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BirminghamCigars.com

Cigar and Pipe 101

The Cigar Primer
Learn how to start your cigar journey right here!  All of the basics are covered in this short course, courtesy of CigarCyclopedia.com.

Ingredients

What goes into cigars? The answer to this question is the key to assessing the quality of a specific cigar. All but the thinnest cigars include three elements: (1) the filler tobacco at the center, (2) a binder leaf which holds the filler together and (3) the outer wrapper, which is rolled around the binder.

Cigars which are made by hand use "long filler" tobacco: leaves which run the length of a cigar. In a handmade, the filler, binder and wrapper are combined manually to create a cigar.

Machine-made cigars utilize high-speed machinery to combine "short filler" tobacco - usually scraps or pieces of tobacco - with a binder and wrapper. Because of the tension placed on the tobacco by the machines, the binders and wrappers are often made of a homogenized tobacco product which is stronger than natural leaves and can be produced in a variety of flavors, strengths and textures.

A few brands combine machine-bunching (using long-filler tobacco) with hand-rolled wrappers; this practice has been very properly dubbed "hand-rolled" as opposed to handmade by cigar expert Rick Hacker in The Ultimate Cigar Book. And some larger cigars use "mixed" or "combination" filler of long-filler and short-filler tobaccos.

The quality of the tobaccos and more importantly, how they are blended, determines the quality of the smoking experience. In the filler, "ligero" leaves which provide power are blended with "seco" leaves with a milder flavor and "volado" which helps to ensure an even burn. These are combined with a binder and wrapper to provide a balanced flavor.

Wrapper

The most obvious characteristic of most cigars is the color of the exterior wrapper. While not the only factor in the taste of a cigar, it is an important element and a key in many people's purchase of specific cigars. Although manufacturers have identified more than 100 different wrapper shades, they can be grouped into seven major color classifications, as noted below:

  • Double Claro - Also known as "American Market Selection" [AMS] or "Candela," this is a green wrapper. Once popular, it is rarely found today.
  • Claro - This is a very light tan color, almost beige in shade; often grown in Connecticut or from Connecticut seeds in Ecuador.
  • Colorado Claro - A medium brown found on many cigars, this category covers many descriptions. The most popular are "Natural" or "English Market Selection" [EMS]. Tobaccos in this shade are grown in many countries.
  • Colorado - This shade is instantly recognizable by the obvious reddish tint.
  • Colorado Maduro - Darker than Colorado Claro in shade, this color is often associated with African tobacco, such as wrappers from Cameroon, or with Havana Seed tobacco grown in Honduras or Nicaragua.
  • Maduro - Very dark brown to almost black. Tobacco for Maduro wrappers is primarily grown in Connecticut, Mexico, Nicaragua and Brazil.
  • Oscuro - This is black . . . really black. This shade of wrapper reappeared with more frequency in 2001 after being almost off the market in the 1990s.

Size

There are cigars of every shape and every size for every occasion. From tiny, cigarette-like cigarillos to giant monsters resembling pool cues, there is a wide variety to choose from.

Certain sizes and shapes which have gained popularity over the years and have become widely recognized, even by non-smokers. Cigar shape names such as "corona" or "panatela" have specific meanings to the cigar industry, although there is no formally agreed-to standard for any given size.

The following table lists 20 well-known shapes, and is adapted from Paul Garmirian's explanation of sizes in The Gourmet Guide to Cigars. The "classical" measurements for which this shape is known are given, along with a size and girth range for each size for classification purposes:

Shape Classical Length x Ring Length Range Ring Range
Giant 9x52 8&up 50&up
Double Corona 7 3/4x49 6 3/4-7 3/4 49-54
Churchill 7x47 6 1/2-7 46-48
Perfecto none all all
Pyramid 7x36-54 all flared
Torpedo 6 1/2x52 all tapered
Toro 6x50 5 5/8-6 5/8 48-54
Robusto 5x50 4 1/2-5 1/2 48-54
Grand Corona 6 1/2x46 5 5/8-6 5/8 45-47
Corona Extra 5 1/2x46 4 1/2-5 1/2 45-47
Giant Corona 7 1/2x44 7 1/2&up 42-45
Lonsdale 6 1/2x42 6 1/2-7 1/4 40-44
Long Corona 6x42 5 7/8-6 3/8 40-44
Corona 5 1/2x42 5 7/8-6 3/8 40-44
Petit Corona 5x42 4-5 40-44
Long Panatela 7 1/2x38 7&up 35-39
Panatela 6x38 5 1/2-6 7/8 35-39
Short Panatela 5x38 4-5 3/8 35-39
Slim Panatela 6x34 57UP 30-34
Small Panatela 5x33 4-5 30-34
Cigarillos 4x26 6&less 29&less

With the great increase in shaped cigars, here are our classification criteria for figurados:

Culebras, which is made up of three small cigars twisted together. This shape has returned to the U.S. market and a few manufacturers have this unique shape available.

Perfecto, which has two tapered ends. Until recently, there were just a few cigars which offered Perfecto "tips" on the foot, but true Perfectos have made their comeback. For the bold, take a look at the Puros Indios Gran Victoria (10 inches long by 60 ring) to see a true "pot-bellied" cigar.

