between 80°F to 90°F (27°C to 32°C) and 80% to 85% humidity. During drier seasons, the doors and shutters are closed to prevent the natural heat and moisture from escaping.
If additional humidity is required, the ground is watered, and hot coals are also distributed to add heat if necessary. Similarly, the roof can be insulated with banana leaves to maintain the temperature.
Tobacco leaves are hung back-to-back along long canes called laths that are usually made from bamboo. Just enough space is left between the leaves to allow the air to circulate and prevent rotting. Later in the process, laths with older leaves will be moved higher up inside the curing barn where it’s hotter.
The last part to cure will be the centre vein or “midrib”, which indicates that the tobacco leaf is ready for fermentation. Since the tobacco cannot be over-cured, a single batch will wait until the very last leaf is fully cured before being taken out of the barn.
How Tobacco Is Fermented
If you were to smoke the tobacco at this stage, it would taste somewhat familiar, but it would be extremely harsh and quite unpleasant. After curing, the tobacco leaf has only undergone one part of its biochemical transformation.
However, it still possesses a high level of alkaloid nicotine, other nitrogenous impurities, and carbohydrates. Therefore, the tobacco leaves will require intensive fermentation in order to make a quality cigar.
What Are Pilónes?
Fermentation takes place by what are known as pilónes, which are essentially latticed piles of tobacco leaf.
First, the leaves are bundled into handles of ten to fifteen leaves. They are then hydrated in sauna chambers before being arranged in rows and eventually stacked into their 2,500 to 4,000-pound (1,100 – 1,800 kg) pilónes.
Their sheer size and weight combines with the humidity to produce heat. If the pilóne is too small, the tobacco will rot. Conversely, if it’s too dry, it won’t provide the necessary temperature to ferment.
Fermentation is particularly crucial as it purges the leaves of impurities such as ammonia, excessive alkaloid nicotine, acidity, and nitrogenous compounds. As a result, the tobacco is more refined to produce a better quality cigar.
As the tobacco pilóne rests, the temperature is regularly monitored. If the temperature rises too quickly, the pilóne is painstakingly disassembled, flipped, and reassembled. Each handled is removed, aired by shaking, and then replaced on a new pilóne.
Flipping the tobacco pilóne is no small feat, and a team of four will need people four hours to complete. Additionally, the process may be repeated every week early in the fermentation process.
Typically, fermentation takes several years. Lower primings need the least time, but the oilier, thicker leaves of the top primings will require lengthier fermentation.
A sign of completed fermentation is a stable temperature despite additional flips and rehydration in the sauna chambers. The tobacco is then dried, bundled into large jute sacks, and left to age in a warehouse until needed.
Sorting & Stripping The Tobacco Leaves
From the day the seeds are planted, tobacco is grown with a clear idea of whether it will be for the wrapper, binder or filler. However, it may have grown differently than expected or experienced mishaps, which require it to be recategorised.
Therefore, the tobacco is sorted according to its size, colour, and texture to ensure that it is appropriately treated. For instance, wrapper leaf is more substantial and needs to be both pristine and of a specific colour for the cigar. Therefore, it’s treated delicately and broken, or damaged leaves are demoted to filler.
Meanwhile, the texture of every leaf is also analysed by hand independent of its appearance. As a result, its priming classification can be verified to ensure that it is correctly used in the final cigar blend.
On some occasions, the leaves are sorted twice with the first time being immediately after curing. However, some producers may only do it once.
At this stage, the leaves still feature the midrib or central vein, which needs to be removed. Typically, this is done by hand, and there are several possible techniques. The first, most traditional method involves peeling the stem with the nails and wrapping it around the wrist, so it pulls freely away from the leaf.
Meanwhile, some manufacturers issue thimbles with claws to workers who use this for quickly stripping the vein. Occasionally, tobacco is folded into neat stacks, which are then fed into a machine. However, this is reserved for filler as it tends not to be as delicate as somebody doing it by hand.
How To Roll A Cigar
Throughout its cultivation, curing, and fermentation, the tobacco has been repeatedly sorted to prepare it for rolling the cigars. Each tobacco leaf is then arranged into predetermined stacks, which represent the final blend. These are then distributed to the rollers in the rolling floor or “Galera”.
Typically, rollers will work in pairs with one specialising in the filler and binder while another focuses on the wrapper. The first roller will assemble the filler leaf using one of the following bunching techniques:
This distinctive Cuban method consists of rolling each filler leaf into tubes, which are then twisted and tightly rolled into the binder leaf. Although a sophisticated technique, it arguably offers an improved aromatic experience.
Only a few manufacturers outside of Cuba following this technique, such as Arturo Fuente in the Dominican Republic.
An older technique that’s mostly popular thanks to its speed, booking consists of stacking the leaves above another, folding them over, and rolling them into the binder leaf. However, while it’s fast and easy to make cigars using the booking technique, they can sometimes have a tight draw.
