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Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XXV)

22 Jan 2018

In this edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, I remember an old foe, lament the health of the industry, and ponder how social media is changing cigar marketing.

Actually, It’s CHIP Now, Not SCHIP

Remember SCHIP? All the news about a looming government shutdown—as I am writing this, the House has passed a bill to keep the federal government funded for another four weeks, but the Senate doesn’t look poised to reach an agreement—has brought back memories of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), formerly known as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Just search “SCHIP” on this site (our search bar is in the upper right-hand corner) and you’ll find dozens of articles, mostly from the period of 2007-2009. This January 2009 article was published and updated on the day the SCHIP tax increase was announced (the cap is, and was, 40 cents per large cigar). As we reminded you on Friday, although CHIP’s “funding” would expire if a government funding deal isn’t struck, the tax on tobacco will remain either way. Fantastic. One silver lining: If and when CHIP’s tobacco tax funding is restored, we can once again claim to be “smoking for the children.”

And the Winner Is… Nobody

As you may have seen at Halfwheel.com, the site is not issuing an award for best new cigar company in 2017 because, well, there really wasn’t one. “We’ve given the award each year since 2013 alongside a host of other awards; that will change this year and there’s a good chance that change will be for good,” wrote Charlie Minato. “Due to a variety of reasons, chief amongst them the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulation of premium cigars, there simply aren’t many new companies that would be eligible for the award.” We should all be alarmed by this. Creation, innovation, and new blood are signs of a rich and vibrant industry. This is evidence that burdensome regulations and taxes are taking their toll. For those who would stroll the aisles of the IPCPR Trade Show and cite the volume of booths and displays as an indication of industry health, I say this: Think about all the booths and displays that aren’t here. Think about all we might be missing, especially in the form of limited edition smokes. Looking to the horizon, absent major policy changes, isn’t it fair to expect more cigar company consolidation and closures, and fewer new operations?

What Is Skip Martin Eating Today?

Thanks to social media, the way in which the cigar smoking public connects with cigar makers has changed drastically in recent years. In the past, if you wanted to converse with your favorite cigar maker, you’d need to attend a huge gathering like Cigar Aficionado’s Big Smoke, or wait until he hosts an event at a retailer in your area. Today, you can simply log on to Facebook to trade comments, messages, photos, etc. Many cigar smokers even tag the cigar maker when they’re enjoying one of his cigars. The savvy cigar makers are embracing this trend, using Facebook to update their many followers about what they’re smoking, blending, working on—even eating and drinking. In this fashion, social media becomes a powerful tool to constantly stay top of mind with your most loyal customers. It also allows the cigar makers to bypass more traditional media options—like industry magazines, press releases, and, yes, blogs—and take messages directly to the masses. If you doubt this trend, just follow Skip Martin of RoMa Craft Tobac and Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust on Facebook; they’re constantly posting (some might say marketing). I am surprised more cigar makers don’t wholeheartedly adopt this approach.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Cigar Smoking Competitions Are Absurd

8 Jan 2018

Last Wednesday, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal about “competitive slow smokers,” or cigar enthusiasts who compete to keep a cigar lit as long as possible. Yes, that’s a real thing.

At events from “Chicago to Croatia,” these devotees use tactics like “gentle puffs, moist palms, [and] strategic ashing” to prolong their cigar experiences to the point of near impossibility, all with hopes of prizes and recognition within the (apparently) growing community of competitors.

The rules for these competitions seem as simple as they are laughable. After each contestant receives his or her cigar—each five inches in length—they have exactly one minute to cut it any way they like. They then have one minute to light, with no re-lighting allowed thereafter. Contestants may not put their cigars down, nor blow on them. And, according to the article, “competitors must also refrain from talking during the first five minutes to maintain a proper air of decorum.”

Wondering about the world record? Look no further than Tomasz Żołądkiewicz, a cigar smoker from Poland. It is said Mr. Żołądkiewicz made a robusto last three hours and twenty-six minutes. This is “an achievement many in the slow-smoking community speak about with the same awe that others have reserved for the great athletic benchmarks of the past century, like running a mile in under four minutes.” Oh, brother.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard of these competitions before—usually when a once-every-so-often article runs profiling a “winner” of a particular event—but otherwise pay them little attention. But I don’t recall a higher profile news placement than this recent Wall Street Journal piece (and accompanying video). So I feel compelled to share my thoughts on the matter.

