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June,
2006

The Fine Art
of Blending


By mixing different types of tobacco according to a precise recipe, cigar masters create a blueprint to produce a cigar with certain desirable characteristics.

By Dale Scott

Over the course of the past year, we have examined the many variables that affect the outcome of a finished tobacco leaf up to the point of actually rolling a cigar, at which point the final product is now in the hands of a master blender. Genetic make-up of the tobacco varieties, the soil in which they were grown, the amount and quality of the nutrients given them, the irrigation regimen, the attention to detail during their agricultural cycle, their ripeness at harvest, the curing and fermentation procedures, the sorting and finishing, as well as the environment, will all determine the quality of tobacco leaves. They also play a role in determining how a blender assembles a mixture of tobaccos that work in harmony to achieve a cigar of specific characteristics and balanced tastes.

Knowing the Ingredients After curing and fermentation, tobacco leaves contain organic acids and other organic constituents. These include carbohydrates, nitrogen and other elements such as proteins, alkaloids, polyphenols, resins, oils, paraffin, and pigments, as well as other chemical compounds. Variations in these constituents create a multitude of variables in tobacco.

The most obvious of these are taste, flavor, bouquet, and aroma. Tobacco can also be heavy-, medium-, or mild-bodied. In addition, aggressiveness of the smoke on the tongue and upper throat - evidence of incorrect or inadequate curing and/or fermentation - degrades the quality of a cigar.

Taste differs from flavor and bouquet arguably differs from aroma. The tongue perceives taste, and only recognizes sweetness (at the tongue’s tip), bitterness (back of the tongue), saltiness (between the two), and acidity (sides of the tongue). In contrast, flavor stimulates the taste buds and the olfactory nerves of the tongue and nose. Consequently, flavor is more complex than taste, and contributes to what we call “satisfaction.” Likewise, many in our industry define aroma as the smell - hopefully pleasant - noted by others when we smoke; bouquet is what we smell when we smoke.

A final blend is ultimately only as good as the ability of the bunchers in consistently repeating it cigar after cigar.
The number of different taste and flavor characteristics that can be produced in a blend is almost infinite. Because a blend usually contains different types of tobacco, the blender’s job is critically important and largely responsible for the commercial success of a finished premium cigar. The precise composition of a blend depends on the master blender’s knowledge of the organoleptic (genetic coding) character of the wrapper, binder, and long filler to produce a premium cigar in response to consumer demand, as determined by market research. The master blender determines the composition of a blend, and matches the qualities of the tobaccos available to those of the desired finished product.

The burning properties of the tobaccos for wrapper, binder, and filler are equally important. Does the cigar burn at a proper rate, neither too fast nor too slow? Do the wrapper, binder, and filler burn at the same rate? Is the burn zone - the black ring at the wrapper’s boundary between ash and unburned leaf - razor-narrow, or is it wide, even hanging out over the coal like a pouting lip? What color is the ash, and how firm is it? Is it smooth, streaked with black, or cracked?

All of these characteristics are of concern to the blender, and usually demand compromises: to get one quality, he must sacrifice performance in another area. The considerations in optimizing all of these can be incredibly complex, and it isn’t a game for rookies. John Vogel, our guide for this series of articles on tobacco farming, leaf processing, and cigar manufacturing, is the director of Costa Rican-based Tabacos de la Cordillera. He has a formal education, first-hand experience, and expertise in all phases of tobacco and cigars. He cross-breeds his exclusive bank of pre-Embargo Cuban seeds to obtain proprietary hybrids, planting, natural fertilization and pest control, curing, fermentation, and all aspects of making cigars from that leaf. Significant to this article in particular, he also is the company’s master blender.

“Blending may be the most arcane of all the various aspects of tobacco cultivation and cigar production,” Vogel explains. “How a blender predicts in advance how a cigar blend will turn out; how he systematically mixes an endless variety of different tobaccos to create a blend; how a cigar buncher can repeat a consistent blend by seemingly only slapping a handful of leaves together… Out of apparent chaos, what ensures a superior, consistent product?”

The blending process, explains Vogel, is not just a helter-skelter series of mixing combinations of leaves together at random. Instead, it follows an orderly and scientific set of procedures. First, the blender rolls several cigars from varieties of cured and fermented leaves he plans to choose from. The higher its quality, the more important it is to test the potential tobaccos individually, not only for their inherent properties of smell, taste, and fire-holding capacity, but also for their external characteristics like color, elasticity, hygroscopicity, and filling capacity. Thus, each of these initial cigars contains only one variety of tobacco in the wrapper, filler, and binder. “Obviously,” notes Vogel, “[the blender] must have not only a sensitive and discriminating palate, but also one with a good memory.”

When it comes to tobacco selection, taste isn’t the only quality considered: for wrappers, color, appearance, and elasticity.
Once he has established this baseline performance of each variety, the combining process gets too complicated to fully describe. “The blender rolls and samples dozens of combinations of tobacco, not only between different varieties, but also in different proportions of leaves from different levels on the plants,” says Vogel of the often-discussed, but little understood among laymen, priming terms. “A tobacco plant is ‘primed’ (cut) over a period of several days, from the beginning of the harvest to its end. The first-harvested seco (bottom) leaves are the most fragrant, but least powerful. Going up the plant with each priming - usually three to five leaves at a time - through the viso (middle) leaves, to the most resinous and powerful, but least flavorful or aromatic ligero leaves at the plant’s top, the blender must balance the blend. Suffice it to say that the blender’s palate compares a multiplicity of tastes and strengths, before settling on the best balance.”

Vogel points out one advantage a cigar manufacturer that grows its own tobacco has, explaining, “Such a vertically-integrated company can separate the leaves from each priming, while companies that buy their tobacco from others know only that they are buying seco, viso, or ligero, not from which priming in each category. The flavor and strength of the leaves in each priming differ from those in other primings, and separating them more specifically means finer tuning and thus, greater consistency, cigar to cigar.

“The burn rate of the cigar overall, and individual burn rates of the filler, binder, and wrapper with respect to each other, are also an important measure of the tobacco’s quality and suitability. Part of the blender’s job is to determine these burn characteristics, to balance a blend. To do so, the blender ignites a place on the fermented leaf - often by touching it with a cigar coal, conveniently waiting in his mouth - and observes the time for the glowing rim of the expanding hole to die out. A leaf burn of 20 seconds is near the minimum that may be satisfactorily used as a cigar wrapper.

“A filler leaf with an average leaf burn as low as 10 seconds may yield a good burn rate for the cigar being created, when supported by a binder leaf with a burn of 10 seconds or more, along with wrapper leaf with a burn duration of 30 seconds or more,” explains Vogel of the need to understand and consider burn characteristics. “A binder leaf with a burn as low as 3 seconds may be ruinous to the burn of a cigar, even though the filler and wrapper display desirable burning properties.”

Like many aspects of producing fine cigars, blending is less alchemy than it is science and ancient art. From seeds to finished cigars, lying peacefully in a box awaiting your pleasure, blending is just one of the phases of our craft that involve a dogged, meticulous, and loving labor.


SMOKESHOP - June, 2006