Cigar Roller Popular at Pop's

BYLINE: By Mark Lowry, McClatchy Newspapers
May 13, 2008 Tuesday
FORT WORTH, Texas _ Adonis Arteaga's hands are careful and precise, like a surgeon's.

He's not working with flesh and bone, though, but with the inner and outer details of a cigar.

The 38-year-old Cuban, who has been hand-rolling cigars professionally for 18 years, was the star attraction at a demonstration hosted on behalf of the Miami-based Guantanamera cigar line at Pop's Safari Room in Fort Worth. Outside, it was a balmy spring day; inside, the air was filled with fragrant tobacco smoke.

Using a Bronze Age-looking metal knife called a chaveta, straight on one side with a curved cutting edge, Arteaga gracefully sliced soft tobacco leaves for the cigars' wrappers after he ripped out each leaf's middle vein, tearing it from the tip and then twisting it around his fist.

From his small work table, he then took four specimens from stacks of dry, leathery leaves from Honduras, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (which rivals Cuba for the best tobacco), rolled each into a cylinder and bunched them together to make the cigar's innards. These were all folded into the wrapper leaf, rolled into the cigar and glued together with a light coat of a substance made from cornstarch. He then rolled the cigar with strips of newspaper and set it aside to dry.

It was fascinating to watch for both the novice and aficionado cigar smokers who regularly unwind at Pop's, a wild-but-homey bistro and cigar lounge near Fort Worth's Cultural District. Here, customers range from young professionals to hipsters to been-around-the-block types, discussing everything from the presidential primaries to Fidel Castro and bar fights.

Even die-hard cigar fans know that it takes special skills to roll a good cigar that burns.

"It takes 12 years as an apprentice to become certified in Cuba as a master roller," says Guantanamera vice president of sales Harvey James. Arteaga, whose shaved head is as smooth as his technique, began his tabaquero career with nine months in cigar-rolling school in Cuba.

Pop's, which carries about 300 lines of stogies and 10,000 cigars when fully stocked _ and also houses personal humidors for customers who want to stash cigars there _ holds hand-rolling cigar demonstrations such as this about three times a year, says owner Perry Tong.

At this event, they were giving away the recently rolled cigars, but "don't smoke them until tomorrow, so the glue can properly dry," warned James. "They're better on the second day."

Pop's also sold ready-to-smoke Guantanamera cigars that day, from a variety of toros, duros, coronas, robustos and other types, all with varying ring gauges, to eager customers.

Gary Emmert, a regional coordinator for a gas drilling company, left with a box of two of each kind, racking up a $200 bill.

"I wanted to try them all," Emmert said.

Cigar rollers frequently work private parties, fundraisers and corporate functions, charging up to $500 an hour for their services.

"There is a growing demand for cigar rollers at events," says Tong.

Indeed, "any good-quality cigar is hand rolled," added James, "and people like to see how it's done."

As for Arteaga, he can sit and roll at these demos for up to 10 hours, taking only a few breaks. Throughout the process, he usually has one lit for himself, enjoying the rich flavor of a double corona."To roll good cigars," he said, "you have to appreciate smoking them."

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Texas)

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service