The COVID-19 crisis has brought a host of different challenges to us serious cigar smokers around the world. From buying online or curbside, to having limited space to smoke and perhaps too much time on our hands. As a countermeasure to the situation, I decided to embark on a mission to explore the two most widely known online cigar certifications and see what they were all about. I figured they would give me a chance to catch up on my cigar reading, make me smoke a few additional cigars, and perhaps learn something new. I went online and signed up for both the International Association of Cigar Sommeliers (IACS, www.cigarsommelier.org) Cigar Sommelier Diploma as well as the Tobacconist University (TU, www.tobacconistuniversity.org) Certified Consumer Tobacconist (CCT), and applied myself to following their prescribed curriculums in order to take the required final exams and see how I would do. (See our article on the IACS in the 1/2020 spring edition.)
As I delved deeper into my research, I noticed that in mid-April 2020, TU had announced the launch of another course, Cigars101 (https://cigarschool.thinkific.com). So, in keeping with my intention to preview them all, I signed up for that one as well. Since Cigars101 is still on a beta version, I will only provide a quick overview of it. After completing the IACS diploma coursework, they were kind enough to provide me with full access to the master-level continuation of their Sommelier training for my evaluation, and I will therefore also include some comments on that one. The brief analysis below is intended solely to compare and contrast what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses of the programs geared towards the average cigar smoker. I thoroughly enjoyed taking all the courses, accompanied by a cigar, and with this brief review my hope is to give our readers my “two seeds’ worth” and encourage you to continue learning about this most magical leaf.
IACS has its origins in the Cuban food and wine sector, with founder Yamir Pelegrino, former director of food and beverages at the Habana Libre hotel and one of the first cigar sommeliers in Cuba, and his business partner Miguel Macías. TU grew in the United States from the retail side of the business; founder Jorge Armenteros, of Cuban heritage, became a retailer in 1995 when he opened A Little Taste of Cuba, his first tobacconist in Princeton, New Jersey. The TU Certified Consumer Tobacconist curriculum was originally developed for retailers and their employees as an industry information source and then expanded to include certification for consumers like us. A funny note: Armenteros got the idea for the Tobacconist University name from the famous McDonald’s Hamburger University, where they train employees worldwide
All three courses, IACS, CCT and Cigars101, basically cover the same curriculum, starting with history, the plant, agricultural and industrial processes, and then cover manufacturing, etiquette, pairing, and accessories, etc. TU actually throws in a section on pipe tobacco and cigarettes, which may or may not be of interest to cigar-only students, but it is definitely something that any retailer or tradesperson should be aware of. TU also offers a pretty extensive section on accoutrements (tools), humidors, preservation, etc., that I found entertaining. The IACS Sommelier course is well structured, easy to follow and comprehensive. The materials have some clear remnants of “Spanglish” (something I am very well versed in) as the authors appear to have compiled and developed materials both in English and Spanish. The Master section of the IACS was clearly more in-depth in terms of content and requirements.
IACS CIGAR SOMMELIER
Overall, I liked the structure of the online course, as it was easy to navigate via a left-tab syllabus where you can see and follow your progress. The online tasting sheets were a highlight, easy and fun to use, with a good format, simple to follow and complete. The course also gives users the ability to continue with the program, and for an additional 20 hours of learning, to obtain the Master Cigar Sommelier diploma, which also requires personal training sessions as well as on-the-ground work at selected cigar factories. I then had the chance to review their Master Sommelier materials and was impressed by the amount of content, both written and video, related to certain brands’ history, terroirs, blending, and a comprehensive section on pairing and spirits. For some readers, the English-Spanish mixing could be somewhat off-putting. In addition, as is common with Latin American literature, I feel that sometimes the language can be too embellished and ornamented, but then again, who does not love that Cuban accent that transports the reader to the streets of beautiful Havana with a lit cigar and a mojito in hand. Personally, I think that IACS has a well-thought-out plan for its course development and international expansion. I believe they are trying to make a clear distinction between their Sommelier and Master Sommelier courses, which I understand has created some controversy within the cigar community over the last few months.
TU CERTIFIED CONSUMER TOBACCONIST (CCT)
Split into four separate “colleges”: Tobacco, Accoutrements, Taste and Service, each with lots of Web pages and hyperlinks. A lot of information is contained within the pages, but it is perhaps a bit cumbersome to navigate, something that Cigars101 is attempting to fix. Once you obtain the certification, you get access to their online reviews as well as other content features on their website. I personally liked their different levels of certification. At first sight, it may seem a bit too much, but upon further review, the levels do make sense and actually differentiate between the average consumer, the retailer and the master tobacconist, each requiring a different level and depth of content. The online content is free flowing and does not follow a path, seems a bit aged. The four “colleges” would benefit from a more sequential and programmatic structure. As I mentioned, this is something that Armenteros is fixing with the new and upgraded Cigars101 online structure. Most videos were on the short side. There is a nice section on pipes, which was quite complete, interesting, and definitely applicable to a retail tobacconist.
TU CIGARS 101 ONLINE COURSE
Building up their comprehensive content and curriculum, TU is taking their consumer-driven course to the next level. They have designed a visually appealing online course that I found very easy to follow, enjoyable and content-rich. The course was narrated by Armenteros himself. There were some good videos of Armenteros spending time with Jorge and José O. Padrón at their farm in Estelí, which took me back to my visits there. As a beta product, it would be unfair to qualify any weakness, as such, but as the course develops, they would benefit from smoother transitions, some background music and the addition of a few more videos. I was very impressed with what he has achieved with this new course and there is tremendous potential to grow and expand it even more.
To conclude, I know readers probably expect me to pick one program above another, but I do not think it is fair for me to make that call. Both companies and their owners, Pelegrino/Macías and Armenteros deserve a lot of credit for taking the time and resources to develop and launch such comprehensive learning programs and make them available to cigar smokers worldwide. For that, cigar smokers should be thankful. I completed all three, plus the IACS master section, and I admit I am satisfied with what was accomplished. I encourage readers and smokers in general to try at least one of them, I guarantee that you will have fun and, at the end of the day, will surely have learned something new. As a final wink to Habanos S.A., they should also put their Habanos Academy online and expand their audience from selected distributors and retailers to the average consumer and cigar lover.