Of beer and cigars

By Alan Moen

When I left the courtroom, there was reason to celebrate. After nearly a year of letters, lawyers, and lucubration, I had finally been awarded the money owed me by the negligent , un-insured driver who had changed lanes into the side of my truck on the freeway. Due to a bizarre state law, this person had been allowed to keep her driver's license by depositing the money she owed me for repairs into a bank account, forcing me to sue her to recover it. As a matter of principle, I insisted on being paid the interest on this account as well, which I collected that very day - a whopping $6.

There was only one thing to do, I realized, as I walked past the Smith Tower Cigar Store, temptingly close to the courthouse in Seattle, before my vast settlement burned a hole in my pocket. A Hoyo De Monterrey Excalibur No.1 was a very satisfying reward for my pains, and I savored every puff.

Cigars, like champagne in our Western culture, are frequently the instruments of celebration. Weddings (I smoked Brazilian cigars at mine), births, promotions, and athletic championships all conjure up images of people happily puffing away on foot-long sticks of pure tobacco. Cigars have become the very symbol of luxury in capitalist society - the Wall Street tycoon would look naked without his Havana, the politician weak and indecisive (imagine Churchill without his Churchill).

But interestingly enough, cigar smoking seems often as little understood as champagne drinking. For years, the fashionable sipped elegant sparkling wines out of flat, sherbet, style glasses that made even Dom Perignon taste flat and insipid (the flute shape is far superior for champagne). With similar ignorance, they matched brut (dry) champagne with chocolate or sweet desserts, a horrible combination that often made the wine taste thin and acidic. In the same way, cigars were traditionally paired with port, in my view usually a poor match - the fruity richness of the wine is typically overwhelmed ( and certainly altered) by a mouthful of smoke. Be that as it may, cigar enthusiasts have generally come to realize that stronger flavored,higher alcohol beverages are better with cigars, and don't often smoke a Cohiba with their chardonnay.

Which brings us to beer. As everybody knows, cigars have enjoyed a great revival in the United States in recent years. Nowhere is this more obvious than among beer drinkers. Barely a decade ago, only the bravest beer geek would expose his Montecristo in public; now cigar sessions are part of nearly every major beer festival. The Celebrator beer newspaper has its own regular cigar column, written (shockingly enough) by a woman. Beer entrepreneur Charles Finkel has put a cigar smoking room into the design of his new Pike Brewery Pub in Seattle. Since Marvin Shanken , publisher of the Wine Spectator, launched his Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1992, the industry has rebounded in amazing fashion , especially considering the typical anti-tobacco rhetoric of the media these days. A typical copy of the magazine weighs about two pounds, and is crammed with ads for Scotch whisky, cognac, and haute couture fashions, all wrapped around the cigar craze like the finest Connecticut shade.

I'm no cigar expert, having been a pipe smoker for many years. Sure, I've indulged in the occasional cigar, but I didn't smoke my first Cuban until a couple of years ago ( give President Kennedy credit for that.) Yet it seems obvious to me that, just as in fine craft beer, the quality of a good hand-made cigar is apparent in how it smokes and tastes - not hot, fast and rough from industrial processing, but cool, long, and smooth from hand-rolled leaf and properly aged, selected tobacco. Cigar smoking is without doubt highly pleasurable to most people, but, like the best things in life, including sex, it is a learned experience. Fortunately there is now not only a far greater selection of good cigars commercially available in America (regrettably, no Cubans), but the trend has also engendered some excellent literature on the subject as well, such as the Cigar Companion by Anwer Bati and Simon Chase.

For the beer lover who is so inclined, the current smoky climate offers many good opportunities to enjoy a cigar with one's stout, dopplebock, or barley wine.

In general, darker, stronger beers with more robust flavor are more suitable with a cigar, but there are no fixed rules in the game of taste. In my own opinion, the best cigars, like the best beers, ultimately stand alone, without accompaniment of any kind. But don't wait for a celebration to smoke them. The odd habit that Columbus first noticed among the Indians of the Caribbean in 1492 and later took Europe by storm, has now has come full circle. For us inhabitants of the Americas who have recently participated in the New World beer renaissance, this is the perfect time to strike a match for the re-discovery of cigars.

© 1996 Alan Moen