Shops like Corona Cigar Co. in Orlando, Fla. (above) have dispensed with humidified cabinets, display cases, and even enclosed, walk-in humidors, instead opting to humidify their entire store.

Retailers who deal primarily in cigars often toss out the humidified display cases and walk-in humidors and humidify the entire store. The benefit is a single, controlled environment that protects delicate cigars from damaging humidity swings.

By Dale Scott

A smokeshop owner in Tucson told me once, "Even here in Arid-Zona, it's easy to keep my cigars fresh. Every morning, when I come to work, I throw a bucket of water on the walk-in's porous clay tile floor." It provided humidification, all right, but his shock treatment subjected his stock to one of the biggest shortcomings of intermittent humidification.

As an article in Smokeshop ("Fresh Cigars Keep Sales Fresh," April, 1999) pointed out, cigars react indignantly to alternate drying and humidifying. They pout in a sense, at least at the foot, where they swell and split. In that story, Howard Ingber, a chemical engineer and creator of Cigar Oasis electronic humidification devices, contributed much to the knowledge of what happens when a cigar dries down or is rehumidified. Prior to his breakthrough research, the industry knew little about the process. How did moisture escape and enter a cigar? Did moisture pass uniformly through the wrapper, or via the open foot? Why did otherwise intact cigars swell and crack at the foot? Most importantly, how could tobacconists prevent the loss of expensive inventory this caused?

Ingber, whose work benefited the industry, experimented with drying down cigars from 70% relative humidity to 55% RH, and humidifying them from 55% to 70%. The results settled the debate as to whether the moisture entered or exited through the wrapper from head to foot, or only from the open foot. Well, sort of. Both occur, depending on the relative humidity in the room and inside the cigar itself, if the two differ. During dry-down from 70% RH to about 65% RH, moisture exits the open foot exclusively, and the wrapper is impervious to the transfer of the moisture in this humidity range. It does so in a matter of minutes, to boot. As the cigar's humidity drops below 65%, the wrapper leaf becomes porous, allowing moisture to escape right through the leaf. The cigar then dries down more slowly, until it reaches the relative humidity level of the surrounding air - 55% in Ingber's experiments.

The problem was much worse when Ingber humidified a dry cigar from 55% RH to 70% RH. Up to 65% RH, the process is reversed, with moisture entering the cigar uniformly along its wrapper's length. But above 65%, the wrapper loses its permeability and acts as a barrier to the transfer of more moisture. Only the open foot allows the entry of humidity, and a severe humidity gradient between moist foot and dry head occurs. Disaster! The humidified foot swells more than the rest of the cigar ... as the foot swells, the wrapper splits in that area.

Even Humidification is Essential
Armstrong International, Inc.
816 Maple Street
Three Rivers, MI 49093
Tel: (269) 473-1415

Nortec Industries, Inc.
826 Proctor Ave.
Ogdensburg, NY 13669
Tel: (315) 425-1255

1572 Tilco Drive
Frederick, MD 21704
Tel: (301) 620-2033

The solution to protecting your investment, therefore, is to keep cigars at a constant humidity level. Cycling up and down by throwing water on the floor, for instance, falls short of that objective. Most tobacconists take the approach of humidifying the walk-in humidor. Certainly, with automatic humidistats that regulate the turn-on turn-off cycle of a humidifier, much is accomplished. But, customers' entry and exit of the walk-in exposes the inventory to drops in humidity, and the smaller the walk-in, the wider the drops. This is especially true year-round in the desert-dry southwestern U.S. It also occurs in the entire U.S. in wintertime, on days when metal doorknobs zap you with static electricity.

Importers/distributors have been addressing this issue increasingly. One of the latest is CAO International. Vice President Tim Ozgener says, "CAO's success and growth have necessitated our upcoming move into a 20,000 square-foot warehouse and office facility. We're going to humidify the entire warehouse." He also pointed out he had seen the idea spreading to several retailers, mentioning JR Tobacco, Holt's Cigars, Corona Cigar Company, and Cigar Warehouse. He explains his interest in retailers improving their humidification, saying "We would like to see our cigars presented to smokers, especially for their first CAO experience, in as good a condition as possible."

At Cigar Warehouse, Phoenix, Az., annual sales in the several million dollar range make the company one of the top ten tobacco retailers in the country, says president Dimitri Rozenman. Founded nine years ago in Miami, Cigar Warehouse limited itself to wholesale and Internet pursuits until three years ago. "Then, we opened our first retail store after moving to Phoenix," says Rozenman. "Two years ago, we opened our second; a year ago, our third. All are 1,000 square feet and totally humidified."

