Creating a cigar blend, particularly from new crops or tobacco strains, means smoking lots and lots of samples. A highly structured method of evaluating each cigar gives makers a way to zero in on the final product.
By Dale Scott
To obtain the information for this series of articles, the author serves his apprenticeship with John Vogel (shown at right), who manages the farm and factory of Tabacos de la Cordillera, in Puriscal, Costa Rica. Vogel's 40-year career as a graduate genetic engineer has garnered him something unique in our industry. Over the decades, he collected a cache of over 40 varieties of genetically pure, principally Cuban seeds that stretch back over 60 years, from which sprang the real Havanas we old-timers still recall. Vogel worked for 20 years in every department at Consolidated Cigar Co. (now Altadis U.S.A.) as a group leader in their research and development department. In short, he has seeds from Cuba's Golden Age of tobacco development, and he knows what to do with them. This is the second in this tutorial series, following the article on leaf evaluation (Smokeshop, June 2005).
The precious seeds have germinated and flourished, the harvest has filled the curing barn with emerald-green leaves, the cured leaves have fermented and aged, and the sorted and prepared leaves have been transformed into finished cigars. Now, it is time to evaluate the final product, in all its genetic diversity. John Vogel has harvested and processed several lots of experimental tobacco from special plots on the farm. Following our previous evaluation of the cured leaves, he has blended them into groups of cigar samples, identifying each.
The evaluation requires several weeks of daily homework, as it involves about 30 different groups of cigars, with three cigars per group - torpedoes, Churchills, and 64-ring behemoths. Each bundle is wrapped in bond paper, as lower-grade wrapping paper has an odor of its own - especially in Costa Rica's 80% humidity - and we don't want it to taint the wrappers.
Vogel gives me evaluation sheets for each group of cigars, which are identified only by a group number. The French/Swiss testing worksheet we use breaks down each cigar's overall characteristics into specific elements, and assigns them numerical values. The major categories are Wrapper and Construction, Draw, Aggressiveness of Smoke, Burning Qualities, Taste, and Flavor. The sheet also has provisions for describing the character of the body, flavor, and aroma; and space for an essay on smoking impressions. This protocol is a most thorough, objective, and definitive standard for testing, and it disciplines reviewers to achieve these ends. We apply numerical scores to the various categories, weighting them in relation to their importance to a smoker's satisfaction. For example, a wrapper with a fine sheen and uniformity of color is admirable, but these factors don't affect the performance much, so they are given less weight than the all-important flavor. Not only do we evaluate the smoking performance, but Vogel wants me to rate the appearance and construction, evidence of workers' skill and care. A theoretically "perfect" cigar would earn a total score of 20 points; one merely multiplies the score by 5, to convert this to a 100-point scale.
The first few categories in the analysis sheet are straightforward: shape, size, wrapper color, sheen, and evenness of wrapper color. The wrapper's texture is graded: fine to medium, coarse, veiny.
The next entry in the Construction category, Rolling, rates how uniformly the wrapper leaf and cap are applied (revealing how the cigar will feel to the lips and fingers), as well as the bunching job (which affects draw). The reviewer notes draw from "too easy," through "easy" (the ideal) to "medium," into "hard" and even "plugged." A lumpy, too-soft or too-hard body also betrays a poor bunching job.
More full-bodied, resin-packed cigars like Havanas can be more aggressive on the tongue and upper throat, but anything more than "mild" bite is undesirable. In testing Tabacos de la Cordillera's cigars, I learned the resinous coating on the tongue can result from smoking the cigar down too far.
"Cuban tobacco - especially pre-Castro leaf - is loaded with flavor, but one usually wants to quit them when between one-half to one-third length," Vogel explains. Or, as the saying goes, "A gentleman stops smoking at mid-point; only a brute smokes down past a third."
A cigar that burns unevenly is also a sign of a poor bunching job. The culprit is usually an off-center ligero leaf, which is extra-resinous and thus burns more slowly than the surrounding filler tobacco ... the coal advances more slowly on the side nearest the ligero. It can also be due to "lumber" (slow-burning, excessively large veins), mismatched burn rates between binder and filler, or tobacco of uneven texture. A cone-shaped coal, after knocking off the ash, identifies the presence of ligero in the center (hopefully) of the bunch. A narrow "burn zone" (the black ring of burning wrapper adjacent to the coal) means a fine leaf texture. A wide zone is less desirable, especially if a black, charred "lip" of wrapper extends out over the coal. A light gray ash generally indicates a proper balance of added minerals; a smooth, firm ash is equally admirable. Castro's Havanas, interestingly, seem to all produce dark gray, streaked ashes.
You sense taste - salty, sweet, bitter, or acidic - on the tongue alone, and not by sense of smell. Don't try to taste these in the smoke itself, rather in the residual taste on your tongue that builds as you reach the mid-point of your cigar.
Flavor refers to the combination of taste and smell revealing complexity, balance, subtleties, and aftertaste. This is where you also evaluate the character of the smoke's aroma. "To detect the flavor nuances, says Vogel, "divert the tiniest bit of it through your nasal passages as you let the bulk of it escape your mouth."
The analysis sheet describes the character of the body, as well as defining what one perceives in the flavor. Commonly-recognized nuances are listed, such as earthy, grassy, woody, and peppery. Though in vogue and entertaining, you won't find descriptions of "leather," "chocolate," "nutmeg," or other flavors that no one I've ever talked to could discern. What does leather - whether smoked or chewed - taste like, anyway?
Aroma, though of special interest to Vogel, is tough for me to evaluate. Keep in mind, even the finest cigar's aroma turns sharp and unpleasant at about midpoint, especially Cuban cigars.
Body and flavor, each noted for its abundance or paucity, are rated separately, being unrelated. Many smokers confuse the two, but a cigar can be mild-to-medium in body, but loaded with flavor and aroma. On the other hand, I have noted many a Cuban that had robust body but little flavor.
I have found it best to smoke the three samples of each group consecutively, before moving on to the next group. The first sample gives me an overall impression. With the second, a definite impression is formed, and I pencil in the ratings. The third usually confirms and fine-tunes my previous evaluation. I usually smoke the samples after a satisfying meal, when I have time to reflect. I freshen my palate with pekoe tea or black, unsweetened coffee, which boosts the taste buds' sensitivity to the flavor of both the cigar and the beverage.
And so, the testing and note-taking continue, in pursuit of the elusive "20." Not every blend is a winner, whether it's pre-Castro Cuban or not. Some are acid, some bitter. Some, particularly the more resinous, start out delicate and fragrant, but "turn" before midpoint. But, my overall sense is one of excitement, as I experience the quality and consistency of these cigars, knowing the next Cuban Revolution is in store for premium cigar lovers.
SMOKESHOP - August, 2005