How did we get to cigars?
I like baking, I like drinking, I like smoking cigars. And I do have a basic understanding of milling, of distilling and of fermenting. But sometimes I lie awake at night wondering how ancient people, without technology and modern-day techniques came up with these inventions? I mean, it’s not like some Taino Indian woke up one morning and thought ‘I’m going to grow this tobacco plant, pick the leaves, hang them to dry, then ferment them under their own weight, age them for years and roll them into tubes to smoke’. Or someone thinking ‘I’m going to grind this wheat between two stones, add water and yeast, knead it, let it proof, knead it again, let it proof again and then bake it in a hot oven to make bread.’ I can’t help myself wondering how we, as humanity, discovered those steps to come to the many indulgences we now enjoy.
I can imagine that back in the days, early humans tested all kinds of plants to discover what’s edible and what’s not. Tobacco is not, not even when you boil it, it is bitter and disgusting. It might even make you sick. So why would anybody cultivate tobacco anyway is the first question that comes to mind. And honestly, I have no clue. Flowers can smell nice, to growing flowers make sense, but tobacco in it’s natural state don’t smell like flowers. Yet someone decided to pick the leaves and hang them to dry. Why? I’m not complaining though, I just wonder what went through the head of the first person to do this. What was his or her goal? What was he or she expecting?
So now we are at dried tobacco leaves. Who came up with the idea to ferment the tobacco under its own weight? And what did they try to achieve? I guess that the Taiño Indians discovered that burning the dried leaves gave a pleasant aroma. Perhaps they tried to smoke it but the flavour was not good. And maybe they had experience with fermenting food, so they tried it with the dried tobacco leaves too. But that’s me guessing, I could be right, but I could also be very wrong. And during the first fermentation, when the ammonia smell is at its worst, what did the first people to ferment tobacco think? How many attempts were made to ferment tobacco, because I can imagine that the first attempts led to fires due to the rising temperature in the tobacco stacks.
Now we are at fermented tobacco, how did the Taiño know when fermentation was done? How did they discover the second fermentation method? Even freshly fermented tobacco isn’t very nice to smoke so for the aging part, I can imagine that they tried the tobacco, it was not very pleasant so they left it alone and revisited a few years later only to discover that with time the tobacco evolved into something wonderful. But again, that’s me imagining and guessing.
The final step I can understand. You have a bunch of dried leaves that you want to smoke. So you roll them together, the first cigars were probably very rudimentary without the use of moulds. You still see some hand rolled cigars on that market that are made without moulds. Fugly by Artista is probably the best known of these cheroots. And if you want to come close to the flavour of what our forefathers smoked, Nestor Andres Plasencia started growing organic tobacco without the use of fertilizer and pesticides from old seeds just because he wanted to try a cigar that tasted like the cigars from his forefathers. That line is still available, the Plasencia Reserva Original. Now only if that came in a free-rolled cheroot you’d come close to the old days.
Current day cigars
Since the first Taiño Indians that started cultivating tobacco to smoke, the whole industry came a long way. Nowadays there are so many different varieties, the knowledge about tobacco is so much better, curing and fermentation are fully monitored and almost science. Aging takes place in specialized facilities and rolling of the cigars is done with moulds to create an even, and good looking, cigar. But we have to pay respect to those Cuban Indians that were the first to grow this magical plant just for smoking pleasure. And honour their ingenuity that made our hobby possible. With all the steps needed to make a good cigar, it is still quite unfathomable that these people, without the current day knowledge, without education and with limited tools, were able to discover all these steps and made cigars. I take my head off, and wished I had a time machine just to see the process of the first tobacco crop. I think that would be an amazing experience.