In this post, I discuss The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars, a book covering the basics of cigar growing, manufacturing, and smoking.
I recently reread The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars. I initially purchased and read the book in 2010. At that point, I had been smoking the occasional cigar for a few years, and I wanted to learn more about them.
Eight years later, having acquired a greater knowledge of cigars, I reread it. I learned much more the second time around.
This book is extraordinarily interesting and helpful. I recommend the book to anyone interested in cigars. Useful for the novice and experienced smoker alike, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars offers a wealth of knowledge and insight.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide series provides useful write-ups on a variety of topics. It allows those with very little knowledge of a subject to obtain at least a rudimentary understanding of it.
There are a large number of books in the series addressing a variety of topics. Examples are as diverse as chemistry, publishing children’s books, and beekeeping. (There are also books on beer and wine I’m interested in reading.)
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars provides a reasonably comprehensive look at cigars. It includes sections addressing how to cut and light cigars, chapters explaining the tobacco growing and cigar rolling process, articles on how to recognize a good cigar, and pages on how to store cigars properly.
And this is only a sampling.
The book also includes an in-depth look at the different cigar-growing regions and the mystique surrounding Cuban cigars.
By the time you finish The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars, you will have learned a lot.
You will learn about the discovery of tobacco, the different types of tobacco leaf, and the best brands. You will also possess excellent tips for rating your cigars so that you can figure out which types and brands you prefer.
Handmade v. Machine-Made
I learned a lot about the distinction between handmade and machine-made cigars—other than the obvious. Of course, I have been smoking cigars for several years, so I was already aware of the fundamental differences between the two. I knew, for example, that handmade cigars are almost always superior to machine-made ones.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars, however, explained why. I learned the difference between short filler and long filler tobacco leaf. I also learned why the heads of machine-made cigars are pre-punched.
(Manufacturers do not use a premium wrapper leaf but rather a composite of tobacco to wrap the cigar. Cutting a machine-made cigar, therefore, would cause binder and filler to shed into the smoker’s mouth. So, the machine creates the hole.)
I remember smoking machine-made cigars in college when I was just getting started. Even then I knew that handmade cigars were superior. I was a college kid, though, and I did not have much money. I could, therefore, only afford to smoke handmade cigars occasionally.
The machine-made cigars provided a cheap alternative.
Stick with Handmade
I quickly decided, however, that I would only purchase handmade cigars. It was better to smoke a good cigar on rare occasion than a lousy cigar whenever I’d like.
I came to this decision rather suddenly.
One night, I purchased a pack of machine-made cigars from the local gas station. I noticed some tread marks in the leaf as I prepared to light it up. I did not think anything of it, however. It was a cheap cigar, so I naturally assumed this went with the territory.
As I started puffing away, however, I noticed something moving in the tobacco.
It was a worm.
After reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars, I realized that it was probably the larva of a tobacco beetle. The egg had likely hatched after the cigar was packed, and the grub was eating the tobacco while in the packaging.
The experience had a significant impact on me. I decided that I would never again purchase a cheap, machine-made cigar.
And I haven’t. That was the last machine-made cigar I ever smoked.
I was already leaning against purchasing any more of such cigars. It didn’t take much to push me over the edge.
In addition to their inferior taste, I had noticed that, if I sat these cigars down while smoking them, tar would begin to drip out of the opening in the head. Even as a neophyte, it did not take me long to realize that these were subpar smokes.
I did not know, however, that many smaller Cuban cigars are machine-made. The author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars suggests that these are the exception to the general rule against machine-made cigars.
Apparently, Cuba has its rollers focus on the larger cigars since they are the most profitable. Cuba, therefore, uses its short filler and machines to produce its smaller cigars.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars also helped me to understand why some cigars burn nice and even, while others leave a jagged mess in the flame’s wake. I had long thought that it was all about proper storage. A cigar will burn improperly if you store it incorrectly.
While this can be true, I learned how flaws in the rolling process can affect the burn.
If the roller rolls the cigar too tightly, the draw is too difficult. The smoker is unable to pull sufficient smoke into his or her mouth. This may result in insufficient air passing through the cigar, causing some parts of the cigar to burn at different rates than others. It may also cause the cigar to go out often.
If the roller rolls the cigar too loosely, however, too much air will get into the cigar. The cigar will then burn too hot. A hot burn will harshen the flavor and make the burn unpredictable.
In addition, a lackadaisical roll can result in an uneven distribution of tobacco, causing the flame to burn hotter and faster in some areas than in others.
Of course, if you don’t correctly humidify your cigar, there are going to be problems with the burn. But, even an adequately-stored poorly-rolled cigar will have significant issues.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars also helped me to appreciate better what I knew all along.
Handmade cigars are made by hand.
This is more than a mere tautology. It is a statement of the extraordinary skill it takes to produce great cigars consistently.
Because premium cigars are handmade, there will be natural variation between one cigar and another. It’s a testament to the best cigar makers—such as Cohiba, Montecristo, and Romeo y Julieta—that they can maintain such significant levels of consistency between their cigars.
