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Rolling and Unraveling Through Thick and Thin and Smoking the Result

I CROUCHED over a wooden bench inside the rolling room in El Credito Cigars' factory in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, peering at a light brown tobacco leaf. It was half past 9 on a Monday morning, and I had just gulped down two paper thimbles of Cuban coffee. My head was buzzing with caffeine and ambient cigar smoke. My mentor, Leo Peraza, a 67-year-old Cuban-born master cigar roller in a blue apron, leaned over my shoulder.

"Mira," Leo said in Spanish, beckoning me to watch him work.

Leo stretched the tobacco leaf across a wooden cutting board. He picked up a crescent-shaped knife called a chavetta and trimmed away the upper and lower edges of the leaf. Then he placed a second leaf on the cutting board and handed over the chavetta.

"God help me!" I exclaimed.

I heard two of the cigar-making world's most prominent people laugh out loud. Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr., 56, the second-generation proprietor of El Credito, and Daniel Nunez, 56, the president and chief operating officer of the General Cigar Company, El Credito's corporate parent, had agreed to let me try my hand at cigar rolling under Leo's supervision. But their laughter suddenly gave me serious second thoughts.

Having smoked cigars for over 30 years, I held the art of cigar rolling in high esteem. I did not want to desecrate it simply for the sake of a whimsical executive pursuit. I feared that I would either bloody my fingers, or perhaps even worse, twist the fine tobacco before me into an unsmokeable swizzle stick. My hosts hastened to offer reassurance.

"You've just got to give it a chance," Ernesto Jr. said.

"Once you touch it, the tobacco will tell you a story," Daniel added.

Nodding with increasing trepidation, I stole a glance around the fluorescent-lighted room. Eight other benches stood on the hardwood floor, each identical to Leo's except for being occupied by female cigar rollers. Each bench was equipped with a complement of cutting tools, a vicelike metal press, semicylindrical plastic cigar molds and stacks of tobacco leaves. The walls were adorned with vintage black and white photographs of the Perez-Carrillo family.

Just as Daniel had predicted that the tobacco would tell a story, the photographs hinted at a tale of romance, tradition, passion, politics and economic ingenuity. One of the most arresting shots was taken in 1959, shortly after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. It showed Ernesto Jr., then age 7, standing on the tarmac at the Miami airport next to the American Airlines plane that had flown his family and him from Havana. Decked out in an overcoat and a fedora, the little boy already looked like a man in the making.

In 1968, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Sr. established El Credito Cigars on Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) in Little Havana with one cigar maker. Four years later, he introduced a brand called La Gloria Cubana, whose provenance actually traced to a line pioneered by a prominent Cuban family in 1883. Shortly afterward, Ernesto Jr. left for New York to chase his dream of becoming a jazz drummer. Although he managed to audition for the legendary jazz composer Stan Getz and play in some of the city's famous clubs, he eventually decided that his true calling was making premium cigars.

Upon returning to Miami, Ernesto Jr. revitalized the Gloria Cubana brand by creating a special blend of Nicaraguan and Dominican tobacco leaves. The distinctive deep, full-bodied flavor of his blend attracted an enthusiastic following among American cigar connoisseurs, and by the early 1990s, the factory was turning out more than half a million cigars a year.

In 1993, Cigar Aficionado vaulted El Credito into the big time by awarding four of its brands a rating of 90 or above on the magazine's 100-point quality scale. In 1996, Ernesto Jr. opened a second, much larger cigar factory in the Dominican Republic. He declined to specify the size of El Credito's current production except to say that the company ships "millions of cigars a year" to customers in the United States, Asia and Eastern Europe. Most El Credito premium brands sell for relatively low prices of $5 or less for each cigar. The Gloria Cubana Serie R created in honor of Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Sr. sells for $5 to $8 a cigar.

Ernesto Jr. informed me that El Credito was the nation's oldest factory producing handmade cigars. While there are older factories in Cuba and other countries, El Credito carries on a tradition in association with Daniel Nunez's General Cigar Company that has changed little over the last 100 years. The leaves that make up the three parts of each cigar - the filler, the binder and the wrapper - are grown separately in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Depending on the desired blend, the curing, fermentation and finishing processes can take 3 to 25 years.

"Everything is done by hand and by feel," Daniel noted. "During the time it takes to go from harvest to cigar box, close to 200 human beings will have touched the cigar."

Ernesto Jr. reminded me that I was hardly the first amateur to try to roll a cigar. Cigar Aficionado sponsors annual cigar rolling contests around the country. Local winners go on to compete in a Super Roll. This year's Super Roll is set for March 13 to 16 at El Credito's factory.

Even so, my hands were shaking like wind-blown leaves as I spread a Dominican-grown wrapper across the cutting board on Leo Peraza's cigar-rolling bench. To my untutored touch, the tobacco felt like rubber woven with the sheerest silk, surprisingly resilient and yet extremely delicate. I grabbed a "bunch" of Nicaraguan-grown long leaf filler leaves surrounded by an Ecuadorean-grown binder leaf from one of the molds, and laid the bunch across the near edge of the wrapper.

After I smoothed the wrapper again, Leo directed me to pick off the veins with my fingernails. I dipped my hand into a pot of vegetable-based glue, and dabbed the glue across the wrapper. Then I started to roll the wrapper around the bunch, pressing down firmly with both hands.

My goal was to pass the ring gauge test. The only measurement tool used in cigar rolling, the ring gauge is a metal paddle perforated with holes calibrated in increments of one-sixty-fourth of an inch. My cigar was supposed to be a so-called 58, with a diameter of 58 sixty-fourths of an inch. If it was too thick, it would not fit alongside its mates in the box. If it was too thin, it would not meet El Credito's standard.

Leo stopped me about a third of the way through, unraveled the wrapper, and made me start over, rolling more tightly and more slowly. Just as I was finishing my second attempt, he stopped me again, and dabbed on more glue. I rolled the last bit of the wrapper around the bunch, creating a torpedo-shaped cylinder with pointed tips. I sliced off one of the tips and placed the cigar atop the bench for inspection.

I then experienced two unforgettable moments of pride and joy. The moment of pride occurred when Daniel inserted my cigar into the 58 hole on the ring gauge, and pronounced it a perfect fit. Ernesto Jr. then ushered me into an adjoining room, where I glued on a band and slipped the cigar into a cellophane sheath.

The moment of joy occurred when I stepped out onto the streets of Little Havana and lit up my freshly hand-rolled cigar. I realized that along with being the 201st human being to touch the cigar, I was also the luckiest because it was, at least for me, the perfect smoke.

Source: New York Times