Smoke Rings: Talking Pre-Industry with Steve Saka

Welcome to another episode of Smoke Rings. For this installment, we're joined once again by a very special guest, our good friend Mr. Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust. Tune in as Steve and I discuss some of the more nuanced and seldom talked-about sides of cigar making, including sourcing raw materials, fermentation, pre-industry processing, and the different approaches to blending.

Note: The following transcription has been edited for clarity and brevity.

[Shane Ireland]: Thanks for joining us, Steve. So all too often, we as cigar smokers tend to focus on the blending part of the manufacturing process. But, as we were discussing earlier, the sourcing of the raw materials is something that I find particularly fascinating. That said, there's not really a lot of information out there about it. Now you've got a little bit of experience with sourcing raw materials. Can you walk us through your process?

[Steve Saka]: In our industry, we have this adage that says a cigar is good long before it ever hits the factory floor. And it's true. The materials are what are really critical to the process. It's more than simply buying really good raw ingredients. It's also how you treat those ingredients, because the fermentation and the aging processes are so critical. We call these techniques pre-industry processes, and it's where we're doing all the sorting, selecting, grading, and fermentation.

People tend to romanticize processes on the factory level, but that's really the last three minutes of a three-year or longer process. Makers can't produce a great cigar if the materials aren't great to begin with, or if they're not ready for production. And vice versa: if the materials aren't super great, factories can't make them into a great cigar either. So pre-industry the part of cigar making that's actually the most important. These processes have such a major impact on what the tobaccos ultimately become. And it's in these processes where you'll find the most differences. We as makers, we're all buying from relatively all the same farmers; there are a lot of materials that are commonly shared among all of the makers. So it's really how you work those materials in pre-industry that make them unique and individual to each brand.

For example, when I was working in an executive position for JR Cigar, I learned how to ferment Connecticut Broadleaf from a gentleman named Frank Llaneza, who was the owner and the master maker at the Villazon factory. They were the manufacturers of Joya and Punch back when it was an independently family-owned business. Frank always pushed broadleaf to really high temperatures. He liked to pump it up to like 138-148, and get really aggressive with it. And that was the way that I learned how to do it. Then when I went to Drew Estate, we tried doing it that way and I was never really content with the tobacco. So we started modifying the techniques that Frank taught me. We started dialing it down a bit. We started increasing the duration but at a much lower temperature. Many more turns, far less water, getting the bulk sizes to be a different weight, etc.

We found that it actually worked better for us if we did it at this temperature, if we did it at this many turns, if we did it at this moisture level. And what ends up happening is, even though you're working with the same Connecticut Broadleaf that anybody else in the industry could buy, employing those individual techniques in the fermentation cycles ultimately made the leaf a much different leaf. Which brings me back to what I said earlier: Good cigars are made long before they ever get to the factory. Factories are about standards, practices, methodologies, etc. The magic really happens before the factory.

Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust's Muestra de Saka Unicorn Diademas Deluxe

Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust: Muestra de Saka Unicorn Diademas Deluxe

[SI]: That's so interesting. See, I've been smoking cigars for a long time, and I've done a fair bit of research myself. I'm still a novice, for sure, but when it comes to the fermentation process and other aspects of pre-industry, it always seemed like these blanket statements that I just assumed were exactly the same for everybody.

[SS]: There are tremendous deltas in the fermentation process, and there's also a bit of art to it too. Going back to Connecticut Broadleaf, for example, most consumers like it really dark. They like it really black. But the reality is that there's always a point where you push it too far: you're achieving more color and aesthetic, but you're sacrificing oil and flavor. So sometimes it's actually better to arrest that bulk earlier, and it actually tastes better even if it doesn't necessarily look better on the cigar. The flavor is much more pronounced. It's much more rich. So you have to determine when to bring this down, when to break it apart, and there are a lot of little techniques there. For example, you can go into resting bulks that are much lower in weight to give the tobacco time to breathe before you go into another fermentation.

There's a sourdough kind of starter method of fermenting where a bulk never ends; you are constantly adding new to an existing bulk. And when you're breaking down the bulk, you're pulling out the tobaccos that are ready to go and you're introducing new tobaccos. And you have tobaccos that are at various stages of fermentation all within the same bulk. You're always going in and out.

But there's not any one standard way to do this, and it's really where you see the greatest delta. When you look at particular factories, their tobaccos tend to have a certain genre to them. Most of the tobaccos that Pepin Garcia works, for example, tend to be a bit spicier. Part of that profile is, of course, the tobacco he's working with, but it's also the techniques he employs at the pre-industry level that give him that type of result for the cigars that he ultimately wants to blend. So you can really dictate what those ingredients are by how you work them, how you use them — between moisture, time, temperature, number of turns, duration.

These are very technical processes, but they're hard to quantify, because it's all done a little bit by touch. It's done a little bit by feel. You can't just universally say, I want this bulk to go to 122 degrees and when it reaches 122 degrees, then I want you to turn it. It doesn't work that way. You have to listen to the tobacco. The tobacco will speak to you. It will tell you what it needs. It'll tell you what it doesn't like. And you only learn that through time and experience.

[SI]: So I've got a couple followup questions. So you're known for being pretty hands-on when it comes to blending and pre-industry sourcing of the materials. I'd like to hear about your approach to your blends, particularly the Dunbarton stuff in recent years. How much of those cigars are designed around a vision that you had for a specific blend, and how much of it is the raw components before you even started blending?

