Cigar maker displays the art of hand rolling
When the first shipment of Cuban cigars arrived in Pierre Cohen-Aknine’s office in December 1994, there were no commercially-available cigars in Korea. Mr. Cohen-Aknine, a French businessman based in Korea, knocked on the doors of five-star hotels whose foreign general managers quickly replied, “Oh, yes, we do have occasional requests from our guests.”
It took another two years for cigars to hit trendy bars in Cheongdam-dong, and now Korea’s leading importer of Cuban cigars says there are about 100 connoisseurs of cigars in Seoul ― people who know which brand or flavor they want to smoke for a certain occasion.
A decade later, Korea’s rich and famous are more open to Cuban cigars ―a luxury product from one of the world’s remaining communist countries ― as a lifestyle option. Korea’s premier hotels, such as the Grand InterContinental and Marriott, recently organized a 10-day Cigar and Culture Week from Cuba.
An appreciation of culture may first start with awareness ― there’s a cigar! ― but needs to be reinforced with education ― Ah, that’s what cigars are all about ― to nurture a serious hobby.
To inspire both experts and novices, Mr. Cohen-Aknine invited a professional cigar roller, Gustavo Garcia Bello, 35, to demonstrate how a fine cigar is made. In Havana, a visit to a state-run cigar factory requires a special permit.
Mr. Bello, who works at Partagas, Cuba’s oldest cigar manufacturers, has been rolling cigars since the age of 20. He brought a bag of fresh tobacco leaves along with a tabla (wooden board), chaveta (blade), and guillotine (cutter). He flashes stained fingers and his right palm to show the blacked spot where the corner of the blade has calloused his skin.
Few cigar rollers in Cuba speak English, but Mr. Bello speaks comprehensible English, which he says he learned from books.
The IHT-JoongAng Daily visited Mr. Bello and chatted with him about cigars and his profession.
Q. How did you start rolling cigars?
A. I grew up in my hometown in central Cuba where my grandfather used to smoke cigars. He was a farmer, and he would pick some tobacco leaves and roll them to smoke for himself. That’s how I was introduced to cigars.
What’s in a cigar?
There are three kinds of leaves ― fillers, binders and wrappers. Each of these leaves are for the three elements of a cigar ― flavor, strength and combustion. For the flavor of a cigar, a variety of leaves are used, just the right amount. Leaves used for flavor come from the lower level of tobacco trees in the sun. These trees are separated from [those used for] wrappers. The [leaves used for] wrappers are picked from different levels of the tobacco plants. All tobacco plants grown in the shadow are for wrappers.
So as a professional cigar roller, you can tell which plants are used for wrappers.
Yes, the wrapper plants are always covered with cloth. The plants are grown that way to make them elastic and thin. And the plants are taller.
What about the taste?
The taste is determined by the combination or layers of the fillers. Cigars like Cohiba Robusto, Esplendidos, Siglo VI, for example, all taste different. Different fillers may come from different plants, sort of like the way wine is made. You can make it more characteristic by combining different kinds of leaves.
When you roll in the binder, fillers inside tend to roll together. So you must unroll and straighten the fillers, so leaves cannot obstruct the air, and the flavor can nicely pass through the cigar and to the smoker. When the binder is wrapped, then you cut, just a little bigger than the size you want, before it is once again rolled with the wrapper and cut again.
In factories, they don’t let you know which brand of the cigar you’re rolling. They explain what to do, so rollers work, but they don’t know which brand their cigars will go to.
You keep your wrappers in moist cloth. Why?
To keep the wrappers thin and elastic. Here I use fresh leaves, but fresh means its vintage is 2004. When the tobacco leaves are harvested, they are hung to dry for about 35 days, followed by fermentation. They are then aired, water-sprayed, re-fermented, and then aged for up to three years. Cigar smokers eventually prefer the aged Partagas, but this is fresh, just for fun.
You have a hand-written gauge on the side of your tabla.
It’s just a convenient mark for me to know the length of the cigar I’m rolling. Now I’m rolling a torpedo, but I may switch from a robusto to a shorter one, to corona, a longer one, anyway I like it. With this cutter, I can change the length in the gauge. I look at the mark and cut, just like that. In factories, all the cigars will be the same size, and you have a daily quota. All the cigars will be the same length.
How many cigars can a cigar roller make per day?
It depends on the size. For this size, torpedo, you must make 110. robusto, 120. For corona, 145.
Do rollers get a break for lunch and dinner?
Yes, of course.
How many cigars have you rolled all day today?
Here, I made about 75 cigars.
That’s not a lot compared with what you would make in the factory.
No, it’s A LOT compared to what I do [in Cuba]. In factories, cigar rollers use a mold with 10 holes and a ring gauge. So the cigar roller picks fillers, shapes and presses them, bang, into the mold, so the shape is exactly the same and even. Here I make the cigar all by hand ― Roll and go back and shape it again. So it’s better, but I’m slower. In fact, this number is my record.
Is this your first time in Korea?
Yes. I had a day off yesterday, so I walked around the city.
What are you smoking?
It’s no shape, no size, no nothing. I just take a little bit of the binders, and make a little cigar and just roll and smoke.
You don’t suck the cigar when you light it?
No, never. If you suck when you light it, it can change the cigar’s favor, especially if you use a gas lighter. You must use a blow torch ― there’s a different kind of lighter for cigar smokers. Shoot the fire and roll the cigar around the blow torch, so it can burn evenly, and let it burn. You don’t inhale, just taste in your mouth the aroma, the flavor.
Are there women rollers in the factory?
There used to be [only] men rollers before, but in the factory now, more than 55 percent of the workers are women. Cigar rollers can start from age 18, but only if they pass the training stage successfully. They can roll in school for about six months, and if they are good, they can start at the lowest level of manufacture, making the small sizes like petit coronas and coronas.
It is in Cuban law that women retire by 55, men by 60.
by Ines Cho