Torpedo, which was traditionally a fat cigar with two fully closed, pointed ends, but has now come to mean a cigar with an open foot and a straight body which tapers to a closed, pointed head. This "new" torpedo was popularized by the Montecristo (Havana) No. 2, which debuted in 1935. The Torpedo differs from "Pyramid"-shaped cigars, which flare continuously from the head to the foot, essentially forming a triangle.

Like the Torpedo, whose meaning has changed over time, the Royal Corona or Rothschild title is seen less and less on cigars now known as "Robustos." This change has been rapid over the past 4-5 years, but some manufacturers still label their shorter, thicker cigars as Rothschilds or even as a "Rothchild" (an incorrect spelling of the famous German banking family name). A few manufacturers use both and label their 5-5 1/2-inch, 50-ring models as "Robustos" and reserve the "Rothschild" name for shorter, but still 50-ring, cigars of 4-4 3/4 inches!

Many other shape names are used by manufacturers; some cigars even have multiple names. For the sake of convenience, the many types of small, very thin cigars are grouped under the "Cigarillo" title rather than distributed over a long list of names such as "Belvederes," "Demi-Tasse" and others.

Cutting and Lighting

In order to enjoy cigars, the cap must be cut off to allow air to flow through. Cutting is a personal choice, but the preferred method today is the guillotine cut which removes the cap across the entire top of the cigar. This allows more air to flow and provides the full range of flavor to the smoker. Some smokers, however, use other methods such as a cigar "punch" (also quite popular today), a piercer (less popular) or "V"-cutter, so named for the shape of hole it leaves in the top of the cigar. A few folks, though, still bite off the top of their cigars. Good luck.

Be careful in your choice of cutters, however. Like any knife, sharper is better (and safer). All cutters are not alike, so pick yours carefully; subscribers can check the CigarWire ratings for our picks.

Once cut, you can light up! Purists will insist on not having the flame actually touch the cigar, whether from a match or a lighter. Some require the more romantic step of using a lit cedar strip (called a "spill") to light their cigars, but this is more prevalent in Europe than in the U.S.

Enthusiasts agree that using paper matches is a bad idea, since they won't stay lit long enough to completely light your cigar. Try wooden matches and let the sulphur burn off of the tip of the match before lighting. If you're using a lighter, butane is the best (odorless and tasteless) and apply it gently just below the end of the cigar. Although elegant lighters from legendary makers as Alfred Dunhill, Davidoff and S.T. Dupont are much prized, the newest development is the so-called "torch" which offers a very hot, windproof flame. Some torch lighters even provide two or three flames, ensuring a quick light and a quick need to re-fill the lighter.

A fast light is not always a good light, however. It is essential to ensure that the entire end of the cigar is lit. This is most effectively done by turning the cigar as you light it, exposing all of the end to the flame. Remember, "Turn and Burn."

Check your light by turning the lit end toward you, blowing gently and checking to see that the entire end is hot. Then enjoy!

Storing Cigars

Cigars are like any other plant product and deteriorate over time if not cared for. That's where a humidor comes in. To store your cigars for use over time, a humidor is essential.

As a product of the Caribbean, cigars do best in a tropical climate similar to the conditions under which they were created. The consensus is that storage is best achieved at a temperature of 70 degrees (F) and at 70 percent relative humidity.

The risks of having conditions which vary wildly from this norm can be substantial. At extremely cold temperatures or with too little humidity, cigars will dry out and be unsmokable (a.k.a. DEAD). At high temperatures - above 80 degrees F - or at high humidity levels, the dreaded tobacco beetle can hatch and begin boring its way through the cigar. The microscopic larvae are embedded in the leaf and high temps or humidity allow them to hatch and destroy any cigar they are in. Whole boxes of cigars have been turned to dust by these vermin. The only defense is to ensure that your cigars are kept at correct temperatures and at humidity levels of less than 80 percent.

(If you get beetle infestations, you'll see the holes and every cigar which has these problems must be discarded. Check all other cigars in the same box or pack carefully and make sure they are stored in a new or different container before returning them to your humidor. This is why many enthusiasts keep their cigars in their cellophane wrappers to protect against the spread of beetles, even though this slows the aging process.)

So what kind of humidor works best? Any container which has a good seal and can incorporate a sponge or other humidification device can be used, even Tupperware. During the Cigar Boom of the mid-1990s, there was even a plastic box marketed as the "TupperDor"! But beyond that, you're buying a piece of furniture.

All humidors should close tightly and if lined with wood, must use Spanish Cedar. Other woods such as plywood or American Cedar can have strong smells which can interfere with the taste of your cigars. Take your pick of exterior decorations to match your home or office decor. One suggestion: keep your humidor away from direct sunlight to keep temperatures down.

Not all humidors come with humidifiers, so you need to check before buying. If you need to buy a humidifier separately, there are plenty to choose from, but check to see which require a special propylene glycol solution and which use simple distilled water. Subscribers can check the CigarWire for our recommendations on humidors.

Just going out for a few hours and need to take your cigars along? Opt for a quality cigar case, made from odorless leather in endless styles and price points. You can choose from ultra-protective hard cases with individual slots or softer cases which have open interiors to allow you to carry different sizes as desired. Don't worry too much about humidification when carrying your cigars for a few hours on the road, unless you're going to the desert.