The Process of Handmade Cigars
Nicaragua is a new heavyweight in the cigar industry, with its first factories opening in the 1990s. Before, tobacco was shipped abroad for processing. In the last decade, the country has overtaken Honduras and Cuba to become the world’s second largest cigar producer. The blackened soil of Nicaragua, very similar to Cuba’s in terms of texture and chemical components, has a high mineral content that give Nicaraguan tobacco its distinct character.
The interesting thing about Nicaragua is the four various growing regions and the different types of tobacco they produce. Much of the leaf comes from two fertile valleys, Jalapa and Estelí, where some of the world’s most exquisite filler, binder, and wrapper are grown. Ometepe is a volcanic island in the middle of the Lake Nicaragua with nutrient rich soils which tobaccos are on the medium side. Recently the area of Condega, near Estelí and the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, has slightly thinner leaf and is used for binder tobacco.
The world of handmade cigars as we know it is almost two hundred years old. It is one of the few luxury products that does not improve with new technology.
The plants are harvested after 100 days from the bottom to the top in sections. These sections are classified as Seco the bottom of the plant, Viso the middle, and Ligero the top of the plant. Sections of the plant are partitioned and hung in their priming’s to guarantee the finest quality flavour. After 40 days of curing, plants will transition from green to yellow to brown, shrinking significantly. Once an even colour of brown is achieved, the tobacco is brought to the factory for sorting.
After curing and prior to fermentation, each leaf is classified as a wrapper, binder or filler. Filler tobacco is located in the centre of the cigar. This is where the strength of a cigar comes from. The binder wraps the filler leaf up, holding the cigar together. The wrapper leaf is put on last and looks the best. It’s small-veined and gives the cigar its colour and feel.
After the curing process is fermentation. Fermentation is designed to remove unwanted nutrients. The process begins with the rehydration of every leaf. Once the tobacco is evenly dampened, it is placed into large stacks called pilons. This allows tobacco to ferment, leaving the leaves with a clean tobacco taste.
When the tobacco is cured and fermented, it must be aged. The bales, sit in vast, temperature-controlled warehouses for up to two years, and sometimes longer. Once the tobacco is brought out of aging, it is time to bring the tobacco back to a higher humidity for it to be pliable enough to work with. They sort each bale into small piles and stack those smaller piles on racks to be taken into a room where humidity can be raised slowly.
After they are cased, the leaves are deveined by workers delicately pulling the stem down the middle of the leaf. The leaves are separated by strength or tobacco type. A supervisor, will prepare the exact proportion of leaves to be used in a cigar. The rollers receive instructions on how much of each leaf to press into the cigars they are making that day.
Rolling a cigar is the process of constructing the filler, binder, and wrapper into a single form. This process is has two steps: bunching and rolling. Bunchers and rollers sit side by side in teams of two. First the bunchers will bunch the filler tobacco within binder leaves. This is bundled together and placed inside a tobacco leaf called a binder because it holds all of the filler together. These rough tubes of tobacco are placed into wooden cigar-shaped moulds which press them together, forcing the tubes to hold their shape. A good roller can make 100 to 150 cigars a day. From here each cigar is taken through a draw testing machine to guarantee a consistent draw before the wrapper can be applied. The mould then goes to the roller, and the outer wrapper leaf is rolled around the bunch. When the cigar is almost complete, a cap is applied to the head, or smoking end, of the cigar. Once the cigar is finished, the maker places it on top of his rolling desk and a supervisor inspects the cigar by hand, rejecting any cigar that he suspects of being improperly rolled or filled.
After they’re rolled, the cigars are placed in an aging room where they remain for a minimum of 90 days or up to six months or more before shipping. This final aging period allows for the different layers of tobacco within the cigar to fuse together.
After the aging room, each cigar goes through another round of quality control. A sorter inspects and reject cigars if they have any visible flaws, such as cracks or blemishes. The cigars are then branded with label, nestled into boxes, sealed and shipped.
Pictures are taken in the Mombacho Cigar Factory in Casa Favilli, Granada, Nicaragua.