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Is it Plume or Mold?
Small-Town PA, Summer 2004
Slumped idly over the cash register, George looked less like a tobacconist, and more like a slack-jawed Shar-Pei. I negotiated my way out of the crowded humidor and carefully fanned out a selection of cigars on the counter.
Aloof as ever, he acknowledged them with an almost-imperceptible head nod.
The words were barely audible above the din; dozens of men stood talking and laughing loudly, each holding a lit cigar in one hand and a plastic beer cup in the other. A dense haze swirled lazily about, spilling out of the shop’s front door and into the street.
Funny, how a cigar event can transform an unassuming smoke shop into a raging kegger for every cigar smoker within 50 miles.
“Hey Lou. Did you find everything OK?”
The question was rhetorical, the sort of congenial formality that functions just above punctuation. Of course I found everything OK, George. I’m here two nights a week, and the humidor is the size of a walk-in closet.
“Yeah, I guess I’ll just take these. Is this enough to get the free Robustos?”
“Yeah, you get two,” he said, sliding my cigars into a clear bag. “I have Corojo, Maduro, and Sumatra,” he said, referring to each cigar by its wrapper leaf. “Whad’ya want?”
“I’ll take two Sumatras.” The Corojo and Maduro were good, but the Sumatra – well, the Sumatra was something really special: sweet and a little strong, but not too heavy.
George fumbled beneath the counter and produced a bundle of cigars. He extracted two and reached for the bag.
“Actually, I’m gonna smoke one. You can put the other in the bag.” He retrieved one of the cigars with his sausage-like fingers and handed it to me.
Reaching for the tethered “house cutter,” my enthusiasm came crashing down like a Soviet satellite. “What the hell is this?” I asked, pointing at the white patches haphazardly covering the reddish wrapper. “Does this cigar have psoriasis?”
George chuckled condescendingly. “What do you mean? You’ve never seen bloom before?”
“Bloom?” I asked, indignantly. “Bro, this cigar looks like it needs some lotion.”
“Yeah – when stronger cigars are well-aged, the oils crystallize and rise to the surface of the wrapper leaf. I should charge you more!” he laughed. “Just brush it off and smoke it.”
“Dude, I know what bloom is,” I protested. “It’s also called plume, but this ain’t it. Look at it!” I insisted, shoving the cigar in his face. “This stick is fuzzier than a hatched chick. I’m already vaccinated against polio, but thanks anyway.”
George’s smug grin began to fade. “SHH!” he hushed, scanning the room, his finger in front of his mouth. “What, you think it’s plume or mold?” he quietly demanded, incensed by the suggestion.
“Are you kidding me? You mean you work in a cigar shop and can’t tell the difference? Let me see that bundle.”
George surrendered the bundle. Predictably, half of the cigars were covered in patches of white to off-white fuzz. I picked out an especially egregious offender.
“See this?” I asked, wiping at one of the splotches. “This is mold. Look how it stains the wrapper. It’s even on my finger! Plume would just wipe away cleanly.”
Unmoved, George met the explanation with a vacant stare.
“Besides, you just got these in for the event, right?” I added.
“Yeah, so?” he answered skeptically.
“So? Plume develops over months or years of untouched aging. When cigars are handled, any nascent plume is destroyed. Even under the most ideal conditions, these cigars are too young to have developed plume.”
“But I just smoked one,” he retorted, “and it was delicious. Bloom on a cigar has an unmistakable taste.”
“Then you must like the taste of mold, because plume doesn’t affect the taste. It’s just a visual indicator of a well-aged cigar. Sure, the cigar would have the mellow evenness of extensive aging, but an otherwise-identical cigar without plume would taste exactly the same.”
“Bullshit, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah? Grab that magnifying glass there and get ready to go to school, Georgie Boy.”
I fixed the lens just above an especially well-developed colony of mold.
“See, look at this spot. Does that look like crystals to you?”
“For god’s sake, look closer. This colony practically has hi-rise buildings. See how it looks like skinny little stalks with round structures on top of them? Those are the spores. Mold is a living thing – a fungus, actually. This mold is white, but it can be gray, green, yellowish – even blue.”
“Hmm,” George grunted,” noting the line forming behind me. “Alright, fine. Here are two new ones. I guess I’ll give this bundle back to the manufacturer.”
Atta’ boy, George. Passing out moldy cigars, even unintentionally, is just bad form.
I thanked him, grabbed a beer and joined my friends, where we discussed the mold question at length. Turns out they had similar misconceptions about mold and plume/bloom.
Given recommended ideals for proper humidity (= 70% RH) and temperature (= 70° F), we store our cigars on a perilous razor’s edge. The next time you find yourself in a shop or just perusing your own collection, take a careful look at your cigars. Mold can spread quickly, and if unchecked, could ruin an entire collection. Maintaining your humidor properly and spot checking your cigars goes a long way toward protecting you.
Bottom line, it’s nice to do business with companies you can trust, but in the end, it always pays to be an educated consumer.