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Cigars become new lifestyle trend of Central PA

Cigar history

Cigar manufacturing has a deep history in Central Pennsylvania. With rolling farm land, tobacco has been a cash crop in this region for centuries.

A stretch known as "cigar row" in Red Lion, York County, was home to cigar factories. J.C. Winters and Co., T.E. Brooks, Clark Jacobs, John Peeler and many others that were part of the boom at the turn of the century.

The York County Heritage Trust reports that by 1920, York County manufactured more than 500 million cigars a year — more than any other county in Pennsylvania.

Many cigar rollers were known to start the practice right in their homes, leading to about 200 cigar producers in Red Lion alone. The small community still honors that history by raising a cigar at midnight on New Year's Eve.

Lancaster followed closely behind York County in cigar production. With 124 factories, some of the largest production came out of the Conestoga Cigar Company and Moore and Co., according to a directory of the tobacco industry.

By World War II, the popularity of cigarettes took over the market.

Today, tobacco remains a high cash crop in the region. The 2012 Census of Agriculture reported that Pennsylvania's tobacco growers produced 22.98 million pounds of tobacco — more than double of what was grown in 2005.

A smooth stream of smoke rose from the burning embers at the end of the cigar carefully balanced between the fingers of Daniel Falcon.

He put the cigar to his lips and took a long puff as he let the peppery, rich smoke slowly release.

"That's one of the things I love about cigars," he said, nodding his head to the smoke in his hand. "You light one up, and you just let the moment happen. I know for the next hour I'm not going to do anything but smoke this cigar and enjoy some good conversation."

Cigar smoking in Central Pennsylvania is a trend that has been popping up for the past several years.

From smoking lounges to themed dinners and even social clubs, the cigar is no longer a luxury enjoyed by old men in smoking jackets. It is a lifestyle choice for the everyman.

For Falcon, owner of the Lancaster Cigar Bar at 25 W. King St. in Lancaster, cigars opened his world to all that a good smoke could offer.

"I used to be disgusted by cigars," he said. "I thought they were the stale, old smokes someone forgot about until someone had a baby. They got passed out as an afterthought."

But when Falcon tried to quit cigarette smoking, a neighbor slowly introduced him to the wide range of cigars that grace the market. Falcon soon realized what he'd been missing.

As his new hobby grew, Falcon found himself seeking out cigar-friendly places. Where could someone enjoy a good drink, a bite to eat and smoke a stogie? There weren't many options, it seemed.

About two years after he first started smoking cigars, Falcon opened the Lancaster Cigar Bar as a cigar smokers haven in September 2014.

"I guess I kind of created it for myself," he said, laughing.

Now he caters to cigar smokers, both beginners and those well versed in the hobby. His humidor is filled with about 150 kinds of cigars made by some of the top manufacturers in the world. They can be paired with a good scotch or whiskey from the bar to help bring out the robust, spicy or smooth flavors.

The lounge is dark and comforting, with cushiony black chairs and rustic bar stools where patrons sink in and stay awhile.

A growing trend

Stephen Saudarg, director of operations at Genuine Tobacco Company in Columbia, said he saw a rise in both e-cigarettes and cigars as consumers got away from traditional cigarettes in recent years. The thing about cigars, though, he said, is that it's not an addiction that keeps people coming back.

Without the tar or nicotine of cigarettes, cigar smokers often feel more comfortable indulging, he said.

It's also very uncommon for a cigar smoker to inhale.

Cigar tax increase

If a proposed tax increase passes, the cigar industry could go up in smoke, according to some business owners.

Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed state budget would tax cigars at 40 percent of the wholesale value.

And cigars aren't the only tobacco product taking a hit. Wolf proposes a $1 per pack increase on cigarettes, making it $2.60 a pack on taxes alone. The 40 percent tax on other products includes smokeless tobacco, loose tobacco and e-cigarettes. The new tax could go into effect as soon as Oct. 1.

It's estimated the cigar tax alone would raise an additional $84 million in revenue for the state, according to the proposal.

Cigar manufacturers have been pushing legislators to oppose the tax, according to Stephen Saudarg, director of operations at Genuine Tobacco Company in Columbia.

The smoke shop in Columbia has several signs that ask customers to voice their concerns about the tax.

"In the premium industry, the cigar is something that's made by hand and takes time to create," Saudarg said. "It's not one of those things you push out through a machine, like cigarettes. It's a craft, an art."

Big companies such as Cigar International, based in Hamburg, have threatened to move their operations to Florida.

