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Tobacconist University
Taste College

Taste College: Tasting School

 
Tasting Methodology

People enjoy luxury tobacco on many different levels and for different reasons. To some, a great cigar can be a meditative or transcendental experience, while to others it can simply be something to puff on while playing a round of golf. Some people taste vanilla, leather, and nutmeg while others just taste tobacco. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong because taste is subjective, and the best cigar or pipe tobacco in the world is your favorite. While there may be more gifted 'tasters' or palates in the world, that does not mean that they enjoy their tobacco any more than others.

The TU Tasting Methodology is a simple set of guidelines to follow if you are trying to evaluate the qualities of a cigar (or pipe tobacco). This is especially useful for tobacconists who must evaluate cigars for their inventories and then describe them to their customers. Following the Tasting Methodology, or conducting a 'tasting', requires focus and purpose because it takes more effort than just enjoying a cigar or pipe tobacco. The three tasting steps are simple enough:

1. OBSERVATION
2. DESCRIPTION & COMPARISON
3. EVALUATION
First Establish Neutrality

The most important step before tasting is to establish a neutral setting, starting with the pH in your mouth and eliminating distractions. Distractions can include people, stress, other tobacco smoke in the air, food odors, and anything else that detracts from focusing on the tasting. Other confounders include food and beverages, which should be avoided during a tasting since they will change the flavors you are perceiving. In addition, emotional biases can also confound a tasting. As previously mentioned, smoking a cigar on vacation or under particularly pleasant and relaxed circumstances can make the product seem to taste better. Establishing neutrality is about trying to eliminate any potential biases, and this includes physical as well as emotional issues. Finally, if you are tasting on a regular basis, you should try to keep the variables as consistent as possible. This means, tasting at the same time of day and in a consistent place. Again, always minimize distractions and confounders.



OBSERVATION

Observation is the process of using your senses to observe and experience the cigar.

Pre-Smoke: Appearance, Construction, Draw

As we have already learned, all of our senses are used to savor a cigar, and the process starts before the product is lit. First, we observe appearance and construction with our sight. Then we touch the head and body of the cigar, judging firmness, conditioning, texture, and consistency. Next, we can smell the bouquet of both the foot and the cigar wrapper. Last, we can cut the cigar and put it in our mouth to assess the draw and the nuances of the wrapper leaf. By removing the cigar from our palate, we can focus on the finish of the unlit tobacco. The finish is the flavor (taste+aroma) that remains after the cigar has left your mouth. All of this “cigar foreplay” will lead to greater enjoyment and appreciation of the cigar you are about to smoke.

Smoking: Combustion, Smoke, Ash, Flavor

Next, we smoke the cigar and assess its combustion, smoke, and ash. The cigar will need to burn evenly for the flavors to develop properly. In addition, a good ash will stay firm until it is released. The smoke of luxury tobaccos will have a distinct texture and appearance as well. While smoking, we focus on the flavors (taste+aroma), strength, spice, body, and the overall experience the tobacco conveys. Every puff of a cigar will yield different flavors. Cigars are blended to change and develop. The unique construction of cigars allows for leaf placements, which will create flavor changes as the cigar is smoked. In fact, cigars can deliver an evolving flavor experience designed by the cigar maker, which is why cigars should be smoked from beginning to end, in one ‘sitting’, the same way you might watch a good movie or eat a great meal. It is also one of the reasons we start smoking by the head and not the foot.

Post-Smoke: The Finish

Lastly, every puff will reveal new flavors and leave a new finish on your palate. The final finish of a cigar will be very important because the flavors and sensations will stay with you and evolve even after the cigar is done being smoked.



DESCRIPTION & COMPARISON

This is the process of ascribing values, measurements, and words to your observations. Your vocabulary, memory, knowledge, and experience will contribute to your ability to describe what you have perceived. Ultimately, describing what you taste is an artistic process because it is an intangible interpretation of experiences and perceptions. Using colorful words and analogies is perfectly acceptable. Regardless of how technical or verbose you are, the only goal that matters when describing a cigar or pipe tobacco is that others understand what you are saying. Unique descriptors like ‘musty’, 'earthy', ‘cocoa’, or ‘nuttiness’ are only useful if it makes sense to your audience. The descriptive process is something you can get better at, and there are many publications and experts worth learning from. In addition, having the experience and ability to compare one tobacco product, or cigar, to another is a useful tactic. It can be easier to describe something in contrast to another, rather than coming up with the perfect descriptor. But, there does not have to be a right or wrong way to describe what you have perceived. At this point, the fundamental knowledge contained in Tasting School should be enough to get you started on describing and communicating what you taste.



EVALUATION

As consumers, we can usually decide if we like a cigar or pipe tobacco after smoking it. In fact, we probably do not need to go through the rigors of the Tasting Methodology. Just smoking a few cigars or bowls of a tobacco can be enough to know if we ‘like’ something. But, the rationale of tasting is to come to some sort of conclusion -- an evaluation.

The Tasting Methodology evaluation should lead to an assessment based on the observation, description, and analysis, but it must also factor in one more variable: the product price. While price may not seem like an obvious part of Tasting Methodology, it is important since we are tasting products, and all products have a price. The ultimate value of a product must be related to its price.

Finally, how we choose to add up all these variables and perceptions is a subjective process, just like taste. You can create a hundred point, five star, or other system that attempts to quantify your analysis and evaluation. The main goal of any evaluation method is for you and your audience to understand it. As we have said, taste is subjective, and how you evaluate and define your taste will be up to you.

Tobacconists, on the other hand, have another burden when tasting cigars and other tobacco products. Tobacconists are buying for thousands of people and investing money that has an expected rate of return. In addition, the cigars we taste must fit into our inventory and provide some compelling value. They must be distinctive in order to compete and satisfy consumers. In the end, tobacconist tasting evaluations will define our businesses and impact our customers. Consequently, our evaluations will play a large role in determining how our customers evaluate us.







Certified R&D Tobacconists: United States

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Arturo Molina, CRTHabana Port Cigar Merchants
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Raymond Noriega, CRTStag Tobacconist (Stag of Colorado Ltd.)
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