The world of cigar testing is very broad and complex. We decided to examine with Amaury Borges Miranda, MSc the various areas and testing methods that can be applied in the cigar world.
Being produced for human consumption, premium cigars should of course have a consistently high quality. They are tested in numerous ways to confirm compliance with the expected quality characteristics. In the broad sense, quality properties range from physical, chemical, and sensory specifications. Cigar testing comprises several methods that can be grouped into four major categories:
- Chemical analysis of the finished product or of the raw materials
- Machine smoke analysis
- Expert sensory evaluation
- Consumer tests
The objective of this article is to outline the new knowledge available to the industry. It is not our goal to describe or comment on the testing methods applied by regulatory bodies. Also, we are aware of the fact that there are feasibility and resources constraints, which we will discuss in our conclusion.
Chemical analysis of the cigar or of the raw materials
This is the broadest category. It involves measuring:
- chemical compounds that are considered precursors of substances present in the smoke, which are in turn responsible for the sensory characteristics of the cigar
- constituents that can be subject of health concerns, like nicotine, tobacco specific nitrosamines and aromatic amines
- substances that can be present inside the tobacco for several reasons, like residues of crop protection agents and heavy metals.
Some molecules can be classified in more than one of these sub-categories.
The information generated by this type of testing is useful during raw materials (tobacco) purchasing and for the quality evaluation of the final product. Using objective chemical information, a manufacturer can ensure the raw materials purchased present certain desirable qualities while avoiding raw materials with high levels of undesirable residues of contaminants.
A wide range of test procedures can be used to analyze the concentration of chemical substances inside the cigars and their raw materials. In all cases the basic process involves sampling, sample preparation and analysis. The complexity of the analysis phase is chosen based on the chemical and physical properties the tester seeks to measure, and usually determines the cost of the analysis. Measuring residues of crop protection agents requires special technologies capable of detecting minimal amounts of the contaminants that should be analyzed separately. This is also the case when any substances are subject to regulations by health authorities. Measuring residues of heavy metals involves destruction of the organic materials present in the plant tissues and analyzing the samples taking advantage of the absorption or emission properties of the atoms of heavy metals. For analyzing the precursors sometimes it is sufficient to measure a group of them which usually have similar characteristics from the chemical and physical point of view and contribute with the same sensory property of the cigar. These substances are normally present in a concentration that doesn’t require detection and analysis of very low quantities.
For example, nitrogen-containing substances are present in higher amounts in dark air-cured tobacco than in other tobacco types. They are also abundant with respect to other types of molecules. The alkaloids, mainly nicotine, are part of this group, which also contains molecules responsible for the taste and aroma of dark air-cured tobacco, like pyridines. Tobacco specific nitrosamines, and aromatic amines belong to this group as well. They can be analyzed as a whole under the name of total nitrogen.
Especially for the case of measuring precursors, the analytical methods must collect the right information, sufficiently quickly. Therefore, vibrational spectroscopic techniques could substitute for several conventional analytical procedures which are time consuming. For example, visible and near infrared spectrophotometers use light to scan the milled tobacco, estimating the concentration of several substances (i.e nicotine, total nitrogen, total ash, etc) present in a fast, reliable, accurate and cheap fashion, without using chemical reagents.
(Machine) smoke analysis
Smoke is the essential vehicle for cigar consumption; therefore, smoke analysis is part of the cigars’ testing procedures. Smoke is an aerosol of liquid droplets suspended in a gaseous environment. Conceptually, it can be divided among:
- mainstream smoke, which passes through the cigar and is inhaled by the smoker
- sidestream smoke, which comes out from the lit end of the cigar, especially between puffs
- environmental tobacco smoke, which is the mixture of the sidestream smoke and the smoke exhaled by the smoker, which is moreover dispersed, aged and diluted by air in indoor environments, until it is perceived.
Mainstream smoke is the most important from the analytical point of view, mainly because indoor smoking is already forbidden in most countries.
The analytical procedures for the smoke are considered imitative since they try to reproduce to some extent the behavior of cigar smokers. Smoking machines are used to collect the smoke employing a standardized smoking regimen that involves taking puffs with a fixed volume (determined by the cigar diameter).
Several parameters affect decisively the precision of results of the smoke analysis. Testing the smoke emissions of long filler cigars represents a challenge due to reasons arising from the product itself, and from the procedures of emissions testing. They have been the target of methodological and technical improvements delivered in the form of guidelines by the scientific tobacco community to standardize the procedure of smoke collection.
The smoke analysis can be mainly employed to control the quality of the final product. The results can support the commercialization in case of any regulatory concern. This kind of analysis together with the measurements of cigars’ properties can be employed by manufacturers as a tool for comparing their own products, and for contrasts with other products in the market.
Expert sensory evaluation
Sensory evaluations use adequately trained assessors (tasters) as the “measurement instrument” to judge the quality of a cigar. The tasters should be sufficiently sensitive to detect slight differences among products employing the senses, and have been trained using appropriate methodologies and techniques applying established standards.
