April 1999
Volume 26
Number 2

Machine Made

by Bob Ashley

Price resistance for quality, everyday smoke has made these as popular as ever. But "popular-priced" need not mean "lower-quality," as you'll discover in this investigation.

MMachine-made cigars have been the biggest selling product in the cigar industry for decades. Still, they don't get much respect from traditional smoke shop owners, particularly since the mid-1990s, when the sale of premium cigars took off. What machine-made cigars a retailer might carry likely will be found on a bottom shelf in the humidor or tucked away in the corner.

That attitude is undergoing what may be described as a glacial change, as the enthusiasm for hand-made premium cigars that characterized the cigar boom has evolved, in part because cigar smokers are searching for less expensive alternatives. Even as major cigars companies continue to fight each other for a larger share of retailers' shelf space with premium cigars, more smoke shops have begun to offer lower-priced machine-made alternatives to the $5 to $12 premium.

"There is a major move in that direction," said Bill Finck Jr., vice president of Finck Cigar Co., San Antonio, Texas.

Finck and others who manufacture machine-made cigars - F.D. Graves and Son Inc., New Haven, Conn., and Topper Cigar Co. Inc., Meriden, Conn., among them - said that sales of all-tobacco machine-made brands have increased since the luster of the premium cigar boom began to dull.

"During the boom, there was no growth in machine-made cigars," Finck said. "Over the last couple of years, people who began smoking hand-made cigars during the boom have started to say, "Hey, this is fun, but it's too expensive.' They are beginning to move away from the $6 to $8 cigars to something they can afford to smoke more often."

Sales of all-tobacco, machine-made cigars are up, partially a reflection of the consumer's price-conscious attitude towards premium cigars, according to several manufacturers. Topper Cigar Co.'s machine-mades (left) are all-tobacco - a "less expensive" premium cigar. But even true-blue mass-market brands such as Garcia y Vega (right) have extended their appeal to premium smokers looking for a lower-cost everyday smoke.

The Cigar Association of America (CAA) estimates that 4.97 billion machine-made cigars were imported or manufactured domestically in 1998, compared to 3.86 billion in 1995. Approximately 3.5 billion of those are "large" cigars, as opposed to cigarette-like "little" cigars.

"The more dramatic growth has been in premium cigars, but popular-priced cigars are holding their own," said CAA President Norm Sharp. "Sometimes it is difficult to separate machine-made cigars from premium cigars." Machine-made cigars, frequently called mass-market, domestic, value-priced, or popularly priced by the companies that make them, are manufactured in two distinct varieties, with myriad of derivations.

Those that compete with premium hand-rolled cigars typically are all tobacco and often have a Connecticut shade or Connecticut broadleaf wrapper. They may be manufactured with long- or short-filler blends, or a combination of the two. At the other end of the spectrum are short-filler cigars that are predominately made with tobacco but also include non-tobacco filler. Typically, either their binder or wrapper or both are made of a homogenized mixture of tobacco and other material that are pressed to look like a tobacco leaf (HTL).

What's the difference? General Cigar's White Owl utilizes homogenized tobacco and non-tobacco filler, whereas other machine-mades, like F.D. Grave's flagship Muniemaker, use the same tobaccos as their top-of-the-line premium cigars.

"I know we are a mass-market cigar, but I hope we are not lumped in with White Owls and others with homogenized tobacco," said Dorothy Grave, vice president of F.D. Grave & Son. "Our cigars are all tobacco, and we use the best. They have the same tobacco in them as our premium cigars. That's what makes them a great buy. They are just made differently."

F.D. Grave makes 10 all-tobacco brands with a suggested retail price of between 80 cents and $2.40. The company's flagship machine-made brand is the Muniemaker, which is available in boxes of 50 in eight sizes, with natural and maduro wrappers.

Chris Topper, president of Topper Cigar Co. Inc., Meriden, Conn., shares Grave' belief. "We are classified as a mass-market cigar, but we are not quite that. We use the same tobacco as the premium cigar makers, but we are less expensive. Ours is a short filler, so it might not have a perfect ash. And a premium cigar may be a little more complex, but it's grown out of the same dirt. "People have become more educated about what a good cigar is. They aren't going out and buying an $8 cigar just because it costs $8. That's not happening anymore. It all goes back to value.

"We consider our cigars to be an everyday smoke. Four or five of them are going to cost you a few bucks. There are a lot of people who want to smoke cigars every day but they can't afford it when it adds up to $30." Topper cigars come in 12 sizes and range in price from 80 cents to $1.10. They typically are sold in boxes of 50 or in four packs. The company's most popular is the Old Fashion, which are manufactured in perfecto sizes. Finck argues vehemently that machine-made cigars can be better than handmade short-filler or poorly made long-filler cigars.

"Machines don't vary," Finck said. "Machine-made cigars are exactly the same every single time. You will never get a cigar that doesn't draw, because we have control over that. If you've got some guy in Nicaragua making cigars from scraps he gets from the factory, you don't know what you are going to get."

Finck's primary machine-made brand is the Travis Club, which is manufactured in two versions. The Travis Club Premium, a long-filler Honduran and Brazilian blend wrapped in a Connecticut Shade leaf and packed in cedar boxes, is available in six sizes at prices ranging from $2.10 to $3, and competes with the low end of the premium price range.

The regular Travis Club is available packaged in cardboard boxes in 10 sizes some of which are made with short-filler tobacco, and others that combine short- and long-filler. They retail for between 65 cents and 90 cents each. Finck also plans to expand its regional brand, Pancho Garcia, an all-tobacco short-filler cigar with a Connecticut shade wrapper by July that will sell for less than $2. The company also produces the Casino Club, a short-filler cigar with an all-tobacco filler, HTL binder, and Indonesian wrapper that will retail for between 90 cents and $1.20 by July.

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