Humidity, Temperature, and Aging: A Closer Look – Spirited Smoke

Humidity, Temperature, and Aging: A Closer Look

Most all cigar smokers recognize that the humidity and temperature at which cigars are stored can greatly impact the smoking experience.  Additionally, many afficandos will argue that an aged cigar is a clearly superior smoking experience to a younger cigar. Today we will take a closer look at these three variables and explore how they interact together in altering the smoking experience of cigars.  

Firstly, let me state that, in my opinion, there has not been enough research done on this topic.  While there might be some scientific literature on this topic out there, I believe that long term studies should be done to determine with more certainty how humidity and temperature affect the aging of cigars in the long term so that we can better care for our cigars.  This article with look at competing opinions on this topic, but I certainly can’t say I have the right answers myself.  Now let’s dive in.  

Cigars are hygroscopic, meaning they quickly absorb humidity from a humid environment and quickly lose humidity to a dry environment.  If cigars dry out completely, all of the oils in the tobacco that give cigars their flavor will evaporate and can’t be recovered.  Cigars that have a quick dip in humidity can be largely salvaged if re-humidified, but nothing can save a totally dried out cigar from losing its flavor permanently. 

Cigars are designed to burn at a cool temperature so that the oils and sugars in cigars can blend together allowing complex flavors to be tasted in the smoke.  Cigars that burn too hot will overheat and destroy the oils and sugars in the tobacco.  Hot tobacco smoke is unpleasant, bitter, and acrid: completely devoid of pleasant, complex flavor.

Cigars that are smoked too dry will burn at an accelerated rate and at a hotter temperature, producing the negative characteristics described above.    

On the other hand, high humidity can be just as damaging while smoking cigars.  High humidity causes tobacco leaves to swell, making a cigar pull tightly.  Further, while cigars will burn hot at low humidity, tobacco will have a hard time combusting above a certain level of humidity, meaning you will start experiencing burn problems such as uneven burn (canoeing) or tunneling.  Over-humidified cigars will also frequently have a somewhat bitter, one-dimensional taste in addition to being difficult to smoke.  

The “industry standard” or the “conventional wisdom” on this topic is to store and smoke cigars at 69% RH and 69°F.   However I personally don’t think there is strong evidence to strongly support this general guideline.

First of all, many people argue that different types of tobacco and tobaccos from different countries prefer to be smoked at different humidities.  This seems completely plausible to me, and this is exactly why I say that controlled studies should be done to test these theories on cigar storage conditions.   

Secondly, I tend to personally enjoy cigars at a slightly lower humidity (66%-68%), and I know people who prefer to smoke their cigars below 65% and others who prefer 72%.  Personal preference seems to play a large roll here. Also, since there is a strong possibility that different cigars do better when smoked at different humidities, it is hard to know for sure what is the best humidity for the cigars in your humidor unless you smoke the same cigar at different increments of humidity to decide for yourself what level of humidity is best for that cigar.

My personal opinion on this topic is to stay between 65% RH and 70% RH; however, as I said, some people disagree with me, but I would strongly recommend not going outside of the range of 60% RH – 72% RH when smoking.  I don’t know anybody who smokes regularly who goes outside this range.  

Unless you’re smoking a cigar that is at some kind of extreme temperature, the temperature at which you smoke a cigar seems to have much less impact on the smoking experience.  Some people report that when they smoke outside during the winter, cigars taste a little more dull, and while I’ve never tried smoking a cigar fresh out of an oven, I would probably discourage trying this.  

Basically, unless exposed to extreme conditions, cigars seem to have a wide range of temperature at which they can smoked normally with little change to the smoking experience. 

So far we’ve talked about the humidity and temperature at which cigars should be smoked, but now let’s talk about aging cigars and how temperature and humidity can impact long-term cigar storage.  

First let me note that there is much less knowledge on how temperature, when compared to humidity, affects cigars in long-term storage.  It is important to keep cigars stored below or at least as close as possible to 70°F because temperatures higher than that create a heightened risk that cigar beetles (which are occasionally found in cigars) will hatch and eat their way through your cigars.  Beyond this one guideline to store cigars below 70° there are a lot of opinions on ideal storage temperature, which we will look at momentarily, but no strong support for any of them.  