Regardless, however, even the best cigar brands will put out a subpar product once in a while. So, if you get a bad one, you shouldn’t necessarily give up on the brand.
Smoking In Public
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars addresses proper cigar etiquette, particularly where and when to smoke.
Over the last several years, it has grown significantly more challenging to find a public place to smoke. When I was in college, I remember enjoying cigars with meals in the smoking sections of restaurants.
Then my state passed a law.
After that, only bars could accommodate smokers. There is a movement against smoking tobacco in the United States that takes its form in disallowing private business owners from determining whether they will allow smoking on their property. Apparently, the movement against tobacco is great enough to justify government action but not so great as to let the free market address the issue.
(Ironically, those taking strong stands against tobacco smoke don’t seem to share the same views about marijuana.)
Regardless, however, the fact remains that, even where we disagree, it’s important to be courteous to others. This means not smoking where smoking is not allowed, whether by government or private proscription.
This should be obvious. Unlike a patron visiting bars or restaurants that allow smoking, those visiting non-smoking establishments have every right to expect a smoke-free environment. You should respect that.
Another tip the author provides is, when you do smoke around others in a proper setting, only smoke high-quality, premium cigars. Cheap cigars do not allow the fermentation process to run its course. (See below.) Cutting the fermentation process short leaves abrasive chemicals, such as ammonia, in the cigar.
When you burn inadequately fermented tobacco, therefore, the smell is harsh and pungent. (You are, after all, burning the same chemicals often used to make fertilizer.)
Smoking premium smokes that have been sufficiently aged and fermented, however, ensures that you expose those around you to only the most pleasant cigar smoke. Even if they still hate it, at least you are mitigating the aggravation.
It serves no cigar smoker to allow the pleasure of cigars to become associated with discourteous behavior.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars also includes a large section devoted to Cuban cigars and their history. One of my criticisms of The Cuban Cigar Handbook was its failure to include a section explaining the differences between the Cuban and non-Cuban cigars bearing the same name.
(Many Americans don’t know, for example, that the Cohiba they buy in their local cigar shop is produced by an entirely different organization than that which manufactures Cuban Cohibas.)
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars, however, does not suffer from the same failure. The book explains how the owners of Cuban cigar factories fled upon Castro’s rise to power. It goes into detail into how they smuggled out their seed and established new cigar-production operations in others countries. (The Dominican Republic and Honduras were particularly popular destinations for such expatriates.)
The author also explains how difficult it was to reestablish a cigar production business. It’s not merely a matter of taking the seed and planting it in a similar climate. Workers must prepare the soil. Owners must put proper infrastructure in place.
It took decades for the legends of the Cuban cigar industry to reestablish their operations at the same level of quality.
Cubans v. Non-Cubans
The book also explains how the quality of non-Cuban cigars has mostly caught up with Cubans. Decades of hard work and preparation in conjunction with a Cuban cigar industry owned and operated by the government has allowed non-Cuban cigar manufacturers to produce Cuban-caliber cigars.
This does not mean, however, that Cuban cigars do not deserve to be the world’s most celebrated cigars. The soil and climate make Cuba ideally suited for raising cigar leaf. No other country can simulate this. The best Cuban cigars are probably still better than the best non-Cubans.
The difference, however, is not that great. A cigar is not necessarily great because it is a Cuban. Just because the best Cuban cigars are the best cigars does not mean that every Cuban cigar is excellent. (The best non-Cuban is definitely not inferior to the worst Cuban, as has sometimes been suggested.)
As Americans, we often allow the mystique of the Cuban cigar to cloud our judgment. Just because it’s a Cuban cigar does not mean it’s a good cigar. We should have more discernment than that. Not every sparkling wine grown in the Champagne region of France is Dom Pérignon.
The Process of Making a Cigar
The process of making a cigar is much more extensive, time-consuming, and involved than I realized.
After farmers harvest the tobacco leaf, they bring it to large open-aired barns. There mostly female workers gather the tobacco leaves into bunches, tie the stems together, and hang them on long wooden poles inside the barn.
The barn protects the tobacco from the rain and sun but not the breezes. So, it dries while hanging in the open air over the course of several months. As the moisture in the leaf evaporates, the flavors concentrate, and the leaves lose their green coloring.
After air curing, workers take the leaves to a warehouse. There they stack them on top of each other in piles from three to six feet high. The leaves are then allowed to rest and ferment.
Fermentation is an interesting process. The pile of leaves naturally heats up as the leaves essentially rot. The heat turns the starch in the leaves into sugar.
As the leaves ferment, they excrete oils, which they then reabsorb. This has a tremendous impact on the flavor of the tobacco.
During the fermentation process, workers check the piles until they reach a temperature between 115 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. They then rotate the pile. These rotations occur several times before the fermentation process is finished. The entire procedure can take several weeks to complete.
Tobacco naturally contains a lot of ammonia. This is why the fermentation process is so important. Only proper fermentation will remove the ammonia from the tobacco leaves.
The fermentation process takes time, however, which means it takes money. Manufacturers rushing cigars to market may not allow the tobacco to ferment correctly.