As I wrote a decade ago, it’s important to smoke slowly. Cigar enjoyment is not a race, and there is no prize for finishing first. Additionally, in order to “cook” the tobacco at the right temperature, you should try to limit the frequency of your puffs to prevent the smoke from becoming too hot or harsh. When you puff, you’re caramelizing the sugars in the tobacco to bring out the unique flavors; it’s important to not overheat the oven.

That said, personally, I just don’t get these cigar competitions. The very concept seems to run against everything a cigar is trying to achieve—relaxation, enjoyment, flavor, camaraderie with fellow cigar enthusiasts, etc. I look to cigars to help me escape from stress; I’m not expecting to win anything, other than my own enjoyment.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a ban of these voluntary events. If you host, participate in, or enjoy following smoking competitions, be my guest.

But I have a right to call these competitions absurd. And, yes, they are absurd.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: José Orlando Padrón, RIP

6 Dec 2017

Yesterday, José Orlando Padrón, scion of the Padrón family of cigar makers, passed away at the age of 91 surrounded by his family. In many ways, his life was the quintessential Cuban-American cigar success story.

Born into a Cuban family with long ties to tobacco, Padrón left Cuba after his family’s farms were taken following the Castro revolution. He eventually ended up in Miami where he worked as a carpenter (using a now famous hammer given to him by a friend) to raise $600, which he used to start making cigars in 1964.

From those modest beginnings he founded a cigar company, now run by his descendants, that is known worldwide for its classic, handmade Nicaraguan cigars. The company moved into Nicaragua long before the country became a powerhouse for cigar making, and weathered the political upheaval of the Sandinista Revolution along the way.

I’ve met his son Jorge, who has run the day-to-day operations of the company for awhile now, but, if I ever met José Orlando Padrón, I don’t remember it. If I did, it was at a cigar trade show where I briefly would have shaken his hand and told him how much I’ve enjoyed his cigars over the years. (Then I probably would have stepped away so the next person in line could shake his hand and tell him the same thing.)

But what’s great about cigars is you needn’t have met a cigar maker to have a personal connection with him/her. My connection with José Orlando Padrón goes back nearly two decades to when I first started smoking cigars.

I don’t remember exactly what my first cigar was, but I’m certain it was either a Padrón or a CAO, probably based on either the recommendation of a cigar shop owner or a rating in Cigar Aficionado. And I can say with confidence I’ve smoked at least one Padrón every year since then, thanks to José Orlando Padrón.

Padrón Cigars makes excellent cigars at all price points. I frequently recommend their classic, affordable regular line to new cigar smokers. Many times, I’ve turned to their more premium cigars (particularly the 1926 line) to celebrate a special occasion.

Over the years, guided by José Orlando Padrón’s leadership, Padrón Cigars has cut its own path. While many companies pushed new releases every year, Padrón focused on its core offerings, often going many years without anything new. The result has been a core offering that hasn’t declined in quality or importance despite minimal changes in over a decade.

Leaders set the tone for the success or failures that follow. José Orlando Padrón undoubtedly set Padrón on its course for success and, in many ways, the successes of the cigar industry as a whole. For that we all owe José Orlando Padrón a debt of gratitude.

Patrick S

photo credit: Padrón Cigars

Commentary: Turning to a Friend

13 Nov 2017

I am more than ready to bid goodbye to 2017.

Perhaps you had a good year. I certainly hope so. For me, though, it was a pretty poor twelve months filled with stress. And anxiety, tension, strain, or any other similar descriptor you’d like to use.

I’m not complaining. Well, maybe I am a little bit. But I try not to forget that I have much to be thankful for, and that I’m in a better position than many others.

Nonetheless, that’s a difficult mindset to focus on when you’re watching TV meteorologists charting Hurricane Irma’s path to your doorstep. Or recuperating from hours-long surgery. Or dealing with 2017’s other lousy events I won’t bore you with. (But I will tell you Irma eventually took a different path, inflicting no more damage on us than a few downed tree limbs and a day-long power outage. Also, the surgery was elective, not life-saving. I seem to have made it through the other incidents as well.)

