Writing this Labor Day, it only seems appropriate to take this opportunity to honor the extraordinary amount of labor and love it takes to create the cigars we enjoy. In a recent campaign celebrating their White Label series, our friends at Davidoff shared that it takes 300 hands to create a Davidoff cigar, and only one to enjoy it… yours.
300 hands may sound like a lot, but I would venture to guess it takes far more than that. In a process that takes at a minimum several months and in many cases, several years, there are numerous intricate stages and endless possible points of failure— frankly, an operations nightmare. And yet, the very best manufacturers have honed decades (if not generations) of knowledge and experience to perfect their craft.
So what exactly goes into bringing a cigar from an idea to that first puff of smoke? There may be a few things here you haven’t thought of…
The Seed: There’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg here, as the beautiful tobacco flowers that grow at the top of a tobacco plant are pollinated— Davidoff does it by hand. A single tobacco plant can generate 225,000 seeds, and only 10 percent of those will make it through Davidoff’s quality control. So there we already have countless hands, from those pollinating the plants, harvesting the seeds, and sorting them.
According to Davidoff, it takes 8 years of seed crossings to create the tobacco that has the taste and physical qualities to be good enough for one of their White Label cigars. How many hands are involved in that process?
Seedlings: Seeds are planted in trays and grown for 45 days in protected greenhouses before being transplanted to the tobacco fields. The seedlings are inspected and culled, and fed milk– yes, you read that right, to grow up big and strong.
Field Preparation: Seeds can’t be sown into just any soil. Davidoff rotates their fields every three years to allow the soil to rejuvenate, and each field has its own nutrition formula based on the micronutrients needed given climate, prevailing weather and soil type. How many agronomists does it take to figure that out? More hands…
Planting: We’ve all seen the amazing pictures of tobacco plants growing in the fields. The precise rows covering acres of land weren’t planted by machines. It takes entire teams of people moving quickly and carefully to transplant those precious seedlings into their new homes. And in Davidoff’s case, they’re not just planting tobacco. They also plant corn to act as a deterrent to insects that might otherwise prey on the tobacco plants.
Irrigation: Different farms use a variety of methods to irrigate their fields. Some use spray irrigation, some move water by hand through canals in the fields, and some like Davidoff use drip irrigation to conserve resources.
Inspecting: As the tobacco plants mature, they are inspected daily for insects and fungi. According to The Tobacconist Handbook, An Essential Guide to Cigars & Pipes, they will also be pruned to insure success for the strongest leaves. This process is called deshijando. I don’t speak Spanish, but that sounds like many more hands to me.
Harvesting: Harvesting leaves from tobacco plants is called priming. Only a few leaves are removed from each plant roughly every three days. There are six different levels on each tobacco plant, and each is primed individually. All of the leaves are hand-picked, and then transported to the curing barns.
Air-Curing: Green tobacco leaves consist of 85% water. During the curing process, 60% of that weight is lost and the leaves start to turn from green to brown. The leaves are hand-tied or sown onto bamboo sticks or cujes so that the leaves don’t hunch. Each priming is marked with differently colored strings by Davidoff to aid in sorting. This is when the aroma and taste of the tobacco begins to develop. The temperature and humidity levels in the barns are constantly monitored. Davidoff uses heated panels to precisely regulate their curing barns, and open doors as needed to regulate humidity. They check the conditions three times per day.
Fermentation: After air-curing, the tobacco leaves are moved to fermentation rooms where they are placed into huge piles called pilones. The weight of the pilones creates heat, and the temperature of each pile is constantly monitored. Pilones are disassembled and reassembled multiple times by hand to insure that all of the leaves are allowed to ferment consistently. This is when all of the ammonia and impurities are drawn out of the tobacco, so that the natural sugars and properties of the leaves can shine. Fermentation can last months or years, depending on the manufacturer’s preferences. Filler tobaccos generally take less time to ferment than binder or wrapper leaves.
Aging: After fermentation, the leaves are placed in bales by type to age from months to years. The leaves didn’t sort themselves, or move themselves… more hands.
Blending: Another chicken and egg situation, as some blends may have been conceived prior to all the stages above, and others are developed as a result of the stages above… those “happy accidents” the master blenders discussed in our post on the blending seminar. Blending is done by a Master Blender, but assisted by many who weigh in on the final product. Just ask David Berkebile about the process he went through to create the Caucus!
Rolling: This process is so nuanced, it deserves its own post. Stay tuned… but suffice it to say, many more hands!
The Other Unsung Heroes: Once the cigars are rolled, perhaps aged again, once the boxes have been built, and fancy labels put on… the final trip to the U.S. begins. From arriving at the docks and clearing customs, to being processed by each distributor, ultimately the cigars make their way onto UPS or FedEx trucks to our store. More warehouse employees, more drivers, more hands..
And just one more group for us to thank— our cigar company representatives. You’ll know many of the heads of these companies from magazine articles or Instagram pages, but you may never get to meet the wonderful people in the cigar industry who help educate us on all their blends and products on a regular basis. The cigar reps are road warriors, often away from their friends and families most nights of the week (and weekends too). They are our business partners and our friends. So thank you to all of those reps we’ve come to know and love over the years. We appreciate you, your labor, and all the people on the farms and factories you represent so graciously.
So the next time you light a cigar, please take a moment to give a silent thanks to these 300 plus hands. And enjoy every moment of that cigar they helped put into yours.