The creation of fine cigars is a complicated one and aficionados can debate long and passionately about the highly developed science it has become. The dedication and design behind the stogie is something to be considered before you light up. Seeing your cigar as piece of highly crafted handiwork will make your smoking experience all the more enjoyable.
Growing The Tobacco Plant: The Magic Sixes
Tobacco used in cigars is grown all over the world in tropical countries. The plant is cultivated through three periods of six weeks known to growers as the magic sixes. First it takes six weeks for the seeds planted in the seedbeds to germinate and grow enough to be transplanted to the fields.
After they are taken to the fields, they wait another six weeks for the transplanted tobacco plants to reach maturity and finally six weeks for the completion of the harvest. These periods can take longer or shorter depending on weather conditions or the quality of the crop. These fluctuations can have effects on the outcome of the finished product and are monitored carefully.
Harvesting and Curing
Once the leaves have been deemed ready to harvest they are taken to the curing barns by the growers. Here the leaves are strung together to allow the process of necrosis through oxidation to work. This is where the leaves die losing their chlorophyll and changing from green to gold-brown.
The conditions inside a curing barn are tightly controlled. Traditionally this was accomplished with the simplest of methods. If the air was to dry water was sloshed across the barn floor beneath the dying leaves. Pans full of burning coals were brought under the leaves if the vegueros (growers) thought the air was too wet.
The Kalfrisa Method of Curing Tobacco
Curing the tobacco leaves can be done many different ways. The importance is in the attention to the moisture levels, temperature and quality of the leaf. If the leaves are allowed to cure slowly the carbohydrates in the leaf are completely absorbed by the sugars.
Recently the Cubans developed an alternative to the curing barn. The “kalfrisa” barn accomplishes the same purpose as a curing barn. Only it offers a much more controlled environment to cure the leaves. This is especially beneficial in the curing of leaves that have been selected as fine wrappers.
The kalfrisa method can also shorten the curation period but are costly to build and require on-site electricity to operate. Some of the old school cigar growers pride themselves in their traditional curing barns and say the kalfrisa method speeds up the process artificially. Typical curing barns can complete the curing process in 45 to 65 days.
Other more innovative tobacco growers are enthusiastic about the kalfrisa. Ventilation systems specially designed for the process facilitate an even changing of green to yellow and then yellow to gold-brown in the leaf and without water marks. Due to the costs of building and operating a kalfrisa barn the use will depend largely on the particular end product that the leaf will be used to make.
Fermenting The Cured Tobacco Leaves
The fermentation process is in many ways similar to making compost. It is the biological enzymatic process that causes the tobacco to “sweat”, when huge stacks of moistened leaves are covered with cloth and allowed to ferment. Theses stacks of leaves must be carefully monitored as they reach temperatures near 140 °F.
Oils important to flavor and quality can be lost if the stacks are allowed to overheat so workers break down the stacks to remoisten the leaves. This can be done as many as six times during the process. It is at this point that the tobacco’s nicotine levels are reduced and the ammonia is released.
The Aging Process
The fermentation process can take up to 18 months and longer. Long and slow fermentation assures that the quality and especially the smoothness of the final cigar. After they are fermented the bales are wrapped in burlap sacks to age. Aging takes a standard 18 months to two years to complete however some aging halls keep inventories of tobacco 10 years old and older. Such hidden stashes are the “El Dorados” of the cigar aficionado.
Leaves that will be used as wrappers do not need to age this long because they are thinner and more delicate, leaves used as binders and fillers benefit from a longer aging process to develop distinctive tastes and fine cool burning smoke.
Master tobacconists with decades of experience recognize how crucial the fermentation process is. This is why they painstakingly strive to develop methods that emulate the traditional crafts they learned and yet produce something that is in itself a unique experience. It is little wonder that many of the more sophisticated members of society find relaxation and prestige in this enjoyable activity.