Cigar 101: Cigar Aging – Part Science, Mostly Art
Beginning smokers hear a lot about the importance of aging their cigars, but for many it’s a mystery as to what’s happening in their humidor that makes cigars tastier over time. More experienced aficionados can tell the difference between a cigar fresh from the factory and one that’s had a year to sit around, but this is complicated by the widely varying length of time the manufacturers themselves age their tobacco.
To understand aging, you have to go back to the beginning of the cigar-making process. After the tobacco is harvested, it undergoes curing and fermentation. Curing is done in large barns, where the temperature and humidity are carefully regulated to remove moisture from the tobacco leaves. The tobacco is then piled up in fermentation rooms, where moisture is reintroduced while the leaves are rotated periodically to ensure even fermentation. During this time, the tobacco will emit ammonia as it undergoes a chemical change which creates the delicious tobacco flavors of a fine cigar.
After fermentation, many manufacturers further age their tobacco in bales for months or years to bring out the subtle complexity of each leaf’s unique flavor before blending and rolling. Once the cigar is made, it is left to ‘stabilize’ for a few weeks before shipping to your favorite retailer.
The simplest way to understand aging your cigars is as a direct extension of the manufacturing process. It is rarely necessary to age your cigars before smoking them — though occasionally you may pick up a stick that has a hint of ammonia or some other weird chemically taste. This is a pretty sure sign that it wasn’t aged or stabilized long enough during manufacturing, and might just need a few more months sitting in the humidor. Or it could just be a crappy cigar, in which case there’s not much aging can do for you. But the vast majority of premium cigars you buy are ready to smoke out of the box.
Aging is what makes a good cigar great, though certain cigars age better than others. In general, stronger, larger cigars with more complex blends of tobacco are the best candidates for aging as they have the most potential to develop unique flavor characteristics. Any cigar has the potential to gain complexity and flavor via the aging process, and even a few months can make a difference in marrying the flavors together. But real aging doesn’t take place over months, but rather, years.
So how long should you age your cigar? It’s funny — when I was researching this article I discovered that many leading sources of this information have been plagiarizing each other. A dozen websites each offer the same exact timetable for cigar aging, with just a few words changed here and there. At least it’s easy to find a consensus when they’re all just copying off each other!
The idea with aging length is that one to two years is a great range for any cigar, but as you get up to three or more years of aging, some cigars will have diminishing returns, yet others taste exquisite after even a decade of resting. There aren’t really any hard and fast rules when it comes to aging length — you just have to smoke and see. But there are very strict and important rules when it comes to the environmental conditions of aging a cigar.
On this blog we’ve already addressed whether to leave the cigar in its cellophane and where not to store your cigars. If you’ve set your sticks up right in a properly seasoned and regulated humidor kept at around 70° F and 70% humidity, you have a good shot at aging your stogies gracefully. These figures can be modified slightly as long as they remain consistent. Screw it up and all your sticks will suffer.
What does an aged cigar taste like? One way to describe it is as a refinement of flavor, though it can also amplify certain aspects of a cigar’s taste. No single stick ages in quite the same way, and part of the mystery surrounding the process is that it’s more art than science. Selecting which blend to age, how long to age it, and under what conditions produces enough variables to rack the brain. That’s why aging is usually in the realm of the aficionado, while the beginning smoker need only make sure their sticks have some time to “rest” or stabilize in their humidor before puffing.
As the Stogie Guys point out, even among aficionados there is “little agreement and lots of personal preference” when it comes to the topic of aging cigars. When you realize how integral the aging process is to the manufacture of the cigar, it’s easy to view your stogie storage as a direct continuation. So leave a few choice sticks in the back of your humidor and forget about ’em. It may still be a somewhat mysterious process, but in a year or two you’ll have an interesting opportunity to see for yourself how aging affects your cigar.