In Cuban, Dominican and Honduran cigar factories decades ago, a man — El Lector, or “he who reads” — used to sit in a chair in front of the rows of cigar rollers bent over their desks. His job was to read to the rollers. The newspaper often sufficed, but it could be anything, really. Most rollers could not read, and, as their job was extremely precise, even more repetitious, the reader gave their work a tempo, and more importantly, it passed the time — a gift, as anyone who’s worked a monotonous task can tell you.
Radio killed the reader. At Martinez Cigars, a cubby hole of a place sandwiched between a bodega and a bridal goods store on Manhattan’s bustling, ugly 29th Street, the radio still plays as the rollers mold their tobacco leaves. There is lector here. The three rollers sit at their chairs, bent slightly over their work desks at the back of the shop, 20 feet from the front door, hands moving like they’re on rails, puffing away on cigars they’ve rolled for themselves, each with a paper coffee cup perched an arm’s length away. Scraps of torn tobacco leaves overflow from their desks onto their laps and festoon the floor below like expensive sawdust. Sometimes the rollers are quiet; often they listen to customers talk or whistle along to the radio’s samba beat; but mostly, they banter.
“They need to occupy themselves with something,” says Chris Gomez, a four-year employee of the store. “They have a special bond: he bothers him, he bothers him. That’s how they pass their time. Talkin’ — ‘What are your kids doing’, ‘how are your kids doing in school’.”
“Not a lot of people are doing it like this any more. When you put your hands on it, you’re actually doing it, there’s your face in the cigar.”
Martinez Cigars has been around 41 years. It’s one of the only New York chinchales, small stores where cigars are still rolled by hand, in house. Today, in New York City and elsewhere, it’s far more common for stores to sell big brands from the Caribbean, like Cohiba, Punch, Ashton and Alec Bradley, or to have their own blends rolled for them off site. Martinez is packed every weekday afternoon, and its in-house rolling is a big part of that; Gomez says the sight of the rollers at work stops passersby in their tracks every day. But these men aren’t just an attraction. They’re the beating heart of a thriving shop. Bared for all to see, they bring smokers that much closer to their beloved cigars. And, whether you love smoking cigars or not, to watch them work is to experience rote task transformed into artistry.
“It’s very important because it’s a lost art,” says Gomez. “Not a lot of people are doing it like this any more. When you put your hands on it, you’re actually doing it, there’s your face in the cigar.”
Rolling You Can Accomplish
It might take years to master cigar rolling, but its smaller cousin, the cigarette, has a much quicker learning curve. Here’s how to do it.
1. Gather your rolling paper and tobacco, and your filter if you’re using one.
2. Hold the rolling paper correctly: crease down, gum strip on the far fold, between pointer finger and thumb, with your pointer finger on top. Add the filter into the paper’s crease, holding it under the index finger.
3. Evenly distribute tobacco throughout the crease.
4. Fold the paper in half like you’re closing a hot dog roll, then, using pointer finger and thumb on both ends of the paper, holding at the top, above the tobacco, roll back and forth, like you’re making the “money” gesture. This rolls the tobacco into a cylinder shape.
5. Roll the near side of the paper down until it’s flush with the top of the tobacco.
6. Roll the far “top” paper over the top of your bottom paper and tobacco. Continue rolling until all that’s left of the far side is the gum strip; lick this, then finish rolling it.
Marino Rosario sits in the middle of the store’s three rollers (there are two more downstairs) and works the binder and filler of the shop’s cigars — the loose leaves that make up the bulk of the cigar and are usually a mixture of leaves from several countries. This tobacco accounts for only around 30 to 40 percent of a cigar’s flavor; the wrapper, a single thin leaf that covers the outside of the filler and binder, accounts for the rest. But the filler and binder are blends, and it is Rosario who controls these by the leaves he chooses for each individual cigar. This makes Rosario, in essence, the shop’s master blender.
Rosario is a large man, with short-cropped hair that’s retreated from his forehead. The chair he sits on has a red-striped pillow that’s been flattened by years of use. A dusty picture behind the front counter shows him sitting at the same desk, exhaling a thin stream of smoke, cigar in hand. He looks exactly the same sitting at his rolling desk today.
Rosario’s been rolling cigars since 1976, when he went to work at the Montesa Factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic, known as the cigar capital of the world. Five members of his family were also tobacco rollers. He doesn’t speak English, but Gomez translates when I ask him why he’s stuck with it for so long — what he likes about the job. He continues ripping the leaves and placing the shreds inside, essentially creating a cigarette within the tobacco itself, thinking. He speaks Spanish to Gomez. Gomez translates: “It’s my job, I have to love it. But I like to please a person, to see how they smoke a cigar.”
“It’s my job, I have to love it. But I like to please a person, to see how they smoke a cigar.”
