The Art of Making Cigars: A Smokin’ Hot Skill

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(Photo by Putu Sayoga)

Text by Reza Daffi. Photos by Putu Soraya

CENTURIES after Columbus’ crews brought it out of the Caribbean to Europe, the habit of smoking cigars has evolved into a global culture. Colonialism took it along to regions afar. In Indonesia, for instance, it was the Dutch who brought it in, and since then, a number of cigar factories have been established since the early 20th century.

Cigars now come in countless colours, shapes and flavours, varying from greenish to dark-coloured, from the common coronas (evenly cylindrical with a round head) to the more exotic figurados (varieties of irregularly shaped cigars), and from sweet to dry. The materials are produced in various places around the world, offering assorted qualities and characters. When we talk about why someone likes a certain cigar, its colour, shape and flavour are all contributing elements. But what makes cigars so special is how they are made.

A cigar can be handmade or machine-made, or both. The finest cigars, however, are entirely handmade. The process requires very careful and precise handling from start to finish. Similar to learning to play a musical instrument, mastering the knowledge and skill to fashion the filler (a huddle of tobacco leaves inside a cigar), the binder (the leaf that holds the filler together) and the wrapper (the outermost part) into a good cigar can take a very long time.

Workers place tobacco leaves inside a counting machine in the Rizona Baru Cigar Factory (Photo by Putu Sayoga)

Manufacture can be divided into two broad stages: preparation and rolling. The first stage starts from cultivating tobacco: drying, fermenting and stripping the leaves. The rolling includes preparing the filler and wrapping it. While the preparation steps are mostly concerned with the science, the rolling process is all about the craftsmanship.

The best tobacco leaves are cultivated in the tropical soils of Cuba and Brazil as well as Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. The process begins indoors, where the plant is seeded. After 6 to 10 weeks, the seeds are sown in open land and pruned well so that they yield leaves of a proper size. The leaves from different parts of a tobacco plant will provide various tastes and uses. Those for the wrapper must be kept from too much sunlight and from insects, usually using cloth to cover them. It may take several months before the leaves can be reaped. The wrapper may be taken from Jember, Indonesia, while the filler could be from Havana, Cuba. When made entirely of leaves from a single country, a cigar will be called puro (pure).

The leaves are then taken into an airy barn for drying. They are usually hung on wooden strips until their green colour turns yellowish-brown. A close watch on the leaves must be kept to make sure they do not get overly dry.

Fermentation comes afterwards. This is where the aroma and taste of tobacco will develop. When the leaves are cured, they will be classified based on their colour and size. They are grouped into bunches of tens, and each bunch is packed and kept in boxes. The fermentation can take anywhere between six months and five years. Tobacco leaves for the best cigars are usually fermented for at least two years. Sorting is done again, this time more carefully.

The finest tobacco is carefully selected by hand (Photo by Putu Sayoga)

A fermented leaf is then stripped off its main vein manually. This may look like a piece of cake when you see a worker at a tobacco factory doing it very quickly. But try it yourself and you will change your mind just as quickly. The leaves must remain intact. They cannot have any holes or tears. A well-trained worker will do this by firstly folding the leaf in half following the main vein. He will then hold the vein at both ends. One of the tips of the vein is twitched out using one hand, then by pulling that tip, the leaf is rolled on the other hand’s wrist to strip the vein off all the way down. The leaves are then ready.

The two remaining steps require further special skills, as it is this that determines the aesthetic aspects of a cigar. We start with making the filler. There is a lot of inventiveness going on in this step, as tobacco leaves of distinct characters are blended to create the desired taste. There are three types of leaves for the filler: the seco, taken from the middle of a tobacco plant, will give much of the cigar’s flavour; the volado, from the bottom of the plant, is for the burning; and the ligero, from the upper part of the plant, will provide strength. Usually, there will be between two and six of these leaves in a filler. The ligero is usually placed in the middle, as it is the slowest to burn. The leaves are stacked and rolled firmly in a binder, which is often a leaf that is torn or imperfect in colour. It will not be visible, so the most important thing is that it can hold the filler well.

Eighty-year-old Mbah Mitro (right), the oldest worker in the factory, and Alfiah select tobacco leaves for cigars in the Rizona Baru Cigar Factory, Central Java, Indonesia (Photo by Putu Sayoga)

Lastly, the filler is wrapped, a step that is often considered the most difficult. First of all, a well-textured, moist wrapper leaf is spread on a flat wooden surface and trimmed using a rounded knife called a chaveta; in other places, like in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a circular knife with a wooden handle is used instead. Thus the wrapper starts life as a sort of curved tobacco belt.

Cigars are dried in the sun in Temanggung, Central Java (Photo by Putu Sayoga)

The filler is then delicately rolled into the wrapper. At the same time, the wrapper must be stretched out with just enough force to avoid wrinkles and tearing. After about three and a half rolls, the wrapping will reach the end of the filler. The remaining wrapper is cut around, then after tasteless vegetable glue is applied to it, rolled again to finish the cap; pectin (extracted from citrus fruits) is often employed as glue, though a paste made of rice starch is used in Indonesia. Cuban cigars are known for their triple caps, which demand more complex skills to create.

Read the rest of this article in No.87 Issue 2/2012 of Asian Geographic magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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