"These companies will no longer be competitive online," Saudarg said, noting the jobs that also could be lost if the company moves.

"People (in Pennsylvania) will either stop smoking or they'll order their cigars online for a fraction of the cost," he said. "This tax means people aren't going to be supporting local brick and mortar businesses anymore. It could crush the local cigar industry."

The concept of cigar smoking has become so widely accepted that Saudarg now services a wide range of customers, both men and women. He's also one of the few tobacco suppliers in the region to cater to about 11 clubs in the area that host cigar-centric dinners.

From the Hamilton Club in Lancaster to John Wright Restaurant in Wrightsville, cigar dinners are becoming a popular entertainment option for well-known smokers and beginners.

Saudarg is usually given a menu and a budget from the restaurants he works.

"What I try to do is work within the budget and highlight particular manufacturers," he said. "I won't say I base the cigars on the menu, but I respect the menu."

It can be tough to get cigars to match each course of a menu, Saudarg said. While cigars go great with certain liquors, food is tougher to pair. Meats are usually a win in most cases, and he has to stretch his imagination a little more when pairing with seafood.

With dinners in particular, Saudarg said, the taste of smokers varies. He tends to keep the cigars on the light- to medium-bodied side as stronger cigars can turn some people's stomachs.

"It's like if you're introducing someone to hoppy beer," he said. "You don't go all crazy on them and give them the hoppiest beer right off the bat. You don't hand them a Coors Light, either. We're trying to give them something neutral but enjoyable."

Jim Switzenberg, director of operations at John Wright Restaurant, said he's been hosting the cigar dinners for about five years — and they've been a great success. Offering 11 cigar dinners a year, the restaurant has sold out each dinner the past four years.

Far from a cigar aficionado himself, Switzenberg said, he listens to many of his customers and the advice of his cigar providers when it comes to recommendations.

"I know it's a great treat for many of the people who come here," Switzenberg said. "We often have some of the same people call at the beginning of each year and book a place for every dinner. It's gotten to be its own little club."

A social aspect

The chance to relax and simply enjoy a conversation might be one of the most appealing aspects of cigars.

Social clubs are popping up throughout the region, including the Lancaster Cigar Vice Crew and the Harrisburg Cigar Club, both of which were organized in the past couple of years. Each group hosts different meet-ups at various smoking lounges and bars.

"When you sit with a cigar in your hand, you have the chance to learn something," said Steven Napper, founder of the Harrisburg Cigar Club. "It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, your race, religion or even your occupation. In this moment, we're coming together over one thing: our love of cigars."

Aaron Aiken, a member of the club who manages promotion, said he was intrigued by the detail that goes into each cigar — from the history of the filler and the wrapper to the techniques used in wrapping.

He fed his early fascination by visiting smoke shops and scouring the Web for tips on cutting, lighting and even ashing a cigar.

The idea of the cigar was almost as fascinating and appealing as the smoke itself, he said.

But it isn't just cigar enthusiasts who are taking notice of the trend. Many people have come to appreciate the luxury and appeal that comes with a cigar.

It's a token of accomplishment and celebration — which makes it understandable why Minute Men cigars hand-rolled by Hain's Pipe and Cigar Shop in York County were handed out during Gov. Tom Wolf's inauguration ball.

Hain's owner Jesus Castanon started his cigar career in 1996 as a cigar roller in the Cohiba Cigar Factory in his native Cuba. When he eventually moved to the United States, buying Hain's and returning to his tobacco roots seemed like the natural way to support his family and do what he loves. And he shares the art of the hand-rolled cigar by hosting live rolling events at area bars and festivals where people can see how the product is made.

Customers who frequent the York business are as varied as the cigars in the humidor. They are businessmen, police officers and recent college graduates. Like many cigar smokers, they have one thing in common: the love of the smoke.

Business has grown so much for the local cigar roller that those who visit the shop today won't find Castanon there. Instead, he's in the Dominican Republic where he's hired cigar rollers to perfect his product. The small factory he runs there has become a destination for those who want to experience a cigar from its birth to its final, glorious smoke while on the shorelines of a tropical paradise.

That's really what it's all about — the experience, Daniel Falcon said, while finishing his cigar on a dreary day in Lancaster city.

Cigars, Falcon said, force people to slow down, to learn something about the person beside them.

"I really have one of the best jobs in the world," Falcon said. "I get to do what I love with people who are just as passionate. We find peace, relaxation and unity between puffs of smoke."

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