Quality Cigars Take Time: The Cigar Supply Chain
COVID-19 slammed the supply chain, and the cigar industry was no exception. Life is getting back to normal. Cigar Life Guy and most of you are back at cigar events, but the supply chain continues to lag. Many cigar smokers are still wondering where their favorite cigars are. The delay is all for good reasons and much of it is the growing and manufacturing processes. Getting quality cigars from the factories, onto the shelves, and into your hand is careful and complex.
Handcrafted Quality Cigars
Quality cigars are made the same way they were over 100 years ago. Tobacco is handpicked, then cigars are hand-rolled. The process requires skilled laborers and the careful cultivation of tobacco leaves.
Tobacco plants need time to grow, and after harvesting, time to cure and ferment. Understanding this process goes a long way toward understanding how the supply chain can slow. It also goes a long way to appreciate the premium quality of the next cigar you light.
The growing season typically begins in September. By January, plants mature and it’s time to “prime” them. Priming removes the leaves needed for curing and for transforming into cigars later.
The Construction of a Quality Cigar
There are three parts to every cigar: filler, binder, and an exterior wrapper. These are often different tobaccos from different sections of the tobacco plant. Cigar manufacturers use volado, or leaves from the lower section of the plant for filler. Since they receive less sun, they are smaller and produce a subtler milder flavor.
The seco leaves are from the midsection of the plant. They are slightly larger than the volado and with less flavor. Seco leaves also serve as fill and sometimes also as the binder.
The ligero or upper part of a tobacco plant receives the most amount of sunlight. These larger leaves provide the strongest flavors, so growers use them for a cigar’s exterior wrapper. Torn or imperfect ligeros often serve as binders.
When you hear aficionados discuss a cigar’s “balance,” they are referring to how these components create a cigar’s distinct taste. Even though most flavor derives from the exterior wrapper, the binder and fill are vital to a cigar’s character. Master blenders develop unique combinations after the tobacco cures, ferments, and they remove leaves from stalks.
The Waiting Game
Once harvested, growers hang the leaves in barns to dry and cure. The curing process removes chlorophyll and the leaves take on the familiar brown and yellow hues seen in your favorite cigars.
The fermenting process takes even longer. Sometimes the process can take years. Once fermented, growers divide the leaves into fillers, binders, and wrappers and tie them into bundles. Then, the cigars are left to ferment. Fermentation and aging allow the tobacco’s flavor and aroma to mature. The longer tobacco ferments the higher the quality results. This happens before a single cigar is rolled.
Careful Craftsmanship: Stripping, Rolling, and Wrapping
After curing and fermenting, skilled workers must carefully remove the middle vein of the leaf. Next, the rolling process begins. The filler and binder come first, followed by the exterior wrapper. Manufacturers inspect cigars for uniformity of size and imperfections, then box them according to shade differences. Despite the sophisticated process, true cigar lovers should expect nothing less.
In the early days of the pandemic, government shutdowns and factory shutdowns slowed production in countries like Honduras and Nicaragua. Many workers were laid off and have yet to return. Combined with the shipping and logistics problems that are facing all industries, the return to normal continues to be slow.
Quality Cigars are Worth the Wait
Quality cigar making is an art, and like any art it takes time. The recent spike in cigar demand, bolstered by internet sales and new smokers, put a strain on supply in the past couple of years. Yet, cigar makers have not rushed production or sacrificed quality. Aficionados and purists know that there are plenty of brands to choose from. Like enjoying a top-shelf cigar, there’s no sense rushing it.
Photo Credit: Cigar Life Guy