Rozenman says he patterned much of his operation after the largest, most successful tobacco retailers: Mike's Cigars, JR Cigars, and Mom's Cigars. He devotes his entire space exclusively to cigars and related items, to realize the highest dollar turnover per square foot. To move tonnage, he uses all the stores' available volume ... not just floor area, but vertically, as well. "Americans are accustomed to the low-overhead savings and environment of shopping in them," he explains. "So, we applied that idea, stacking boxes of cigars literally floor-to-ceiling. Our name is Cigar Warehouse; customers walk into a cigar warehouse ... we went for the ‘Costco look.'" The nature of his stores forced Rozenman to install full-store humidification. But, which kind of humidifiers to use?

All commercial systems depend on boiling water to the vapor phase (steam), and subsequently blowing it into the building, during which time it cools just a few degrees, to now become water vapor. The type of technology used depends largely on the size of the building. In large installations, such as warehouses, industrial-grade gas-fired boilers create the steam, and heavy-duty compressors distribute through PVC piping to a grid array of nozzles in the ceiling. In smaller retail operations like your shop, one or two simple cabinetized electric units do the job. No elaborate steam distribution systems are necessary; the unit's internal blower is all that is needed. Just as a thermostat controls a furnace, a "humidistat," senses the level of humidification and turns the heater/blower on and off automatically.

Rozenman chose electric systems by Nortec Industries, Inc. Manufacturers only, they can refer customers who have large buildings to engineers/installers. But, says Rozenman, his small electric units - only one per store - needed only a plumber to run a water line. Depending on the size of the unit, an electrician could also be necessary. Total cost for each installation was under $1,000. He must replace an internal cylindrical element about every two months, at a cost of about $150, probably less than the amount of inventory lost to swings in humidity. Other parts of the country would generally need less frequent cylinder attention than Phoenix, with its desert dryness and hard water. The cylinder is not a filter, and replacing the cylinder eliminates the need to clean anything. "I'm very satisfied with the results," states Rozenman. "We're moving to a 2,800 square-foot store and headquarters ... it will be 100% humidified."

Mark Goldman at Mom's Cigars has two new stores in the New York City area, after closing their landmark Manhattan shop. One is in Scarsdale (1,900 sq. ft), another in Valley Stream (2,500 sq. ft.). Mom's also maintains a 10,000 square-foot warehouse nearby. All are 100% humidified.

"We built the stores and humidified them between two and three years ago," says Goldman. "We use one Nortec electric unit per store. The warehouse was previously humidified with a Swiss-made Defensor industrial-sized system, with 40-50 ceiling nozzles, but the water particles were too large. We replaced it with a similar unit manufactured by Armstrong International, Inc. The unit was engineered and installed by an Armstrong-recommended engineering firm." Though subject to the cylinder-replacement cost Rozenman described, Goldman noted the units went about twice as long between changes. He also noted higher electricity costs, because the inherent heat in the water vapor, condensed from steam, burdened the stores' air conditioners. To keep moist air from escaping when the warehouse's loading door was open, Goldman hung heavy, clear plastic curtains that are typically used in produce and meat lockers in stores, slit vertically into 8 inch wide strips, that are simply pulled apart to enter.

Unlike the original Mom's, the Scarsdale and Valley Stream stores were new buildouts, so they did not have walk-ins before. "I'm happy, but there are caveats," Goldman notes. "Being new buildings, we used ‘greenboard' instead of sheetrock, because it is less affected by high humidity." This may not be necessary, as countless buildings in 70-75% RH parts of the country suffer no damage. A good idea in any case was to use marine-grade paint/varnish on the walls and ceilings, to retard migration of moisture into the wall material's inside surface. Electronic equipment (cash registers, computers, etc.) needed to be "spec'd out" for usage in a high-humidity environment.

Another humidifier manufacturer whose equipment has been put to use in store-wide systems as well as warehouses is Stulz Air Technology Systems, Inc. of Frederick, Maryland. In addition to steam-based systems, Stulz offers systems based on ultrasonic technology that produce humidity without adding heat to the conditioned space, which can significantly reduce cooling costs.

Our industry is continually advancing and enjoying the benefits of technology, and this new approach bears watching. Though not only for the big stores, its usage by cigardom's leading marketers bodes well for trickle-down adoption by smaller shops.

SMOKESHOP - August, 2004