Disclaimer: I’m not a tobacco smoker and I don’t really know much about the pleasures of smoking. The following history and claims about quality and such are views I gleaned from the Internet.
The story about how they make cigars in Estelí is a something I witnessed first-hand.
Tobacco was discovered by the indigenous people of Central and South America long before Columbus came in 1492. The native Mayans and other native peoples used tobacco for all sorts of purposes: rituals, healing, health and no doubt for pleasure.
The term cigar comes from the Spanish word cigarros, which might have its root in a Mayan word sicar, which means “to smoke rolled tobacco leaves.”
The habit of smoking cigars became popular in Europe when some of the crew who sailed with Columbus brought back rolled tobacco the natives smoked. Tobacco smoking became a habit in Spain and Portugal in the 16th century, then introduced to France by the French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot (whence the word nicotine is derived), and then Italy and Britain (Sir Walter Raleigh). European tobacco enterprises started in the Philippines, the Caribbean, and the Thirteen Colonies (USA).
By the mid-19th century, Vincente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish cigar maker, moved his operation from Cuba to Key West, Florida, because of Cuba’s war for independence from Spain (Ten Years’ War), so Key West became an important producer of cigars. Ybor started a city for growing tobacco, Ybor City, near Tampa, Florida. Cigars were made there there and in New York. By the turn of the 20th century, New York was an important manufacturer for cigars: all hand-rolled in 127 tenement apartments- about 7,000 people worked in New York’s cigar industry. By the early 20th century, 80,000 cigar manufacturers were making cigars in the United States. When automation came of age, cigars started to be machine-rolled. Cuba and other Latin American countries continued the time-honored tradition of hand-rolling cigars, which is labor intensive, hence the higher price. There is a myth that the best cigars are still “rolled on the thighs of virgin workers” – I don’t know how that would be appealing – it’s a gimmicky advertising slogan.
There is some hype about the quality of Cuban cigars – some folks to this day still believe they are the best in the world. From what I can glean, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil, and others produce very high-quality cigars made by hand that surpass Cuba in quality, taste, and so on and so forth. I surmise the desirability of Cuban cigars has to do with Fidel Castro’s revolution and the subsequent US embargo on Cuban goods: if you can’t buy something, then it becomes more precious and desirable.
Estelí, Nicaragua is notable for producing some of the finest quality cigars in the world today. The high elevation, rich volcanic soil and moderate temperatures produce fine tobacco. The rise of cigar manufacturing in Estelí began when many Cuban cigar makers fled shortly after Fidel Castro took control of Cuba.
I went to visit a very small cigar factory in the heart of the city: Flor de San Luisa. It is owned and operated by Mr. Carlos G. Pareda, from Cuba. His family have been making cigars in Cuba for over 100 years. From the outside, you would not know that it was a cigar factory.
When you enter you are met with the pungent aroma of fermented tobacco leaves and high humidity. Tobacco leaves for making cigars can be broken down into two main types:
- Filler – leaves that have a more robust flavor, darker color, more brittle with more imperfections,
- Wrapper – lighter color, less flavorful and more elastic for rolling into the finished product
Workers remove the middle stem of the tobacco leaf, then the leaves are split down the middle to prepare them for the next step: rolling cigars.
Rolling cigars is more art than science. The workers have years of experience in making cigars and must know exactly how much tobacco to use for each cigar without relying on measurement instruments. It’s a learned skill.
Here is the rolling room. The room is configured so that two people work side by side on one cigar. Usually the man rolls the filler and the women do the wrapping.
Once the cigars are rolled, they are put into wooden molds to compact them and make the cigars perfectly round.
Cigars come in all sorts of sizes, measured by diameter and length. The smallest are cigarillos (less than 6″ long by .25″ wide) to the gran corona (9.25″ long by almost an inch wide). There are also different shapes to cigars – parejo (straight, open at one end and round, closed at the other), torpedo (open at one end, pointy and closed at the other), perfectos (closed at both ends, bulging in the middle), presidente (closed at both ends with one pointy end)… so many!
Quality control is essential at all phases of production. An inspector routinely checks the cigars throughout the rolling process to ensure uniformity and quality.
Once the cigars are rolled and bundled, they are brought to a storage area and are left to sit to cure a bit before being shipped to their clients.
It takes about four years to make a cigar, from when the tobacco is harvested, cured, fermented, rolled, stored and finally shipped.