Admittedly, I don’t know much about cigars, though I certainly don’t share some people’s revulsion to the smell. I’m not sure if it’s some part of my lizard brain that associates the smoky smell with the haze that clung to my father’s coat after he came home from Knights of Columbus or township Little League meetings, but it’s never put me off.
So when a new beer friend, “Montana Beer” author Ryan Newhouse, invited me to a cigar, beer and whiskey hangout with a few of his serious cigar friends, I jumped at the chance to learn more. I hadn’t dabbled in cigars the way I’d explored other food and beverages, largely in part to cigars’ unspoken protocol that seems somewhat hostile to outsiders: the humidors, the cutting, puffing, lighting, the talk of golf handicaps to which I have nothing to contribute.
With a friendly guide, especially one from the beer world, I was ready for an introduction. I arrived at the private cigar club unsure what to expect besides wingback chairs (check), but I soon found out that the beer and cigar worlds needn’t feel so far apart. The parallels are many.
First, if you’re already accustomed to identifying and savoring the aromas and flavors of your beer, that will serve you equally well in the cigar world. Blackberries, vanilla, licorice … I discovered all of them and found that cigars’ long smoking duration served me well for mulling over what I was smelling and tasting. These flavors derive from the types of tobacco that make up the cigar and its wrapper; premium cigars can use as many as six or seven types of tobacco, all selected and blended by a master cigar blender (hey, that sounds like a beer parallel, too).
Second, the storing of cigars, once so mythic to me, makes reasonable sense if you’ve ever cellared beer. The cigar folks I met told me that some cigars need time for their flavors to coalesce and meld, and to do so ideally they should be stored at proper temperature and humidity, hence the humidor. Some cigar makers will retain their cigars, rolled years earlier, before releasing them while others sell the cigars and individual smokers can choose to hang on to them or enjoy them immediately. Again, a familiar parallel. As with any crop, tobacco has bumper years and less favorable years, not unlike wine grapes or coffee beans. An especially excellent growing season could yield more desirable tobacco and hence, cigars.
Third, the communal smoking of cigars reminded me so much of the beer world. For a while, I felt like I was at a bottle share (in a way, I was … I counted maybe five bottles of Scotch, bourbon and rum on the table, along with a few beers). The cigar smokers I was with swap cigars with each other (after all, you’re usually buying a box of multiple cigars, so it’s easy to trade a few), and told me that trading forums and apps are a large part of their world. There are “white whales” of the cigar world, coveted cigars that have been well-ranked by publications who specialize in such things; and there are personal favorites, like your go-to six-pack that never disappoints.
Fourth, I learned there’s a cult of personality among certain cigar manufacturers that echoes some of the “rock star”-ification of certain brewers. One of the men in the group told me wonderful anecdotes about meeting Carlos Fuente Jr. and Sr., of the Arturo Fuente cigar family at Vegas’ Big Smoke event, the cigar world’s GABF. Photos, autographs … it reminded me of the adoring masses encircling Sam Calagione or Garrett Oliver at GABF. But the whole group emphasized the cigar makers’ humility, the sense that they’re honored to have such fans and are generous with their time, autographs and photo ops. Again, it echoes the best attitudes in the brewing world.
Finally, and most importantly, I learned that cigars are really and truly savored by those who love them. A good cigar takes at least 45 minutes to smoke, and if you paid $10, $15, $20 for that cigar, you’re not going to rush those minutes. “If I’ve had a bad day at work,” one of the smokers told me, “I come home, unwrap that cigar, head out back, maybe with a drink and sit in my chair, undisturbed. After an hour, I’m in an entirely different mindset.”
It reminded me of my favorite beer-drinking moments, not those at crowded bars or under the fluorescent lights of a beer festival, but the intimate ones, with maybe just a few friends, when minutes slip into hours and the beer becomes part of the landscape of the memory we’re making. Cigars seem even more suited to this because of the length of the smoking occasion. Sitting down with these new friends and learning about the passion they have for cigars (and whiskey, and beer) encouraged me to savor my beer longer, to let it mellow and coax out its flavors and consider its pairing potentials in a whole new way. I won’t dip my toe into the cigar-and-beer pairing world yet; that might take a few more visits to the club.