Talking with his hands: Jesus Castanon rolls cigars with a story

Photographer: Press photos

Most cigar smokers agree that one of the biggest pleasures of cigar smoking is simply having the chance to relax for a period of time, taking a few moments to contemplate life and maybe share some stories.

If you have a cigar, now would be a good time to light it up, because Jesus Castanon – the passionate owner of Hain’s Pipe & Cigar Shop in York and the J.Castanon Club House in Sosúa in the Dominican Republic – has been in the cigar business for more than two decades and has some great stories to tell. Like many Latinos, Castanon uses his hands while he talks, but his hands aren’t merely gesturing – they are creating stories with each of his hand-rolled cigars.

Coming to America

The first thing Castanon did when he got the United States was go to the police station.

Castanon – who grew up in Cuba – had been on a boat traveling northwest from the Bahamian capital city of Nassau to Miami for 23 straight hours. Castanon was making the difficult journey to start a new life in the U.S. and reunite with his wife and child. Along the way, a few of the other passengers got nervous and wanted to turn back. Then the driver of the boat hit a submerged rock with so much force that the boat lifted out of the water and the propeller was damaged.

At the police station, an officer motioned for Castanon to follow him into a private room. Inside, the officer handed him a bag of clothes and $50 for his journey north. Castanon was amazed; it would’ve taken him five months of rolling cigars at the Cohiba Factory in Cuba to earn $50. He had only been in the U.S. for an hour-and-a-half.

Three years later, Castanon, who came to the United States with nothing, became the owner of Hain’s Pipe Shop – the sixth oldest cigar and tobacco shop in the country.

Getting the cigar rolling

Castanon’s career in the cigar industry began more than two decades ago when his mother was able to get him a job at Havana’s famous Cohiba Cigar Factory, located in a high-profile district where the Castro family would frequently meet and do business. It was there that Castanon learned the art of hand-rolling cigars.

Hand-rolling is a dying art form. In the ’90s, as cigars became trendy and the industry entered a growth cycle, more and more cigar manufacturers used machines to roll their cigars. And while they increase production, Castanon says, machines make for a less desirable product. Many cigar manufacturers rely totally on machines (except for the very last wrapper, which is rolled by professional cigar rollers) so their products can legally be called “hand-rolled.” The final product is close, but they’re no hand-rolled cigars, according to Castanon.

Do you like to relax with a fine cigar now and again? Check out 5 not-to-miss cigar-centered events – from dinners and whiskey pairings to rolling demonstrations – happening this weekend and later this month.

At the Cohiba factory, new rollers are required to complete a nine-month training program and pass a test. Soon after starting, Castanon was rolling between 80 and 200 cigars a day, depending on the size (200 for smaller panatelas, and between 80 and 100 for some of the bigger sizes) and earning between $10 and $12 a month.

Castanon recalls his days at the factory fondly. “We had big parties for the rollers. In my time, we could roll as late as we wanted to, and they would provide a little bit of rum and food for those who wanted to stay after hours,” he says.

When Castanon finally made it to the U.S., he was able to use his authentic cigar-rolling expertise to land a job at the oldest tobacco shop in the nation – Demuth’s Tobacco Shop in Lancaster. It was there that Castanon was able to make the connections that allowed him to purchase Hain’s.

The Cuban is King

When it comes to cigars, Cubans are king. For many years, Americans have only heard tales of the excellence of the elusive Cuban cigar swirling in the air like so much smoke. Now that political relations between the two nations are warming up, Cuban cigars are on course to become more readily available in the States, but Castanon agrees that part of the mystique surrounding the cigar is that authentic Cuban cigars are hard to come by.

“When someone tells you that you can’t have something, that makes you desire it,” says Castanon.

But there are other more concrete factors that make Cuban cigars the best in the world.

The minerals found in Cuban soil and the weather conditions make a big difference in the quality of the tobacco leaves. Tobacco plants – like the ones grown in Cuba – simply cannot be grown anywhere else in the world yet, says Castanon (more on that later).

“Plus the manufacturing process – it’s all totally handmade with love and passion. And I think [the fact] that people think Cubans have the best cigars helps the rollers to feel good about keeping them the best,” he says.

Jesus Castanon cigars

From cigar country to Amish Country

Today, Castanon splits time between the J.Castanon Club House – his new boutique cigar lounge in Sosúa, (a beach town in the Dominican Republic) – and Hain’s. He’s working with an agronomist and conducting experiments to find out how to best utilize Central PA’s fertile soil in combination with Cuban tobacco seeds and growing techniques.

“Now I know that we can grow Cuban seeds in Lancaster,” says Castanon

And when Castanon isn’t at Hain’s or out in the fields in Amish Country, conducting his experiments and applying the techniques he learned in Cuba, you can find him at various cigar events, where he performs demonstrations on the art of rolling cigars by hand.

Watching Castanon’s nimble fingers move over the tobacco leaves is like watching the fingers of a virtuoso flamenco guitarist in the middle of a fiery solo. They never stop, and they seem to have a mind of their own.

Castanon picks up a binder leaf and deftly removes the vein. He then reaches for the filler and forms a bunch – the tobacco leaves that make up the inside of a cigar – then applies a final leaf which acts as a wrapper. His fingers instinctively find the parts of the bunch that are a little uneven, and he works over the spot until the tobacco is properly distributed. As his fingers work the cigar, he explains what he is doing. His hands – trained by years of muscle memory – know what to do.

When the cigar is complete, all that’s left to do is light it up. And that’s what Castanon enjoys most.

“It’s relaxing. It brings people together. It’s all about relationships between people,” he says. “When you are smoking a cigar, nobody is better than anyone – everybody is the same.”


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Posted in Arts+Culture – Harrisburg, Arts+Culture – Lancaster, Arts+Culture – York, PROfiles

Mike Andrelczyk is a features editor for Fly Magazine. He is a graduate of Penn State University and currently lives with his wife Stacey in Strasburg. Interests include tennis, playing bad guitar, poetry (poems have appeared in Modern Haiku, The Inquisitive Eater and other journals) and oneirology – the study of dreams – mostly in the form of afternoon naps. His name appears in the title screen of Major League 2.

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