The assessments are performed individually but the work is carried out inside a team or tasting panel which gives a high degree of confidence to the results. Most of the organoleptic criteria evaluated for cigars are judged through the appreciation of the smoke. Given the complexity of the sensory properties and the intrinsic variability of tobacco products (especially for cigars), sensory tests are typically not replaced by automated means – this is a strictly human testing method. An appropriate number of samples is necessary to yield an effective result of the sensory expert panel evaluations, as is controlling for sample variability and tester biases.
The activities of sensory evaluations within a cigar company can include (but are not limited to):
- assessing samples of all cigars produced to ensure that all of them attained the expected sensory properties and other quality characteristics
- assisting product development and optimization efforts
- carrying out quality control
- developing improved raw materials specifications
- evaluating stability of cigars and of raw materials over time
- supporting the company in legal issues.
Panels should be created following a scientific methodology that involves:
- volunteer recruitment
- screening of the candidates based on a minimum required level of sensitivity and reliability
- training of the most qualified individuals
The most sensitive individuals are expected to provide descriptions or scores with a high degree of sensitivity and reliability.
In professional panels, as well as at Cigar Sense, training encompasses:
- getting familiar with sensory analysis principles
- getting familiar with the guidance to apply sensory analysis principles
- getting familiar with the vocabulary that should be used
- understanding the measurement scale employed in the analyses and the form in which they need to proceed to evaluate them
- getting practice with the descriptive testing
- last, but not least, discrimination tests among common flavors
In Cuba, the National Commission for the Sensory Evaluation of Cigars is composed of the best five tasters in the four most important cigar factories in the country, comprising a total of 20 subjects. Other qualified individuals from different responsibilities inside the company are also allowed to participate.
Our Cigar Sense panel currently relies on 18 international experts to perform blind tests to yield all the cigar analyses we publish.
These are also referred to as affective testing and are the measure of liking. The panel is typically an important instrument to consumer science, which pursues, as key objective, the understanding of consumer expectations, perceptions and choices with respect to a product.
The difference between a consumer panel and an expert panel is in the training. For a consumer panel it is sufficient to follow the recruitment criteria which, similarly to the expert panel, are typically based on motivation, food preferences, health condition and product knowledge.
Consumers don’t normally use a shared taxonomy, they describe or discriminate based on their own personal taste. In fact they express if they like or dislike a product, but are not expected to determine, for example, the degree of saltiness in a product. A few of the quantitative methods that are frequently used in panel tests are comparisons, rankings or preference rating.
Combining expert panel and consumer panel results enables strategic decision making, for instance:
- identifying a market gap in a company’s production
- understanding key sensory attributes that guide the likes and dislikes of consumer segments
- supporting the launch of new products or the optimization of a portfolio
Consumer panels are also used by manufacturers to gather input and opinions directly, following a controlled method.
Unlike focus groups, consumer panels are usually ongoing and can be reconvened relatively quickly for input. This continuous nature allows opinions to be tracked and updated through various changes and efforts by a company.
Many challenges are imposed on the industry from the scientific, technological, economical and societal point of view:
- the cigar itself and the procedures for emissions testing have many sources of variability
- cigar science is not yet well established or rigorous, especially for long-filler premium cigars
- the cigar production rate is much lower than the one attained, for example, in the cigarette industry
- cigar tobacco production involves small manufacturers, supply chains and farmers
- the production networks have a specialized, traditional and natural character and employ thousands of people in developing countries
- long-filler premium cigars are considered luxury articles
- the segment is pushed by demanding, responsible and informed consumers
- premium products are manufactured with materials carefully produced and chosen among the best ones.
There is strong scientific evidence about the convenience and utility of tests and controls internal to the industry. There are efforts to use alternatives that keep the scientific research to the minimum while maintaining the traditional character of the industry. However, these kinds of controls are still not fully implemented.
Some manufacturers traditionally purchase tobacco from the same farms. In spite of the good practice, every year’s production varies and does not always meet the same quality standards. The blenders in each factory are definitely central experts in applying their empirical traditional knowledge and they are also typically responsible for the procurement of tobacco. They have gained a lot of experience in the selection of raw materials, based on organoleptic appreciation of the tobacco qualities, for the formulations that best produce the desired sensory properties for a given vitola.
No doubt some more “new knowledge” would add considerable strategic value. For instance, the optimal chemical composition of tobacco would be an important goal to set and adjust the agricultural phase and the processing of tobacco produced in specific areas, so that the tobacco leaves can warrant the production of vitolas having sensory properties equivalent to prior productions, respecting the typicality of a brand, or better meeting consumer expectations.
Amaury’s colleagues from Imperial Brands PLC approved collaboration in a research project proposed by him after his first internship in Europe 2010. They realized at that time the importance of starting studies on these subjects.
Sensory evaluations have long been regarded as more related to marketing activities and a minimal amount of scientific knowledge has been used. Today Amaury has accumulated strong scientific evidence about the utility and feasibility of controls and about the direction that must be followed from now on in the sensory program of the Instituto de Investigaciones del Tabaco in Cuba. All the knowledge was gathered from experiences in new products development inside the industry and is now integrated in the research projects.
The Instituto de Investigaciones del Tabaco works in close relationship with the management of Tabacuba and Habanos SA.
We at Cigar Sense thank Amaury for contributing his knowledge and expertise to the creation of this article, and hope that even consumers will find interest in understanding how the state of the art in cigar testing and analysis works to deliver the best possible premium products to their humidors.