The work of Rosario and the other workers is swift but unhurried. Gomez says they work from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day and on average make 150 cigars each, though on some days that number is closer to 250. On an average day, that translates to a cigar every three minutes. The work they fly through is actually incredibly difficult, Gomez says. “It’s about dexterity, and just knowing the feel: ‘How much tobacco am I going to put in it? Is it going to have a tight draw? Is it going to have too much draw?'” The “draw” he’s referring to is how much smoke each pull on the cigar produces for the smoker. A bad draw is like drinking out of a plugged straw; too much doesn’t produce a great experience, either.
Control of this depends entirely on the cigar roller’s hands. Because there is no way for the cigar roller to measure a cigar while they’re rolling it, and because cigars are made in all different diameters — called “ring gauges”, which measure the diameter by 64ths of an inch — and lengths, the roller must operate by feel alone to create cigars that can fit into a tight mold on demand. Rosario’s hands are darkened by tobacco leaves and look like worn calfskin, and it takes me a while to pick up why they look so fast: he uses them on delicate leaves with brutal bluntness. There is no hesitation as he tears them apart, no pause as he transitions from ripping to condensing to rolling. In a span of seconds, he’s transformed several dark leaves into a near-perfect round tube packed full — but not too full — and jammed it into a wood mold. It’s a perfect fit.
When I ask him how he learned to roll with such ease, Rosario’s answer comes easily, as well. “He says, ‘By rolling tobacco’,” Gomez tells me with a grin.
Which is why cigar rollers in the US tend to be older men from countries like the Dominican Republic (where the bulk of cigars in America are from), Nicaragua and Honduras, where they spend years learning their craft in cigar factories that continue to produce for export in mass numbers. It’s not exactly a “lost art”, as Gomez calls it, but it is one that has practically no feeder program — outside of the smaller, high-end chinchales in the States.
Gomez says Rosario has showed him the basics — “he’ll teach anybody that wants to learn,” he explains with a nod — but his cigars were a lost cause, mangled, unsmokable. I ask Gomez why he doesn’t start practicing more, and he shakes his head. “It’s difficult work,” he says. “Difficult work.”
1 Treat the tobacco right. The store’s tobacco is delivered from a range of origins — including Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — in bales. Once delivered, it’s kept in the basement in a controlled humidity environment and sprayed with water to keep from spoiling.
2 Train your hands. This takes years of practice, which most rollers gain by working in cigar factories in the Caribbean. The task of rolling is about finger strength, dexterity and speed, but harder still — and what separates a proficient roller from one without a job — is the muscle memory required to roll the correct “ring gauge” (diameter, measured in 64ths of an inch) on demand. This has much to do with how much tobacco is placed in the initial bundle of leaves. Generally, the larger the gauge, the harder the cigar is to roll. After not rolling for several days, Rosario needs to warm up on smaller cigars before he can roll larger gauges.
3 Understand the different types of leaves: filler, binder, and wrapper. Filler leaves make up the bulk of the cigar’s tobacco, and are most often a blend of tobacco from different regions, often grouped into volado (which burn well), seco (more mild), and ligero (add the most flavor); wrapped inside a binder leaf, filler makes up about 40 percent of a cigar’s flavor. The wrapper covers the exterior of a cigar, is a whole single leaf, and makes up close to 60 percent of the flavor.
4 Roll the filler and binder. Rosario places the binder leaf flat on his rolling desk after removing the stem. Piling several filler leaves in the palm of his hand, vertically, he tears the bottoms off flat and places the scraps inside, then tightens the roll of leaves into a rough shape; this is the moment when the tightness of the roll and amount of tobacco defines the cigar’s ring gauge. He places the tube diagonally across the binder leaf, and then rolls it across his desk in quick spurts until it’s fully wrapped. In a device that resembles a paper cutter, he measures the tube to the right length and cuts the end square.
5 Press. This tube goes into a wooden or plastic mold with 10 slots of the correlating ring gauge, which is then placed into a press. The larger the cigar, the longer it has to stay there to gain its final shape — most are pressed between 30 and 45 minutes.
6 Roll the wrapper. These molded leaves are removed from their press by the second roller, who handles the wrapper leaves. These are especially soft and pliable, and supply 60 to 70 percent of the cigar’s flavor. Each wrapper is cut using la chaveta, a rounded blade, to a long, thin shape, and then again the filler and binder are placed diagonally across on the desk and rolled inside of it. The tail of the wrapper leaf is trimmed into a pointed shape with la chaveta, then wrapped around the end of the cigar using tree sap to create la capa, or the cap, which the smoker will cut off and draw out of. On larger cigars, a circular metal tool is used to cut a second cap, also applied using tree sap.
6 Age. A fresh cigar, Gomez explains, tastes something like “wet laundry”. That’s remedied by aging for between three and six months. During the aging process the cigars are stored in a walk-in humidor that keeps them from drying out; the extra time rids the cigars of excess moisture and allows the flavors of the different leaves to mellow together.