Through it all, I turned to cigars as one would a trusted friend.

Tobacco foes focus on the addictive properties of nicotine, the dangers of disease, and the evils of big tobacco. As StogiesGuys.com has written many times, though, these risks are all pretty minimal when it comes to premium cigars.

And all but ignored in their attacks are the beneficial aspects afforded many cigar smokers. Quiet time. Relaxation. Stress reduction. Pleasure. Just looking forward to having a cigar helped.

I don’t even recall what I lit up most of the time. Usually, I turned to one of my standbys, like something from Don José “Pepin” Garcia or a Perdomo Lot 23. The truth is, though, that what I was smoking didn’t really matter too much.

That’s because what I got was far more than a smoke. It was a time to relax and recharge. Whether I was sitting on the deck listening to music, watching a baseball game on my iPad, or simply staring off into the distance, the time I spent with a cigar was like an oasis.

Yes, I’m sure I could have made it through 2017 without cigars. But I’m also sure it would have been a much rougher trip.

So, here’s to a better New Year coming. And cigars to help us celebrate the good times and help us through the bad times.

George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: It’s Hard to Break the Rules When There Aren’t Any

11 Oct 2017

One of the great things about smoking cigars is that there are virtually no rules.

Consider for a moment one of the most-asked, most-discussed questions on cigar forums: Cello on or off?

The simple answer: Who cares?

Sure, there are some axioms. Like: Dispose of ashes and butts when you’re finished smoking unless you like the early morning aroma of a 1950s barroom. Or: Don’t bring your own cigars to smoke at a B&M unless you want to display a lack of class and reflect poorly on your upbringing.

But these tend to be more common sense than dictum.

Generally, cigar smoking is an individual activity with each of us free to pursue it as we see fit. Some build vast collections with rare and aged releases, while others simply appreciate an occasional Macanudo. Some are passionate devotees who take trips to fields and factories in their quest for cigar knowledge. Others, though, have little interest beyond lighting up and relaxing.

This lack of rules is, I think, one of the major reasons cigar smoking is a generally egalitarian pastime, attracting participants from nearly every social strata.

This was all sorely stressed during the cigar boom of the mid-1990s when poseurs and affected smokers overran the marketplace. Fortunately, that bubble deflated, taking the air out of those who tried to inject snobbery into the cigar world.

Yes, I know there are still cigar snobs and cigar shops where you’re made to feel a lesser species if you pick up a stick for under $20. Fortunately, though, that’s much the minority among cigar smokers.

And at least part of that seems to be because it’s not nearly as easy to belittle someone or pump up yourself when there are no rules that can be held against those who don’t follow them or are simply unaware they exist.

For me, there’s really only one cigar rule: Enjoy yourself.

George E

photo credit: Creative Commons

Photo Essay: A Visit to the Connecticut River Valley

30 Aug 2017

Growing up in New York and going to college in Maine, I have many friends from Connecticut. Cigar geeks aside, few realize that not only does Connecticut grow tobacco, but some of the most expensive and sought-after premium cigar wrapper is grown in the Nutmeg State. Recently I visited the Connecticut River Valley (north of Hartford) to see the farms there during the growing season, which runs from summer to early fall. Below are some of the photos from the trip.

One of the most notable things you quickly see is how each type of tobacco is grown differently to maximize qualities sought in the wrapper they hope it will become. (Inevitably, some leaves will end up as binder or filler; that said, leaves are grown with the intention and hope that they become wrapper, which commands the highest price.)

 

Sun-grown tobacco is topped (the flower at the top is removed) and lower leaves are removed early to maximize the nutrients that reach the leaves intended for tobacco. (Yes, the photo at the top is of the Habano leaf that will eventually become the Partagas Black.)

Increasingly, the leaves are then stalk-cured (the ones I saw were speared through the center of the stalk to kick-start curing) so the flavor of the nicotine in the stalk can continue to move into the leaves.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Connecticut Shade tobacco, which is processed to keep the leaf thin and light. In addition to netting, flowers remain and all the leaves are left on so they don’t get too thick.

