The series of steps is relatively simple, but you know immediately that you cannot do it yourself without serious practice. César Cruz, the cigar roller for Urs “don Ursulo” Thoma, makes it look simple.
He operates next to a cigar press, on a small table, in the smoking room of the Little Havana Cigar Lounge in San José’s historic Barrio Amón district.
“It’s a very complicated process,” Thoma says. “Because we are a small manufacturer, we have only one or two rollers. Usually they work in pairs of two. One knows how to put the tobacco together and the other knows how to put on the wrapper.”
But Cruz is a one-man machine. He grabs the center of a leaf, wraps it around his wrist, rips off the vein in the blink of an eye. He takes leaves from different regions, rolling them together for the center of the smoke, its flavor.
But don’t ask Thoma about his blend. That is top secret.
“What we say is we have the best mix of tobacco in Central America,” Thoma says.
“There is one leaf that is special for the aroma. One weak one. One from the bottom of the plant for flavor. If you want a strong cigar, you have to go higher up the plant.”
It was a circuitous route to cigar manufacturing for Thoma, who worked at his native Switzerland’s embassy and was smoking a cigar in Havana, Cuba, when the idea popped into his head.
“We started back in 1999 when I was in Havana,” Thoma says. “I thought, ‘Geez, it would be really nice to make your own cigars.’ Switzerland has always had a huge tradition of manufacturing cigars even though the climate is bad.”
In fact, two of the five biggest cigar manufacturers were located in the European nation during the U.S. Civil War, when they exported 10 million stogies a month to the feuding states.
Cruz rips off the ends of the bunched-up cigar guts and rolls them in a bigger leaf. He uses a hand blade to slice the paper in the right places, carving a tiny circle that he will put on the end with special organic glue. It is a combination of yuca (cassava) and water that bubbles up into a paste. The cigar is almost finished. Cruz’s skill is impressive.
“You have to stick with quality on all levels,” Thoma says. “You can’t find Costa Rican cigar rollers. (Cigar companies) are using Nica workers. Many Cuban families moved to Nicaragua during the revolution in the ’50s.”
Cruz is one of that country’s crop, from Estelí, Nicaragua, a center of cigar production, and Thoma uses blends from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other places to perfect his concoctions.
The cigar, along with several others Cruz has rolled, is entered into the vice-like press. He turns the wheel at the top, causing the device to crank closed. After 20 minutes, perfect cigars emerge, ready to be lit up.
“The cigars have different strengths,” Thoma says. “The most popular are the Robusto and the Torpedo.”
The two types represent part of the 15 styles Thoma produces, ranging in size and price from the $0.80 mini to the $15 massive Doble Torpedo. Despite the accolades, the don doesn’t envision his product being mass-produced.
“Our goal is not to become a company with 20 rollers,” Thoma says. “You have to control the quality. This is a precise work.
One millimeter off can affect the burn. Many things can go wrong: a bad rolling job, bad tobacco, if you store it badly.”
The complexity of the art is something Thoma would like to show the aficionados who smoke his product firsthand. He hopes to let them try their luck at it in the near future.
“The future plan is to offer cigar shows here for five or six people – everybody will have the chance to roll their own cigars – and offer this as a special activity to cigar lovers,” Thoma says.
With Cruz monitoring, the cigars should be smokable, even if not perfect. Thoma envisions a group of avid smokers paying $150 to $200 for the experience. He thinks seeing what goes into making a cigar will increase people’s appreciation of the process.
“I find that even after they’ve been smoking 10 to 20 years, they don’t know how it’s made,” Thoma says.
And the rolling process is only scratching the surface. The tobacco is harvested once per season and left in dry hanging for about two months, then placed in piles to ferment for up to three years, then stored for at least three months. Thoma estimates each cigar is touched by someone 140 times before it is smoked.
“That is why you can’t produce cigars as an industrialized product,” he says.
Thoma hopes to expand even further with the help of his ally in the process, Little Havana Cigar Lounge owner Eddie Cruz, not related to César the roller.
“We’re looking to get into landing a big cigar festival here,” Cruz says. “We’re working on a business plan now. We’re going to figure out the necessary politics.”
The smoke curls around the room. The cigar is excellent, not too mild and not too strong. Soon, groups of tourists may be in the room smoking their handiwork together. And, not long after that, large groups may be hitting the streets of San José to revel in the majesty of the local puro.
Don Ursulo Cigars
Don Ursulo cigars can be bought at the Little Havana Cigar Lounge in Barrio Amón (Ca. 3b, Av. 9/7, 2257-8624), at select hotels around the country and online at www.donursulo.com. To contact Urs Thoma, call 2442-3542 or 8387-2624, or e-mail email@example.com.