The Art of the Blend- Learning from Masters

Blending Seminar

It’s the time we all look forward to… when you cut a cigar you love and from that first light to the final ash you experience pure enjoyment.  It may have lasted over an hour, or maybe only 20 minutes— but for that brief window in time, you are content.

Wherever your thoughts may drift while smoking, at some point you likely think about just how great that blend is.  What you may not think about is the extraordinary effort and years it takes for the makers of premium cigars to develop and maintain those blends.

At the annual Premium Cigar Association (PCA) trade show this week, we were incredibly fortunate to attend a blending seminar led by industry greats Nestor Plasencia Jr., Christian Eiroa, and Manuel Quesada— expertly moderated by Michael Herklots from Ferio Tego.  Rather than a high level overview of what it takes to create a great blend, Michael led a deep-dive with the panelists into specific areas of focus: microclimates, maintaining a blend, a discussion of “puro vs. blend,” how new blends are born, and where there are opportunities to innovate. What ensued was an hour long discussion that kept a ballroom full of premium cigar retailers listening with rapt attention… and wanting more.

It’s impossible to capture the wisdom this group shared in one blog post without writing a novel, so we’ll begin here just by sharing their insights on two key aspects: Microclimates and Maintaining a Blend.

Are you ready for a deep dive? Please read on…

Microclimates:  Cigar descriptions are usually very high-level: “Dominican binder and filler with a Connecticut Shade wrapper.” These experts were quick to make clear that country of origin is by no means enough to characterize a blend, as each country is made of up of “microclimates.” In Nicaragua, the conditions in Esteli generally produce a tobacco that is stronger, whereas tobacco from the mountainous region of Jalapa tends to be more mild.  In the Dominican Republic, the Yaque river divides the land and there is more intensity in the tobacco grown south of the river away from the mountains versus tobacco grown in fields north of the river.

There are then differences between tobacco grown on various farms within a particular region, and as Christian Eiroa noted, “even the lots within a farm can differ as some parts are rockier.”  Understanding these detailed nuances is just one part of what it takes to create a great blend.

Maintaining a Blend:  Michael Herklots aptly noted that unlike the wine industry, which embraces annual changes to blends and captures them as vintages, the cigar industry places particular importance on maintaining a blend.  According to the experts, there are four key areas of focus when it comes to maintaining a blend: microclimate, seed, yearly conditions and leaf placement.  They refered to a period known as “the overlap” when you know you’re going to run out of a particular tobacco from inventory and will have to replace it. Cigar makers have to plan years ahead and understand what has happened over time in particular areas of the farm. For example, given variations in rainfall it may take a younger viso leaf to replace a seco leaf (which is lower on the plant) to have a similar intensity found in a particular blend. And while that may be true of viso and seco grown in 2019, it might not apply to future years.

Nestor Plasencia Jr. had his passion for agronomy on full display: “If you work with the nature of the soil and feed the soil, it will feed the tobacco. We learn from the wisdom of nature…” By understanding the impacts of using various cover crops like corn, sorghum and beans to absorb nitrogen from the soil, these expert farmers learn how to support the root systems of varying seed varietals and feed the necessary microorganisms in the soil. I could quite honestly listen to Nestor talk about dirt all day.

While seeds are first grown in beds for 40-45 days, that time is used to test and prepare the soil by responding to what has happened in the last year. From seedling to harvest takes 16 weeks.

Sitting as the elder statesman on the panel, Manuel Quesada commented, “Consistency begins in the ground… Consistency is as important as quality. And there’s no book to learn this from, you have to learn by experience. I have ruined tons of tobacco…”  During this portion of the seminar, Christian then shared a story about a “happy accident” when entire seed beds of Mexican San Andres died.  Recognizing that the San Andres tobacco does not have a very strong root system, they took sandy soil from the river and then succeeded in growing the seeds in beds with that sandy soil.  When Manolo asked Christian what book he learned that from Christian chuckled and said, “No book. Just hard knocks.”

I look forward to sharing more wisdom from this panel in the Art of the Blend: Learning From Masters – Part II next week!