Leaves are sewn individually for curing, instead of being left on the stalk.

In addition, fields are left to fallow one year out of three, and rye is frequently grown (then plowed over) in the off-season to replenish nutrients in the soil.

This is big business for Connecticut farmers, with each curing barn holding up to half a million dollars worth of tobacco, depending on the leaf type. Connecticut Shade is still the most expensive leaf grown in Connecticut, but Broadleaf and Habano are also grown in ample quantities.

If you are in the area in the late summer, drive around and you shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting tobacco fields. For those not lucky enough to visit foreign tobacco growing regions, Connecticut is the most accessible place to see the tobacco that ends up as a key component of the handmade cigars we enjoy.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Three Takeaways from Friday’s FDA Regulation News

2 Aug 2017

FDA-cigars-large

Last week I noted a concrete reason for hope in the ongoing battle against overbearing FDA cigar regulations. Just over two days later, the FDA announced a “new comprehensive plan” for tobacco regulations, including cigars.

As part of the rollout, the FDA delayed pending deadlines for cigars to be submitted to the agency for the agency’s approval. Critically, the agency noted that cigars with a pending application can be marketed and sold while waiting for the agency’s response. Motions to stay two legal challenges were quickly filed in court supported by attorneys representing the FDA.

The new deadline for pre-market approval is August 2021. So far, other deadlines (for example, warning labels) haven’t been changed as a result of the announcement. However, they still could be changed or delayed in the coming months.

Here are three important takeaways from the announcement:

FDA’s New Approach to Tobacco Regulation Could Benefit Cigars

Premium handmade cigars may have never been the primary target of FDA regulation, but they certainly were collateral damage. By targeting new tobacco products and making them run the gauntlet of the approval process, the FDA would make it exceedingly difficult and costly to introduce new products.

Because the market for cigars (unlike cigarettes and other traditional tobacco products) is vibrant and competitive with hundreds of new products introduced every year, cigars were hardest hit by the requirement for approval of new products. A new policy focused on “harm reduction” could mean major changes for cigarettes. But for handmade cigars, which have never been particularly attractive to youth and are used by adults in moderation, it could mean less regulation.

In the past, while communicating with the FDA, agency officials repeatedly insisted their position is all tobacco is harmful. Further, they insisted they wouldn’t acknowledge (even though everyone knew it) that some tobacco products are significantly less harmful than others. Any doctor not on the FDA payroll would tell you you’re far better off being the average cigar smoker than the average cigarette smoker. But the prior FDA regime refused to utter this truth.

On the other hand, the new focus on harm reduction would be a more scientific approach, which, if followed through, would greatly benefit handmade cigars. It will take a long process, including rule making, to see the ramifications of this new focus, but cigar smokers should welcome it.

Only Congress Can Fix This For Good

While a change in direction at the FDA is certainly welcome, don’t think for a second it is a permanent solution. Even if the FDA does everything the cigar industry hopes, a new administration or head of the FDA could start rule making and undo it all within a year.

Congress gave the FDA the power to regulate the cigar industry to a standstill, and ultimately only Congress can undo it. A bill to repeal to FDA’s jurisdiction over cigars is still needed. The only downside of the current rules being delayed and likely rolled back is that it gives Congress a reason to delay fixing the problem it created, since the worst consequences seem further down the road.

The FDA Leaks to Anti-Tobacco Groups

It may seem small and unsurprising, but it’s worth noting: The move by anti-tobacco groups preceded the FDA’s announcement by just days, which almost certainly happened because news of the upcoming announcement was leaked by insiders to the groups. This is a reminder that while the leadership at FDA may be embracing a new approach, many mid-level and lower FDA officials may not be on board with scrapping the old approach and delaying their enforcement.

This bureaucratic resistance (and their leaks to anti-tobacco advocacy groups) versus the new, more scientific approach of FDA Director Gottlieb will be something worth watching. You can be sure many people in the agency aren’t happy that their focus and work over the past few years has been scrapped, even though their new boss has initiated a new direction for the FDA’s regulation of tobacco.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys