Jun 11, 2001 (Updated Jun 3, 2005)

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The names convey images of romance and elegance. Montecristo, Partagas, Romeo Y Julietta, Cohiba. There is something about a good Cuban Cigar that just seems so indulgent, so decadent.

Like Swiss chocolate, a fine wine, or a good single malt scotch, a well-made Havana seems to suggest the good life, and a little self indulgence. Cigar smoking has enjoyed a renaissance in the past few years. With this increased popularity anyone considering a trip to Cuba may want
some basic information on it's most famous export.

Tobacco is grown in many places in the world, Asia, Africa, South and North America. It is however some fluke of geography or geology that some of the finest cigar tobacco is grown in the Pinar Del Rio region in western Cuba. This is the source of most of the premium cigars produced in the factories in and around nearby Havana.

The total time to produce a cigar is a lengthy one and is a labour of love throughout. It takes eighteen weeks from the time the seeds germinate until harvested. After harvesting the tobacco leaves are dried or fermented for a lengthy period to remove ammonia and reduce the nicotine content. Then they wrap the leaves in bales age them for eighteen months to two years, and sometimes for up to ten years.

Only after all this is the tobacco ready to be crafted into a fine cigar. Skilled workers grade and sort the leaves and send them to the rollers. The roller carefully assembles the tobacco into the finished product using a chavata or rollers knife, a wooden mold, and his or her skill and experience.

Unlike cigarettes which consist of chopped up tobacco filler, hand made cigars are made from long filler or whole leaves. Several types or blends of different tobacco can be found in the filler dependant on the size and type of cigar being rolled. A leaf then surrounds the filler known as the binder and is in turn encased in a thin delicate leaf known as the wrapper.

Contrary to popular myth they do not roll the cigars on the thighs of nubile young virgins. They do employ many women in this industry at all stages. But rolling is a skill that requires years of practice. Therefore the best rollers and sorters are usually older men and women. A good roller can produce 50 to 90 cigar a day. They are also allowed to sample as much of their wares as they wish while they work.

An interesting aspect of the rolling process are the "Readers." The Readers are persons employed by the factories to read to the rollers and entertain them while they work. A process started in the days before radio and television. They still carry it on in some factories.

A good reader is almost as valuable as a good roller, and keeps the workers informed with newspaper articles, and entertained with novels. Jose Marti a major figure in Cuba's fight for independence from Spain in the nineteenth century was a cigar factory reader at one point in his life.

The finished cigars are inspected for imperfections, graded and sorted and bundled in bunches of fifty. They are now "aged" in special rooms from 2 to 180 days. The final product is then selected, graded and boxed for shipping and or sale. All the finished cigars will be the same colour and shade with no imperfections and less than a gram difference in weight.

Cigars come in various shapes sizes and colours. The colours or shades are determined by the type of tobacco leaf used. Some cigars are odd shaped or Figurados. Conventional shaped cigars are sized by length in either inches or centimeters and/or diameter by ring size.

Ring size or gauge refers to the diameter of the cigar measured in 64ths of an inch. A ring size of 48 refers to a cigar with a diameter of 48/64 of an inch, or the equivalent in metric. Common names usually refer to cigars of a certain length and size.

Whatever their size or shape, all premium cigars have certain characteristics. The finished product will be, as noted, consistent in appearance with all the cigars in the same box, the same shade, colour and weight. The cigar should be soft and resilient to the touch, not hard or crackly.

The overall appearance of the wrapper while obviously not completely smooth as it is hand rolled, will be quite even and smooth. A poorly rolled cigar is easy to spot. Finally the band or label will be neatly glued on.

Cigars are fragile and must be carefully stored to ensure they stay fresh. Cigars should be stored at a constant temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, 20 Celsius and 70% relative humidity. This is not a problem in Cuba.

Back home though a Humidor will be needed to preserve your cigars. It is simply a climate controlled environment of any size from a desk top box to a walk in room in a cigar store. In a pinch a make shift humidor can be built out of an air tight plastic container, or even a resealable plastic bag.

Store the cigars in it with a small container of distilled water and check them occasionally for freshness, replacing the water as needed. Storing them in the fridge is not really effective as you must thaw them out to smoke them and they may absorb food odours which can affect the taste.

Finally some tips on lighting and smoking a good Cuban cigar are in order. Before lighting, the head or cap must be cut to allow you to draw on the cigar. Special cutters either a guillotine or scissors types are available, but your teeth can be used in a pinch and are perfectly acceptable. The trick is to make a large enough opening without tearing the delicate wrapper. This usually requires some skill and practice.

Just about any means can be used to light a cigar, from disposable lighters to wooden matches. The source however should not contain any outside fumes such as in a candle which may affect the taste of the cigar.

Hold the flame just under the foot of the cigar, without touching it. Then draw air in through the head until the whole foot is alight and burning evenly.

On average one or two small puffs every minute will ensure the cigar stays lit. A long even ash is a sign that the cigar is well made and burning correctly. How long it lasts is often dependent on the type and how interesting the conversation.

An average Corona may last around 45 minutes, while a Churchill is often good for up totwo hours. If the cigar goes out while smoking, simply relight it. It is not however a good idea to relight partially smoked cigars the next day.

When and where to smoke is a matter of personal preference. I've enjoyed then after a fine meal, with a good brandy, watching the sunrise on the beach with a cup of coffee or relaxing in the hot tub. All are appropriate. A good cigar usually serves to enhance good company and good times. Now relax, mix yourself a Cuba Libre, put on some Latin music, spark up a Cohiba and enjoy!

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