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How a master blender arrives at the blend you love

  Blending can be defined as the mixing of different types of tobacco according to a precise recipe, to produce a cigar with certain desirable characteristics. The genetical make up of the varieties, the soil in which they were grown, the amount and quality of the nutrients given them, the irrigation regimen, the attention to detail during their agricultural cycle, their ripeness at harvest, the curing and fermentation procedures, the sorting and finishing, as well as the environment will determine the quality of tobacco leaves.  


After curing and fermentation, the leaves contain organic acids and other organic constituents. These include carbohydrates, nitrogen and other elements, as proteins, alkaloids, polyphenols, resins, oils, paraffin, pigments and other the chemical compounds. Variations in these constituents create a Pandora's box of variables in tobacco.

  The most obvius of these are taste, flavor, bouquet, and aroma. Tobacco can also be heavy-, medium-, or mild-bodied. Too, aggressiveness of the smoke on the tongue and upper throat ... evidence of incorrect or inadequate curing and/or fermentation ... degrades the quality of a cigar.  
  Taste differs from flavor; bouquet (arguably) differs from aroma. The tongue perceives taste, and only recognizes sweetness (at the tongue's tip), bitterness (back of the tongue), saltiness (between the two), and acidity (sides of the tongue). In contrast, flavor stimulates the taste buds and the olfactory nerves ... the tongue and nose. Consequently, flavor is more complex than taste, and contributes to what we call satisfaction. Likewise, many in our industry define aroma as the smell ... hopefully pleasant ... noted by others when we smoke; bouquet is what we smell when we smoke.  





  The number of different taste and flavor characteristics that can be produced in a blend is almost infinite. Because a blend usually contains different types of tobacco, the blender's job is critically important and largely responsible for the commercial success of a finished premium cigar. The precise composition of a blend depends on the master blender's knowledge of the organoleptic (genetic coding) characterof the wrapper, binder and long filler to produce a premium cigar in response to consumer demand, as determined by market research. The master blender determines the composition of a blend, and who matches the qualities of the tobaccos available to those of the desired finished product.  
  The burning properties of the tobaccos for wrapper, binder, and filler are equally important. Does the cigar burn at a proper rate, neither too fast nor too slow? Do the wrapper, binder, and filler burn at the same rate? Is the burn zone ... the black ring at the wrapper's boundary between ash and unburned leaf ... razor-narrow, or is it wide, even hanging out over the coal like a pouting lip? What color is the ash, and how firm is it? Is it smooth, streaked with black, or cracked?  
  All these characteristics are of concern to the blender, and usually demand compromises ... to get one quality, he must sacrifice performance in another area. The considerations in optimizing all of these can be incredibly complex, and it isn't a game for rookies. John Vogel, our guide for this series of articles on tobacco farming, leaf processing, and cigar manufacturing, is the director of Costa Rican-based Tabacos de la Cordillera. He has a formal education, first-hand experience and expertise in all phases of tobacco and cigars ... cross-breeding his exclusive bank of pre-Embargo Cuban seeds to obtain proprietary hybrids, planting, natural fertilization and pest control, curing, fermentation, and all aspects of making cigars from that leaf. Significant to the writing of this article, he also is the company's master blender.  
  Vogel explains, "Blending may be the most arcane of all the various aspects of tobacco cultivation and cigar production ... how a blender predicts in advance how a cigar blend will turn out; how he systematically mixes an endless variety of different tobaccos to create a blend; how a cigar buncher can repeat a consistent blend, by seemingly only slapping a handful of leaves together. Out of apparent chaos, what ensures a superior, consistent product?  
  "The blending process is not just a helter-skelter series of mixing combinations of leaves together at random. Instead, it follows an orderly and scientific set of procedures. First, the blender rolls several cigars from varieties of cured and fermented leaves he plans to choose from. The higher its quality, the more important it is to test the potential tobaccos individually, not only for their inherent properties of smell, taste and fire-holding capacity, but also for their external characteristics like color, elasticity, hygroscopicity and filling capacity. Thus, each of these initial cigars contains only one variety of tobacco in the wrapper, filler, and binder. Obviously, he must have not only a sensitive and discriminating palate, but also one with a good memory."  
  Once he has established this base line performance of each variety, the combining process gets too complicated to describe. Vogel continues: "In summary, the blender rolls and samples dozens of combinations of tobacco, not only between different varieties, but also in different proportions of leaves from different levels on the plants. A tobacco plant is 'primed' (cut) over a period of several days, from the beginning of the harvest to its end. The first-harvested seco (bottom) leaves are the most fragrant, but least powerful. Going up the plant with each priming .. usually 3-5 leaves at a time ... through the viso (middle) leaves, to the most resinous and powerful, but least flavorful or aromatic ligero leaves at the plant's top, the blender must balance the blend. Suffice it to say that the blender's palate compares a multiplicity of tastes and strengths, before settling on the best balance."  
  Vogel points out one advantage a cigar manufacturer that grows its own tobacco has, explaining, "Such a vertically-integratedcompany can separatethe leaves from each priming, while companies that buy their tobacco from others know only that they are buying seco, viso, or ligero, not from which priming in each category. The flavor and strengh of the leaves in each priming differ from those in other primings, and separating them more specifically means finer tuning and thus, greater consistency, cigar to cigar.  
  "The burn rate of the cigar overall, and individual burn rates of the filler, binder, and wrapper with respect to each other, are also an important measure of the tobacco's quality and suitability. Part of the blender's job is to determine these burn characteristics, to balance a blend. To do so, the blender ignites a place on the fermented leaf ... often by touching it with a cigar coal, conveninetly waiting in his mouth ... and observes the time for the glowing rim of the expanding hole to die out. A leaf burn of 20 seconds is near the minimum that may be satisfactorily used as a cigar wrapper.  
  "A filler leaf with an average leaf-burn burn as low as 10 seconds may yield a good burn rate for the cigar being created, when supported by a binder leaf with a burn of 10 seconds or more, along with wrapper leaf with a burn duration of 30 seconds or more. A binder leaf with a burn as low as 3 seconds may be ruinous to the burn of a cigar, even though the filler and wrapper display desirable burning properites."  
  Like many aspects of producing fine cigars, blending is less alchemy than it is science and ancient art. From seeds to finished cigars, lying peacefully in a box awaiting your pleasure, blending is just one of the phases of our craft that involve a dogged, meticulous, and loving labor.  
  © Unastar, SA, 2006  



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