Light me up another Cuban stogie.
BEIRUT: Simply from the way one cuts and lights their stogie, the trained eye can tell whether the smoker is an amateur or true cigar aficionado. Though there is no single way to enjoy a cigar, the best indicator of a "deep smoker" is deep appreciation.
The number of cigar connoisseurs in Lebanon has increased with the growth of a cigar culture, say Ziad Zeidan and Wael Zeidan of Phoenicia Trading, the company behind La Casa del Habano cigar shops, Beirut Duty Free and the exclusive importers of Cuban cigars to Lebanon.
Within the top five largest importers of cigars worldwide, Lebanon is the largest market for Cuban cigars in the Middle East and La Casa del Habano at the Beirut Airport Duty Free is the No. 1 point of sale of Cuban cigars in the world, according to Phoenicia Trading figures.
"Comparing per capita cigar consumption, [Lebanon is] No. 1 by far in the world," adds Wael, who works as the executive manager of the Lebanese local market for Phoenicia trading, managing the Casa del Habano retailers in the country.
While excellent cigars are made in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and even the United States, the penchant in Beirut is for Cubans and Cubans alone -- especially Cohibas.
According to La Casa del Habano sales figures, the most popular cigar brands in Lebanon -- in order of rank -- are Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo & Juliet, Partagas and Hoyo de Monterrey.
"In Lebanon, not only in cigars, people go for brand names. And in Lebanon, the most well-known brand is Cohiba, the most popular cigar in the world," explains Hassan Tfaily, the hotel beverage manager of the Movenpick Hotel and Resort Beirut and the resident cigar expert at their Hemingway's Bar and Cigar Lounge.
Yet, the popularity of cigars within the Cuban brands varies -- in size and by limited editions or reserves. The top-selling individual cigars in Lebanon are the Cohiba Robusto, the Cohiba Siglo VI, the Cohiba Behike 56, the Montecristo Edmundo and, finally, the Partagas Serie D #4.
These particular cigars follow a trend of Lebanese smokers preferring the Robusto size -- also known the world over as a "business" size for it can be smoked conveniently over the course of a business meeting or lunch. Yet cigar preferences in Lebanon have recently drifted to larger sizes with smokers preferring medium plus gauge cigars, says Wael.
"For the last three years there are some sizes bigger than the Robusto that have become popular. These cigars are bigger in thickness, like the Behike 56, the Tubo size of Montecristo, and the Partagas Serie P. This is the trend right now," states Wael, adding that another popular feature of cigars in Lebanon is for the "maduro capa," or a very dark wrapper, which signals the cigar has been aged longer.
Prices for Cuban cigars can differ depending on whether you buy them in a shop, duty free or a cigar lounge. Tfaily says that the average price for cigars at Hemingway's comes in at around $25, emphasizing that many of his customers are often smoking with friends and aiming to impress by their cigar choice.
The average cost for a Cuban cigar in Lebanon according to La Casa del Habano is just under $12 -- but many factors can affect the pricing. For instance, the prestigious Cuban brands each produce grand reserve or limited edition cigars each year, at a premium.
Regardless of the cost, Ziad, who heads business development for Phoenicia Trading and is the son of the company's CEO, maintains that if a cigar is Cuban it is of high quality, regardless of category.
"Cuba has the exact soil, the exact location, the perfect mix. It's just a blessed land. The soil is full of minerals -- you can throw beans on the ground and a plant will spring up. Of course, the production, the quality control and the experience of the cigar makers is unparalleled."
Going for a Cuban, though, can be an easy way for smokers to reach for status. "Mainly the [choice of] cigar in Lebanon depends on the people that are sitting with you, this is the truth. I know some people who come [to Hemingway's] during the day alone. They have one coffee and take their cigar. They maybe smoke a $1 cigar. If they come here at night with friends and colleagues to smoke cigars, they bring out the expensive cigars to show off," says Tfaily.
Wael acknowledges that many people will smoke cigars to be "in," but estimates that about 80 percent of La Casa del Habano customers are educated cigar smokers -- partially due to the efforts the company makes to move smokers from amateurs, to professionals and, eventually, aficionados.
The idea, explains Ziad, is to help customers identify which cigar best fits their palette. The lightest cigars are generally H. Uppman and Hoyo de Monterrey, while the medium range is comprised of Cohibas. Partagas and some of the Cohiba cigars -- for instance, the Behikes -- make up the strongest end of the spectrum.
In the end, what defines a cigar connoisseur is appreciation, he says.
"If you don't appreciate the cigar then you are not a deep smoker. If you are just smoking it to raise your status you are not a smoker. You have to belong to it, you have to understand it and give it value. It's all about appreciation and it is present in most of the smoking scene in Beirut."
It is especially important to cultivate this familiarity and appreciation among Lebanon's cigar smokers as a way to help them recognize counterfeit cigars on the market, which Wael calls "a big problem."
He describes a 2005 survey conducted in Beirut's cafes examining Cohibas -- the most popular and therefore most frequently copied cigar -- which found that two of every five cigars were counterfeits.
Through media campaigns and by working with the government, Phoenicia Trading has been trying to raise awareness among cigars consumers and help them detect fake Cubans.
"The first thing is to look at the box. The original is made out of cedar wood. Why cedar? Because it's very strong and almost neutralizes the humidity on the inside of the box. The second characteristic is the color of the cigar itself, and then if you light it, the smell of the cigar. If you're not sure, you can go to the Habanos website and enter the serial number on the box to check if it is registered. It's quite easy but most of the people don't bother, they just send them as gifts because they're not aware," Ziad explains.
Another tip to detect fakes, Wael recommends, is to test the weight of the cigar -- each Cuban cigar has a set weight that you can become familiar with over time.
Becoming an expert and buying your cigars from a trusted vendor are the best measures to avoid counterfeits.
"We educate our clients by supplying them with all the information about cigars, how to appreciate the good cigar from not good. With time, all cigar smokers get to know the brands from the smell, the look, the box, the taste."
Copyright 2012, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.
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