All cigar tobacco is fermented before being rolled into cigars.  This chemical process releases ammonia and other chemical constituents as a consequence of this process.  Tobacco is also moistened before rolling, which leads to another fermentation. 

The ammonia and other impurities released during fermentation taste bitter and extremely yucky for lack of a better term.  A vast majority of these bitter tastes will be off-gassed during the first few months of aging, and by the end of the first year of aging, nearly all of that ammonia/bitter taste will be gone in my experience.  For this reason, letting a freshly rolled cigar sit for 3-6 months before smoking can make a hugely positive impact in flavor experience.  

There’s a lot of arguments based around science as to why and how aging cigars in excess of a year produces a superior smoke.  I certainly agree that cigars can get better with age, but I won’t get into the specific scientific reasonings behind it.  However, I do want to look at the arguments for how humidity and temperature affect cigars during long-term aging.  

There are people who simply argue that cigars should be stored long term at the humidity that you intend to smoke them at.  However, there are also people who offer strong arguments suggesting that higher humidity, temperature, and oxygen availability speed the rate of aging.  Whether this accelatated aging is good of bad is debated. 

Some people argue that accelerating aging is a good thing because it allows you to achieve the benefits of aging in a shorter period of time.  Someone who believes this would likely suggest that you should store cigars at above 65% RH, right at 70°, and out of their cellophane and original packaging to increase oxygen availability.  

There are others who make a very interesting argument that storing cigars in a high humidity, temperature, and oxygen available environment does speed up the rate and which ammonia and other impurities and removed from the cigar, but also increases the removal of oils and other compounds that give cigars their flavor.  So in other words, a cigar stored in the conditions that accelerate aging might be “smoother” and free impurities more quickly, but will also begin tasting bland and flavorless over time.  

One person who believes this theory is a man named Min Ron Nee (MRN).  MRN is an expert on Cuban cigars and author of the book An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars.  

MRN argues that cigars should be stored at a much lower temperature and humidity than usually suggested when aging cigars long-term (55% RH and around 53-54°F).  Further, MRN suggests keeping cigars and boxes wrapped in their cellophane while aging to limit oxygen availability.  MRN argues that this slows aging and ongoing fermentation down tremendously, which allows oils and other “good” chemicals in cigars to concentrate and co-mingle, creating pleasant and complex flavors, while ammonia and other impurities are off-gassed. 

MRN writes “the slower the fermentation, the more time the chemical constituents have to mingle with each other, the more complex the flavors that are generated. As fermentation slows down, less pleasant flavors are lost through evaporation, chemical reactions, self-degradation, etc.”

To boil down MRN’s argument as I understand it as best as I can, storing cigars at a lower temperature, humidity and oxygen availability tremendously slows down the rate of aging and requires that you age cigars for a much longer length of time than usual.  However, at the end of that aging process, cigars aged in accordance with his recommendations will have a much more complex and concentrated flavor experience than cigars aged in a more typical fashion, which will have lost a lost of flavor and will taste somewhat bland.  So basically, if you have patience, the end result is better. 

However, MRN does admit there is little definitive knowledge on how much temperature in particular affects the aging of cigars. However, there are other people who also argue that higher temperature leads to quicker aging and increased ongoing fermentation while lower temperature leads to slower aging and decreased ongoing fermentation just as MRN argues.  But no one knows for sure.  MRN suggests that a month in advance of smoking a cigar that has been aging at low humidity, you store that cigar at a higher humidity to bring the cigar up to humidity you intend to smoke it at.  

I can’t say if MRN’s arguments are correct because I have not tried aging cigars for 20-25 years like he recommends.  I would be very curious to see the differences between two cigars aged for 2o years, one aged as MRN recommends and one aged at normal humidity and temperature.  

Hopefully this article will help in the storage and smoking experience of your cigars.  Leave your thoughts in the comments down below.  

About the author: Clark Thornton
I like cigars, I like spirits, I like sharing them with people. I'm lucky to work with some of the coolest people and the best company in the cigar industry.

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