The accordion bunching method is celebrated for its airflow. While slower than booking, it results in fewer rejected cigars as it’s far more reliable in producing a satisfying draw. Experienced rollers will often employ the accordion technique for premium brands like Davidoff and Plasencia.
Tools For Rolling Cigars
Traditionally, cigars are rolled on wooden blocks. However, metal blocks have grown in popularity as they arguably provide a sharper and more precise cut. Nevertheless, traditionalists that it’s easier to slip and make mistakes given the reduced friction.
Meanwhile, the most common tool is the chavetta knife, a semi-circular blade used for cutting the wrapper. Occasionally, you may say a modern alternative that resembles a pizza cutter.
Rolling The Filler
Firstly, the roller flattens the binder leaf onto a work surface. The roller will use either his, her, or the manufacturer’s preferred technique to then add the right amount of different filler leaf into his or her hand. Using the other hand, the filler tobacco is then properly distributed into palm.
Rollers will develop an almost intuitive feel or “pulse” to gauge the correct balance, arrangement, and tightness of the filler leaf in their palm. Once satisfied, he or she will place the tobacco perpendicular to the binder leaf and carefully roll it by hand.
Occasionally, the roller will use what is known in the industry as a Lieberman machine, which functions a bit like a cigarette-roller. Some manufacturers will argue that these are far faster and more precise than rolling by hand.
Meanwhile, traditionalists believe that it takes away both the skill and artform of cigar rolling.
Once the filler is fully rolled inside the binder, an odourless vegetable glue is used to hold it in place. Afterwards, using either the chavetta or a guillotine, the cigar is cut to the right length.
The cigars are then placed in moulds, which evenly compress the cigar to the right shape. The filled moulds are then stacked and pressed for between 45 minutes to an hour. Every fifteen minutes, the moulds are removed to rotate the cigars 30° and then replaced.
Rolling The Wrappers
Once the binder and filler is ready, the second roller will proceed with the wrapper. While the binder and filler were relatively dry, the wrapper is comparatively moist to ensure that it’s flexible. Occasionally, rollers will have small water bottles to spray the wrapper and ensure that it’s sufficiently moist.
The wrapper is placed on the roller’s work surface and cut into a curved shape using quick movements of the chavetta. The roller starts at the foot and stretches the wrapper with their fingers as they turn the filler binder contents over it.
The roller will then use the chavetta again to cut a small shape into the remaining wrapper at the head, which is referred to as the flag leaf. This leaf is then used to make the finishing touch by using glue to flatten it on the head.
Occasionally, some rollers will make small circles of wrapper with a punch, which is then simply applied with glue to cover the flag leaf.
Finally, the roller will often roll the cigar back and forth with the side of the chavetta onto the work surface to make sure that it’s perfectly smooth.
Cigar Quality ControlQuality control takes place throughout the manufacturing process. Every leaf is scrutinised when cultivated, cured, fermented, and sorted. However, the finished cigars will also be carefully inspected before being approved.
Indeed, the controllers will examine the cigars’ following traits:
- Aesthetics: The cigar’s colour and veins.
- Rolling Consistency: Checking whether the smooth and adequately filled.
- Weight: Ensuring the cigars have used enough tobacco.
- Ring gauge: The cigars are passed through a template to ensure they’re the right size.
- Resistance: Sometimes, a device will check if the cigars are too loose or tight by compression.
- Colour: Even perfect cigars are rejected if their wrappers don’t fit within a predetermined colour hue.
Finally, the cigars that pass the quality controls will then be sent to age in a warehouse. Given that the cigars were rolled with tobacco at different levels of humidity, this final process will take at least several months so that they balance out.
Why Cigars Have Bands & Cellophane
After the cigars have sufficiently aged and are ready for shipping, they are taken to another part of the factory to be dressed in their final accoutrements.
Firstly, the cigars are wrapped in bands according to the producer’s guidelines. There are many theories as to why cigars feature decorative bands.
Some argue that they protect the fingers from staining when smoked while others claim that they protect the cigars when transported. Indeed, a second band on the foot may protect the cigar from shocks.
However, they usually fulfil a branding and marketing role. Nevertheless, it can easily be argued that they also pay homage to all the artisans who produced the cigar and their passion.
Afterwards, the cigars are usually inserted into cellophane. This final touch is often absent on Cuban cigars. However, most “New World” cigars produced elsewhere will almost always be packed in cellophane.
Cellophane does indeed protect the cigars during transport against knocks and falls. Additionally, it can also safeguard cigars from tobacco beetles. Their eggs often lie dormant in cigars and hatch in the right humidity and temperature.
As they feed off tobacco, they rapidly eat through entire boxes. However, they will often die if they chew through cellophane, which will protect the rest of the cigars. As an additional insurance policy, the cigars are also frozen before and during shipping.
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