When a cigar is manufactured, it comes out of the factory with a 12-15% moisture content. In order to maintain its richness and its taste, a cigar needs to have the same level of moisture when smoked. When a cigar burns, it releases sugars and essential oils stored in the tobacco leaves. They blend together and bind to the smoke, which is what you taste when you draw on your cigar. If the moisture content of your cigar is outside the 12-15% range, then it will either burn too hot or it will burn unevenly and wreck the cigar’s smoke, aroma, and flavor.
Dangers of Low Moisture
Cigars are hygroscopic, which means they absorb and retain moisture from their surrounding environment. It also means they lose moisture just as quickly. A cigar left out in a room without air conditioning or direct sunlight will dry out in less than a day. A cigar left out in hot, sunny, or windy conditions will dry out in only a few hours. If a cigar dries out completely, all of the essential oils inside will evaporate and most of the cigar’s flavor will be lost. Though it’s possible to salvage some of the flavor when this happens, by exposing them to high humidity, the cigar’s original richness and taste can never be fully restored.
A cigar’s moisture level also ensures a proper burn. Cigars are meant to burn slowly and evenly, at a low temperature. A slow burn allows the oils and sugars in the tobacco to blend together, so you can enjoy all of their subtleties and flavor. Dry cigars burn fast and hot. The extra heat makes the smoke unpleasant and acrid, which ruins the aroma and causes the essential oils to evaporate. Instead of a rich nuance, what end up with is a taste is a pungent, bitter mush.
Dangers of Excess Moisture
Damp cigars are caused by storing or exposing cigars to excessive humidity, usually anything above 70-72 percent, which is the point at which cigars begin absorbing moisture rather than losing it to the surrounding air. Humidity is highest early in the morning, when the temperature is closest to the dew point – the temperature where water vapor condenses into liquid. Humidity peaks during summer and falls during winter. Humidity also varies greatly depending on location. The average humidity in Las Vegas is only 30 percent, while in New Orleans, it’s 76 percent. During the summer, humidity there can reach 90 percent. Inclement weather is also a danger. Cigars absorb moisture very quickly in heavy rain, even if you’re standing under an awning. As little as five minutes in a rainstorm is enough to ruin an otherwise fine cigar.
When cigars become damp, the tobacco leaves swell and it becomes difficult to draw smoke through them. The excess moisture also affects the burn rate. Instead of slowing down, often one side of the cigar will burn faster than the other, a phenomena known as “tunneling.” An even burn is important because most cigars contain more than one type of tobacco, normally dispersed throughout the cigar in layers to add flavor. Cigars might start out light, become rich, then earthy, or nutty, or spicy as the more of the cigar is smoked. When tunneling occurs, your draw becomes uneven. Flavors mix when they weren’t intended to or the taste of one tobacco overwhelms the rest. Instead of a rich, multifaceted experience, your smoke become one-dimensional and dull.
A damp cigar also emits considerably more smoke than one with proper moisture. The thicker smoke not only clings to you more strongly, stinking up your clothes, but it can overload your sense of smell. A good smoke relies as much on your nose as it does on your taste buds. Cigar maker E.P. Carrillo considers the two to be inseparable. Your taste buds are only capable of detecting four different flavors – sour, salty, sweet, and bitter. Everything else is detected by your nose, and the two work in harmony to provide richness to everything you eat, drink, and smoke. When your olfactory senses become overloaded, your ability to enjoy a cigar is effectively deadened.
How to Tell if Your Cigar is Too Dry or Too Damp
You can tell if your cigar has been damaged by excessive or insufficient humidity by rolling it between your fingers. Dry cigars are very brittle, so if you hear any cracking, then you know the cigar is too dry. If the cigar feels spongy and soft, then it’s too damp. Cigars should feel firm and resilient, similar to how your finger feels when you squeeze it. If you see any cracks or ripples on the outside, it means the cigar has been exposed to fluctuating humidity levels, which harm the cigar’s internal composition. A good cigar will have a smooth, slightly oily texture. Tobacco secretes oil at 70-72 percent humidity, so a little oil on the outside is a sure indication it’s been properly stored.
Other obvious signs cigars have been exposed to excess humidity are white mold or holes left by tobacco beetles. Mold grows in cigar humidors only when conditions are damp and overly humid. Tobacco beetles hatch in the exact same conditions, so if you find evidence of either, throw the cigar away. If you got them from a humidor, it it needs to be cleaned out and its humidity levels reset.
How to Protect Cigars From Humidity
The most common way to protect cigars from drying out or becoming damp is to store them in a cigar humidor or a cigar cooler. These boxes are sealed environments that allow to you monitor and adjust the humidity levels of your cigars. The best cigar humidors and cigar coolers are made from Spanish cedar or use Spanish cedar shelves. Spanish cedar absorbs humidity very well, which helps regulate and stabilize the humidity levels inside the humidor and makes it an ideal material for cigar storage.
Cigar humidors vary in size. Some only hold a few dozen cigars. Some hold a few hundred. Size is important. Adding cigars to an overfilled humidor will dry them out. The excess cigars will drain the moisture from the air and create the dry conditions humidors are designed to prevent. Also, avoid storing your cigar humidor in a warm room or a cold one or in direct sunlight, as this will impede its ability to regulate its internal temperature and cause it to raise or lower the humidity level above or below desired conditions.
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If you don’t want to invest in a cigar humidor, or if you don’t have enough cigars to justify purchasing one, you can preserve the moisture levels of your cigars by sealing them in a plastic freezer bag with a damp sponge. Buy a large freezer bag, gallon sized at least, and place your cigars inside. Place the sponge in a smaller, separate bag and place it in the freezer bag alongside the cigars. Make sure the second bag is upright an open so the moisture released by the sponge can circulate. The sponge will eventually dry, so you’ll need to re-dampen it in order to prevent your cigars from drying out.
Plastic boxes are another alternative to cigar humidors. They hold moisture about as well as plastic bags and the procedure for storing cigars in them is exactly the same. Place the cigars in the plastic box alongside a plastic bag with a sponge. Make sure it’s a new box to avoid contaminating your cigars with food or other residues. Also, wash the box thoroughly with soap and water before placing your cigars inside in order to residual odors from the manufacturing process.
Understanding the role moisture and humidity play in cigars is vital if you want to enjoy them they way they were meant to be enjoyed. A good smoke relies on the subtle interplay between the sugars, oils, and tobacco in the cigar, all of which are affected if the cigar is too dry or too damp. This is why serious collectors invest so much in high quality humidors. It is the only way to guarantee they will taste good when you light up and take your first puff.