Click here to see a slide show of the cigar making process.
Pablo Romay has been hunched over a pile of tobacco leaves for the last 25 years. The brown leaves, with their veins, oils, textures, and moisture levels, tell a botanical biography that Romay reads like braille. As he works, he pauses to sip his Cuban coffee and take a few puffs from a "Redemption" cigar - his cigar recipe that's been burning on his desk and filling the small room with a sweet, musky haze.
Romay, originally from Cuba, is a master blender and cigar roller at El Titan de Bronze cigar shop and factory in Little Havana. The small yellow shop, perched at the corner of SW 8th Street and SW 11th Avenue, is owned by Carlos Cobas, whose family ran a cigar business in Cuba and has been making and selling cigars in the U.S. for over 20 years.
As Romay works, he talks about cigars. He says the best seeds come from Cuba. The Cubans have been making cigars for so long that the seeds have been cultivated for specific tastes, Romay says.
"Tobacco is like wine," Romay says in a thick Cuban accent. "The more time, the better and better".
And the taste, he says, has as much to do with the blender's skill to combine leaves as it has to do with weather patterns and the farmer's ability to keep the plants healthy and the curing and fermentation processes consistent.
It gets more complicated too. Cigar blenders of Romay's skill level are alchemists. When Romay set to creating the Redemption blend, he wanted a medium to full body cigar with no bitterness a sweet aftertaste. To achieve this, he had to take into account which leaves to use, both in where they were grown and where they came from on the plant. Leaves at the top of the plant are stronger in flavor, as they soak in more sunlight, while leaves under the shade of the plant's canopy have a mild taste. In addition to achieving the proper balance in the filler, Romay had to find complimentary leaves to serve as the binders and wrappers (sort of like an inner and an outer shell made of tobacco).
"Each element has its own flavor," Romay says.
But just because it takes a lifetime of making cigars to understand the physics of taste doesn't mean you need doctorate to appreciate a good cigar. Alex Hernandez, of Miami and a regular in El Titan de Bronze, says developing a palette for cigars is a basic process.
"Smoke what you like," Hernandez says, adding that cost has little to do with quality. "A five dollar cigar will blow the pants off a fifteen dollar cigar. Bragging about a fifteen dollar cigar means you're bragging about the company that made it."
Hernandez says first-time or infrequent cigar smokers should pick mild blends, preferably made by a mom-and-pop operation.
"Small businesses strive for quality. It keeps the customers coming back," he says. "Large manufacturers get wrapped up in quantity and profit margins."
He says that as you start to gain an understanding of what you prefer in a cigar, you can start looking for a "bouquet of flavors" - a similar theme in wine and good beer.
"And NEVER smoke a dry cigar," Hernandez says.
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To avoid dry cigars, shop owner Cobas says to store the cigars in cedar boxes at room temperature, in 60 to 70 percent humidity.
"A paper box absorbs the oil and moisture from the cigars and dries them out," Cobas says.
The morning matures to afternoon and the shadows traverse the hazy room in El Titan de Bronze, with its walls lined with framed vintage Cuban cigar brand labels. The conversation, fueled by Cuban coffee, wanders from Castro, to girlfriends and wives, to cigar blends of years past. After a quarter century of rolling cigars, Romay's hands operate on muscle memory - bunching, rolling, sculpting, trimming, pressing, wrapping, gluing, and bundling the cigars as he chats with curious enthusiasts peaking over his shoulder.
Cobas shuffles past Romay and pauses. "He makes it look easy," Cobas says affectionately. -- Tristan Spinski