Ask a cigar maker about the aging and they’ll probably tell you it’s unnecessary. Cigars all thoroughly cured and seasoned before they’re shipped, which means every one is sold ready to smoke, but ask a cigar collector, and they’ll tell you something else. They’ll tell you cigars are like wine and get better with age. Cigars are a complex blend of resins, oils, and sugars and the interplay between these elements is what lends a cigar it’s particular flavor. It begins even before a cigar is rolled and continues long after it’s purchased. Cigars ripen and mature right up until the moment they’re smoked, creating a wide range of subtle and enchanting flavors beyond what was intended by the manufacturer. Aging cigars at home in your humidor is the best way to draw these flavors out and explore the full possibilities of your favorite cigars.
Plantation Curing and Fermentation
The aging process begins even before cigars are rolled and shipped from the factory. After harvesting, tobacco is collected and dried for 30 days in order to break down the chlorophyll in the leaves. Air dried tobacco is hung in barns from narrow, wooden beams called lathes. Kiln dried tobacco is dried over a charcoal, wood, propane, or natural gas fire until the leaves have changed from bright green into a rich brown. This is process is known as “curing.” Tobacco cured in barns is generally much more suited to home aging than tobacco cured in a kiln. Once curing is complete, the leaves are taken down and sorted by color and size. Small leaves are used as filler, large leaves for the binder, and the finest leaves for the outer wrapper. The leaves are then sealed in casks called “hogsheads” or piled up into stacks called “bulks.” Bulks can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. The heat and weight are necessary to generate the heat necessary for the next stage in the manufacturing process, fermentation. Fermentation releases the tobacco’s natural flavors and aromas and lasts from six months to five years. During this time, the starches in the leaves are transformed into sugars and the oil and resins become concentrated as the leaf’s structure gradually breaks down.
Aging and Marrying Cigars
Once fermentation is complete, the tobacco is rolled into cigars. Some companies ship cigars as soon as rolling is complete, while others age their cigars first to let the resins, sugars, and oils percolate through the various layers of tobacco in a cigar. This is known as “marrying” and it distributes the tobacco flavors more evenly throughout the cigar. Cigars are normally made from several different types of tobacco and aging helps blend their different flavors together for a smoother and more balanced smoke. It’s a process that continues throughout the lifespan of the cigar.
Aging Cigars at Home
Despite the care taken by the manufacturer, there are two reasons to continue aging cigars after you buy them. The first is it allows the flavor of your cigars to settle after transport. Cigars react to heat and cold, both of which can affect their taste during transit. Though these effects are usually minor, waiting a few days after before you smoke your cigars gives their internal chemistry a chance to settle down and lets their full flavor return.
The second reason is to extend the marrying process for as long as possible in order to give cigars a mellower flavor. How long aging should last, or whether it should be done at all, is a matter of individual taste. Aging cigars melds the flavors of the individual tobaccos together and makes them less distinct. Some people dislike this process. Fresh cigars have a sharper taste, which some people really enjoy. In Cuba, it’s common to smoke them as soon they’re done being rolled. Others appreciate the subtle interplay of that comes with aging. Stronger flavors become less noticeable and weaker ones become more noticeable, creating a fuller and more complex smoking experience.
Evaluating Aged Cigars
How a cigar will react to aging is difficult to measure accurately, which means there’s no way to predict whether you’ll enjoy a cigar more after one month or after one year, or even longer. It’s a matter of individual taste. The only way to find out what you enjoy is to age some cigars and find out for yourself. In order to get a good sense of how a particular type of cigar will age, collectors often purchase boxes of cigars and smoke them individually at regular intervals, so they can evaluate the taste as it evolves over time. Because cigars age slowly, they’re normally evaluated in increasing increments: one day, seven days, 1 month, 6 months, one year, two years, three years, etcetera. It generally held that a cigar smoked within a month of the purchase date will still have the sharp taste they had after leaving the factory. Six months to a year is considered to the ideal aging time for lighter cigars. Because heavier cigars contain a greater variety of tobacco and take longer to marry their flavors, their ideal aging time ranges from 1-10 years. Cigars with large ring gauges also age better than cigars with small ring gauges. The additional thickness provides better protection against the adverse effects of heat and humidity, enabling them to stay fresh longer.
How to Age Cigars
Aging cigars at home requires some specialized equipment. Cigars are hygroscopic, which means they exchange moisture with their surrounding environment. When it’s humid, they absorb moisture. When it’s dry, they shed it. Either situation is bad. Cigars need to maintain the same humidity level they had when they were made, which means storing them in 70°F containers with 70 percent humidity. (Click to read more about the effects of moisture and humidity on cigar quality) If you’re serious about aging cigars, you’ll need to invest in a specialized storage device designed specifically to maintain this environment.
The most common cigar storage device. Cigar humidors use an internal humidifier to generate moisture moisture and a hygrometer to track storage conditions. The best humidors are made from Spanish cedar because it’s good at retaining moisture.
A wine refrigerator converted into a cigar humidor. Provides a larger storage space for cigars and greater temperature control, but humidifiers, hygrometers, and cedar shelving have to be purchased separately
A refrigerator specifically designed to hold cigars. use thermoelectric motors to control temperature and have built in Spanish cedar shelves. A cigar humidifier and hygrometer may have to be bought separately, depending on the model
Large cigar humidors built to hold hundreds of cigars. The best are lined with Spanish cedar and have cedar shelving. Can be purchased to hold individual cigars, boxes of cigars, or both.
If you’re aging different types of cigars in the same humidor, it’s best to keep them cordoned in different sections to prevent their respective flavors from cross marrying. Some collectors find it convenient to leave the cigars in their boxes and store the whole thing in their humidor. Another solution is to take the cigars out, but leave them in their cellophane wrappers. This ensures a clean taste and enables you to make an accurate judgment regarding the cigar’s flavor.
During the aging process, it’s best to keep your cigar humidor sealed as much as possible in order to preserve the right environment. Only open it to when you need to take out a cigar. Keep a notepad handy to jot down your thoughts on your cigars as you smoke them and label your cigars with the purchase date to help keep track of the aging process.
If you age your cigars for a long period of time, you’ll eventually encounter cigar plume. It’s a white substance that appears on the surface of a cigar and makes it appear dusty. It’s commonly mistaken for mold, but it’s actually caused by the cigar oil seeping up through the outer wrapper and it’s a sign a cigar has been well aged. White mold is interspersed with blue or gray splotches. Vintage cigar enthusiasts often won’t even remove plume when they find it.
Aging cigars at home in your humidor is fun, but it takes time, patience, and resources. All cigars have a period of peak performance, when their blend of flavors is just right. What this point is differs from person to person, which is why, when it comes to aging cigars, there is no substitute for experience. Experts can steer you in the right direction, but the only way to know what you’ll enjoy is to buy a box and find out for yourself.