You can usually tell when a cigar has not been adequately fermented by its effect on your stomach. If you end a smoke feeling like you’re about to vomit, the manufacturer likely did not give the tobacco sufficient time to ferment.
After completing the fermentation process and stripping the stems from the leaves, workers then gather the tobacco into bales and allow them to age.
These bales of tobacco usually age for at least a few months. In some cases, however, they may rest for years. In fact, the best tobacco often sleeps for up to seven years before becoming a cigar.
As with good scotch, the aging processing allows the tobacco to mellow, creating a smooth, delicious smoke.
Making the Cigar
The tobacco—sorted for use as filler, binder, and wrapper leaf—then moves on to be rolled into a cigar. (Tobacco brought to a factory may come from all over the world. Only in Cuba will all the tobacco be grown locally.)
Rolling cigars takes a lot of skill. Rollers must produce by hand dozens of cigars per day that each maintains a high level of quality and consistency.
After the cigars have been rolled and graded, workers bundle cigars of similar quality together. They then take the cigars to a special area where they will sit and wait, often for several months.
Since cigars absorb the flavors around them, this time spent with other cigars “smoothes out differences in taste due to variations in the exact tobacco content of each stogie.” This helps ensure consistency from one cigar to another.
Only after this entire process is complete are cigars shipped and ready to go.
The cigar consists of filler, binder, and wrapper. The filler is the inside of the cigar, the bulk of the tobacco. It gives the cigar the majority of its flavor.
The binder is the tobacco that holds the filler together, giving the cigar its shape and structural integrity. The binder, however, is not very pretty.
The wrapper is the exterior of the cigar. It’s usually a solid half-leaf that provides the cigar with its appearance.
Wrapper leaf is the most difficult to grow. So, tobacco leaf destined for wrappers are often grown under cheesecloths. Farmers suspend these white cloths about eight feet over their fields growing wrapper leaf.
These cloths provide shade to the leaves to protect their aesthetically-pleasing appearance while still allowing sufficient light, air, and water to let the leaves grow healthy.
These three different parts of the cigar serve very different purposes. Manufacturers can also blend tobacco with different flavors and origins so that they contrast and complement each other well. Consequently, often one cigar will have filler grown in one country, binder grown in another, and wrapper grown in yet another.
Cuban cigars, however, are the exception. Every part of a Cuban cigar is usually Cuban leaf. While the techniques for growing and preparing fillers, binders, and wrapper leaves are still different, they are each nonetheless sourced from Cuban tobacco.
Storing Your Cigar
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars includes an extensive discussion on properly storing cigars. Selecting the proper humidor and maintaining the appropriate level of humidity within it are critical for ensuring cigars last and smoke well. An improperly stored cigar will likely dry out, turning the smoke harsh and hot.
On this one topic, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars is lacking. While the discussion on humidors is very informative, advice on humidifying them has a glaring omission. While the author focuses on sponges and distilled water, he fails to discuss Boveda packs.
Perhaps this is because Boveda packs did not gain popularity until after the publication of the 2nd edition of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars. Regardless, however, no discussion on humidifying cigars is complete without addressing Boveda packs.
I use Boveda packs, and I highly recommend them.
You put these little packs in your humidor, and they will automatically keep the humidor at the desired level of humidity. If the humidor is too dry, they will release moisture. If it is too humid, they will absorb it.
You do not have to continually monitor your humidor, soaking sponges every few days or dealing with the mess of distilled water. Just drop in the packs, and you’re done.
They don’t last forever, so you do have to replace them occasionally. I check the humidity levels of my humidor once per week, but I usually only have to replace the Boveda packs every few months or so. I bought a pack of 12 eight months ago, and I still have several left.
They are highly effective, reasonably priced, and extremely easy to use.
Pairing Your Cigar
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars also includes a section on matching your cigar with a proper drink. This section is reasonably comprehensive, discussing all types of drinks. In addition, the book explains what types of the different beverages go well with a cigar.
For example, in stating that wines can pair well with cigars, the author recommends reds but only specific types of whites. He also advises against champagne. For beers, he recommends ales and light lagers but warns against yeasty wheat beers.
The author also recommends coffee with cigars. This is one of my favorite pairings. I much enjoy a good cup of coffee with a cigar on Saturday mornings.
And, of course, good Scotch or Cognac is never a poor choice. High-quality whiskey, however, is essential. The smooth, subtle flavoring of well-aged whiskey pairs well with a good cigar. The harsh flavor of a cheap whiskey, however, will overwhelm the cigar’s taste.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars
There are few things as relaxing as smoking a good cigar. Unlike cigarettes, which are often habit-forming and inspire neurotic need, cigars are luxurious, occasional treats. There is nothing compulsive about smoking a cigar. It is not something to be squeezed into a short break at work.
Rather, smoking a cigar requires a set-aside time. Smoking cigars should be done with purpose.
And this is why I love it. Smoking a good cigar allows me to unwind, to stop and think, to relax. Learning more about cigars, their complex history and intriguing production only enhances the experience.
I recommend The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars to anyone who enjoys a good smoke.
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