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Cigar Hunter: ‘Hecho a mano’ in Tampa

Note: In addition to an upcoming interview with Paul Garmirian of PG Cigars, next week we’ll take a trip back in time to the Clinton presidency. If you don’t know why a cigar column would go there, Google it. And watch this space for a 25-cigar giveaway next week. How do you enter? Join the Cigar Hunter email list.

TAMPA, Fla. — I didn’t catch Luis’ last name, but his hands move like a warm knife through butter, and he can roll a cigar in less than two minutes.

If you’ve never seen a cigar being hand-rolled, watch this short video clip. This is an artisan’s discipline, passed from generation to generation and practiced dozens of times every day by master rollers all over the world. (RELATED: Cigar Hunter: A ‘House Resolution’ to stymie the FDA)

I shot this footage Monday night at the J.C. Newman Cigar Co., where I was a guest at a cigar tasting and factory tour. The event was one of those “off the schedule” parties that made the Republican National Convention such a fun place to be all week.

It was my favorite event, hands down. A few hundred lucky invitees got to taste Diamond Crown cigars, made by Arturo Fuente’s family — which has a strategic partnership with J.C. Newman. The Newman factory also produces and markets Brick House, El Baton, Cuesta-Rey and La Unica cigars. (See the whole cigar family at the aptly named “Cigar Family” website.)

Top-shelf bourbons and Scotch were available, plus a factory tour unlike any other in the United States.

The entire event was officially off-the-record, so we owe J.C. Newman thanks both for the invitation and for giving The Daily Caller special permission to publish this video. (RELATED: Catch up on the whole Cigar Hunter series)

Eric Newman has the oldest working cigar factory in America. I saw a machine whose sole purpose is to strip the center-vein from a tobacco wrapper leaf. The contraption has been in continuous operation since 1910. (The women who operate it refer to themselves as the “Newman strippers.”)

And while some of the cigar-making process there is mechanized — think cellophanes, boxing and bundling — there’s still a place for cigars made completely by hand. “Hecho a mano,” as they say in Spanish.

Here’s what you’re seeing in the video.

Luis strips the center vein out of an Ecuadorean Sumatra tobacco wrapper leaf, separating it into two halves. Each half will become a separate cigar wrapper.

Then he flattens one half and uses a special flat, handle-less knife called a chaveta to cut the leaf into the shape he wants. Keep in mind that every different vitola has different dimensions, so Luis has to know which size and shape he’s cutting for.

What you’re not seeing, of course, is what happened earlier with the filler tobacco. The best cigars aren’t made from crumpled-up leaves in a bunch. Each filler leaf is carefully folded against itself first, and then crushed into the right-sized bunch. This, Luis told me, helps the air flow and burn stay consistent.

After you have your folded bunch, you have to wrap a coarse “binder” leaf around it to hold it together, and then but it into a cedar wood mold for nearly an hour. This help it keep its shape. (You can see a wrapper-ready “binder” cigar in one-half of the mold to Luis’ left.)

After he trims the wrapper leaf, he chops the end off the cigar-to-be with a special chopper that has a calibrated slider to ensure the finished product is exactly the right length. Once it’s chopped, Luis starts rolling — always on the diagonal, so the wrapper overlaps on itself. When he reaches the end, he pinches it off to separate the cigar from the leftover wrapper — it’s a bit like a sausage link.

Along the way he also uses a few dabs of pectin glue — a vegetable adhesive — to make sure the wrapper stays wrapped and the binder stays in place. No one likes a cigar that unravels ten minutes after it’s lit.

Luis uses his chaveta to cut off the excess wrapper leaf where he has pinched it off, and then re-flattens that leftover part so he can make a cap.

In this case, Luis is making two caps: a large one and a final smaller one. This way there’s no chance the cigar will unravel, no matter how you cut it or how big a slice you take before you smoke it.

The first cap is made from a teardrop-shaped, hand-cut piece of wrapper leaf, wrapped around the head of the cigar. The final small cap is punched out of the leftover leaf using a brass ring that’s attached to the chopping tool. Both caps are applied with more of that pectin glue.

Before making the second cap, Luis puts the cigar back into the chopper for a second time, trimming off any extra bits that hang over the end where the finished product will meet a match or a lighter. (Some brands leave this rough-edged part on for visual effect.)

That’s the process. Cigar shop proprietors in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa — the undisputed cigar capital of the region — told me that a good hand-roller can make 150 or 200 cigars in a day. Any more than that, they said, and the cigars suffer because his hands cramp up.

And who the heck wants to smoke a loose stogie?

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