We are approaching that time of year when conscientious cigar collectors look to their humidors with concern and trepidation. Well, concern anyway. I’ll reserve the trepidation for myself. Tobacco beetles, mold, the perfect RH and temp for aging my precious smokes — all these worries infect my otherwise pacific pastime.
And I know I’m not alone. I’m always surprised when I look at the hit counts for this blog and see that our All Time Most Popular Post is not a remarkably incisive review of the hottest new release from Pepin. It’s a short throwaway post about mold on cigars. (See this post for pictures of the afflicted.)
“Is it mold or plume?”
That is the question. The cigar is fuzzier than a two week old kitten, but Polonious behind the register is telling you it’s “aging very nicely.” Fuzz factor aside, it normally takes years to develop bloom on a cigar. Unless your shop sells vintage cigars, it is unlikely to be plume.
But it’s not often easy to tell the difference between mold and bloom if you don’t know what to look for. The most common type of cigar mold, in my experience, is the white variety that occurs in small patches on the wrapper. Unfortunately I don’t have as much experience with plume (aka bloom) but the distinguishing characteristic is that plume is not patchy like mold is.
Pictured above is a four year old cigar with a very light dusting of plume. It’s really hard to photograph, but it sparkles if turned at the right angle in the light. I adjusted the saturation in an attempt to highlight the crystals. It is far less dramatic, but oh so much more delightful than patches of mold. Vitolas.net has a much better photo of a blooming ’95 Opus X here.
Plume is a crystallization of oils from the cigar wrapper, and it appears as a fine spray of sugar, more or less evenly distributed across the surface of the stick. Mold, on the other hand, is a living and social creature that likes to gather in colonies. Well, maybe not social, but you get the point — it shows up in discrete separate spots, making your cigar look like a petri dish.
Getting tobacco to grow is not hard. Tobacco is a weed (and I like it, to quote the verse) and it will grow wild, unsupervised, with heartfelt abandon. But growing attractive, flavorful tobacco, particularly wrapper leaf for cigars, is not easy. It is hard. Very hard.
Something as uneventful as the fall of a tiny pink blossom from the top of the plant onto the leaf below can damage the leaf, resulting in a blemish, or worse, “blossom rot.”
“If you can’t get to the tobacco on time,” explains Lawrence Palombo (of General Cigar) on a tour of the fields, “it starts flowering, the blossoms drop off onto the leaves below and rot, damaging the leaf.”¹
Years and years of breeding and experimentation have gone into the methods used to produce the golden leaf we love, much of it in an effort to dodge the diseases tobacco is heir to and the pests who would like to beat smokers to the Punch. But it isn’t a perfect science. There is one factor that agronomists and vegueros will never be able to control with precision — the weather.
Nearly all the wrapper anomalies that aren’t attributable to mold or plume are caused by water appearing at inopportune times on the leaf. Most leaves that are damaged in this way never make it to the roller’s table, but occasionally they do. Often the resulting cigars are sold as seconds. Or Havanas.
Controlling moisture is essential. If a curing barn is too humid, there is a danger that the tobacco leaf will become mottled or will rot before drying. On the other hand, overly dry air inhibits the chemical transformations that are necessary for the tobacco to dry properly, leaving green traces of cholorophyll on the leaf. For these reasons, the veguero must open or close the casa’s doors accordingly, carefully maintaining a constant temperature and relative humidity inside.²
Green patches caused by imperfect curing are most commonly found on the delicate claro shade wrappers of Cuba and the Connecticut River Valley. They’re sometimes called “frog eyes” (not to be confused with the more damaging tobacco fungus called “frog-eye leafspot.”) They usually show up as small, relatively minor blemishes like those pictured here. They are clearly discolorations and not growths like mold.
It isn’t clear to me exactly what causes these green spots, but it appears that excess moisture at some point in the process causes patches or streaks in the leaf to resist curing.
“The rain prevented the tobacco from maturing the way it should,” says David Perez (of ASP in Ecuador.) “We had a lot of green spots, a lot less yield per acre…”
Tobacco grown during the El Niño years is easy to spot. Some is subtly marred, with a few green spots on the wrapper known as frog eyes. These spots usually aren’t detectable in the fields, but the eyes blossom in the curing barn as the moisture is drawn from the tobacco.³
While there doesn’t appear to be a singular cause of green spots, the important thing is that they really are harmless. They detract from the overall appearance of the wrapper, but they don’t affect the flavor or burning quality of an otherwise perfect cigar.
The other common imperfection of the harmless type is the water spot. These usually occur as very light yellowish-white circular patches that stand out against the light brown of a shade grown wrapper.
It is commonly believed that drops of rain water sitting on the leaf cause damage to the chlorophyll in the leaf, eventually affecting the curing process so that instead of degrading from green to brown, the pigment in the spot turns lighter than normal.
Spots are about the size of a pinhead, random, and generally lighter than the wrapper. Althrough there has been some debate about what causes the spots, the general concensus is that these are just splashes of water that have marred the leaf.
Remember that wrapper leaf is very delicate, and can be bruised by something as seemingly harmless as a steady pelting of rain. The spots of water then act as lenses to focus sunlight on these points and slightly discolor the leaf.4
The causes of wrapper imperfections are varied, and in the final analysis not all that important. What is important is to be able to differentiate between mold and harmless flaws. Mold can destroy a cigar, whereas small leaf spots are almost always harmless. And if you are lucky enough to have a blooming, pluming box of vintage smokes — then, my friend, you have done very well for yourself indeed.
- “Wrapped Up: Some of the World’s Best Cigars Use Connecticut Tobacco Wrapper Leaves” Cigar Aficionado, Winter 1992
- The Havana Cigar: Cuba’s Finest, Charles Del Tedesco. Abbeville Press, 1997
- “Land of Fire: Ecuadoran Cigar Wrapper Tobacco Thrives in a World of Volcanoes and Perpetual Cloud Cover” Cigar Aficionado, March/April 2000
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cigars, Ted Gage. Alpha, 1997