[SS]: So there are three primary ways that cigars come into existence. The first way is that you have one particular material that is the cornerstone that you're going to develop around. You have this particular tobacco and you want to showcase it in some way, and you're going to develop a blend that's going to work with that one specific tobacco and present it in the best possible light. That's the first way.

Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust: Sobremesa Brûlée Double Corona

Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust: Sobremesa Brûlée Double Corona

The second way is to have kind of a genre of cigar in your mind. I want to make a mild, creamy, soft cigar. I want to make an intricate, balanced, nuanced cigar. I want to make a really peppery, fiery, spicy cigar. And then you drive towards blending something to fit this category.

The third way, which regretfully has become probably the most prominent in recent years, is to have the sales and marketing weenies in the states say, "well Brand X is selling really well, and we don't have anything really like it. So we need to make something that tastes like that cigar over there." And then they just task the factory with making something that tastes like Cigar X, because Cigar X is selling great and we need our own X. Regretfully, too many cigars today are made that way. And as a result, it's very seldom that the brands or blends that come behind like that ever end up eclipsing the cigar that was selling the best. Being second to the table is not a winning proposition. But people still do it nonstop.

In my case, #1 and #2 are the only ways. And it depends on the brand. With Sobremesa Brulee, for example,I knew that I wanted to make a softer, creamier, milder Connecticut. But I also wanted to have some richness; I wanted it to have some depth and texture. Similarly, Todos Las Dias started because there was a particular tobacco from the Angelica farm in Jalapa that I really fell in love with. I wanted to showcase that Angelica tobacco, and that was the impetus for Todos Las Dias. That cigar could have gone a multitude of different directions, but I kind of let the tobacco direct me to where I thought it best showcased the leaf.

[SI]: That makes a lot of sense. So being heavily involved at the pre-industry stage is just adding a large degree of control over the whole process, in a way that simply blending from raw components does not?

[SS]: Well, most people aren't ever blending from raw components. Many are, however, blending from tobaccos that other people have processed and finished. It's like going to the grocery store and picking out your ingredients — saying, "Oh I like this cheese, let me see what sort of dish I can put together with it." By contrast, the pre-industry level is like being the cheese maker and deciding how much moisture, how much salt, how firm you're gonna allow it to go, how long you're going to age that cheese. There are a million different blue cheeses and there are a million different goudas. And yet they all have their own nuance and they all have their own characteristics. And knowing the techniques to make this gouda more nutty or that gouda more creamy, that's really where you start to get into the intricacies that allow you to create something that's really unique and special.

[SI]: Yeah, thanks for the clarification. Actually when I said raw components, I misspoke. What I was trying to ask about is processed leaf that has not been rolled yet. That's a mental switch that I'm even having a hard time flipping.

[SS]: Sure, but sometimes there's a combination.There are some materials that I buy that are fully processed. There are some things that Oliva Tobacco or the Perez family do. Perez, for example, does this hybridized Esteli plant of Criollo, and they have a very unique fermentation process. And it actually ends up looking kind of ugly (it almost looks burnt), so if you're judging that tobacco blindly, you would say this is all bad. But because the technique that they employ, it offers a very unique flavor profile that can't be duplicated by anybody else. So that's an example of a material that I buy already processed from the Perez family.

Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust: Todos Las Dias Double Wide Belicoso

Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust: Todos Las Dias Double Wide Belicoso

[SI]: This all has been really enlightening for me personally, Steve. As a novice, though, I did have a couple of questions. Back to the pre-industry stuff, can you just give us a little bit of a general overview? You talked about arresting the bulk and turning it. What do these phrases actually mean?

[SS]: Okay well, arresting a bulk is when you break apart a bulk (also called a pilón) and you cease the fermentation process. Fermenting tobacco is essentially controlled composting. During fermentation, the tobacco will naturally start to heat up in the center. And if you let it go, it will burn. It will rot just like you're making mulch in your backyard. Turning helps avoid that. Turning is when we actually take the bulk and we move the tobaccos that are in the center of the bulk to the outside, and we move the tobaccos at the bottom of the bulk to the top, etc. By doing those turns, you end up with an even fermentation across all the tobaccos in the bulk. So that's what we call a turn of the bulk.

Resting of a bulk is (note: resting versus arresting) is when you have a bulk that isn't fermenting and needs a little bit of a break, a little rest. So what we'll do is we'll break that 4,000 pound bulk into smaller mini-bulks, mini-pilones or piles, and we'll just give it a rest — sometimes for a week, sometimes three weeks. Resting gives the tobacco some more air and lets it kind of freshen up a bit. One it's rested sufficiently, then we'll put the bulk back together to continue the process.

[SI]: Perfect. Well, Steve, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us. And thanks everybody for watching. And I hope it was as informative for y'all as it was for me. So much goes into these cigars way before they've been bunched, way before they've been rolled. And I feel like I've gained a greater appreciation for the leaf and the nuance, and how easy it is to ruin it, or how easy it is to make a happy accident. It's remarkable how much work and love goes into it.

[SS]: Look, I mentioned this to you probably yesterday, but the thing that I love about the cigar business is our customers want the cigars to be amazing. They add value to their life. They're for moments of solace. They're for moments of relaxation. They're for moments of enjoyment. When it's done really well, they genuinely appreciate that. And that's something that makes our business very unique, and very rewarding.

[SI]: Right. The sacred leaf. Thank you so much guys. We'll see you next time and thanks again, Steve.

[SS]: Pleasure's all mine.

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