STORY Power Generation

Tabacco Tradizionale

Posted on August 11, 2014 by Wolfgang Boller, Images by Robert Hack

mtu Onsite Energy creates the perfect climatic conditions for tobacco at Italian cigar manufacturer Sigaro Toscano.
Cava de' Tirreni, Italy

The feel-good factor is dependent as much as anything else on the right climate. As epicures know, for something to become pleasurable to consume, the climate in which it is grown and produced has to be right. At Manifatture Sigaro Toscano in Cava de’ Tirreni in southern Italy, the right climate for people as well as product is provided by mtu Onsite Energy.

The composer Giacomo Puccini loved one, as did Italian unification hero Giuseppe Garibaldi and film stars Marcello Mastroianni and Bud Spencer. The Italian cigar or Toscano is one of the clichés of Italian style and lifestyle. When it comes to way of life, culinary pleasures and design, the Italian way has a reputation as something different and special. And Italian-made cigars are no exception to that rule; unlike many others they are not round, but elliptical or conical, and come in many different flavors. But the most important thing is that they are made of Kentucky tobacco – the sort usually made into pipe tobacco, except in Italy, or more precisely, Cava de’ Tirreni, a little town close to the world-famous Amalfi Coast.

Pure aroma

When you visit the factory at the end of a narrow street alongside the busy Salerno-Naples autostrada, the heavy, tangy, but sweet aroma hits your nostrils as soon as you reach the car park and gets stronger with every step. Only a small sign announcing 'Manifatture Sigaro Toscano' gives any clue as to the aroma's source – this is where the classic Italian cigars are made. Even the smallest Italian tobacconist will have a selection of them. And there are connoisseurs all over the world who prize these special and strongly aromatic cigars very highly.

Italian style: tobacconists in Italy are identified by a large T. Which also stands for the very best of Italian smoking culture – the Toscano, Italy's distinctly individual cigar variety.

It all started with a mishap

But that was not always the case. "Once upon a time in Italy, there were expensive cigars for the gentlefolk and cheap ones for the poor," relates Gaetano Marino, technical director at Manifatture Sigaro Toscano. Those class barriers were broken down by a slight misadventure. When in 1815 near Florence, a large batch of tobacco was soaked through in a heavy thunderstorm, dried out in the sun and started to ferment in the process, it was considered spoiled. So it was used to make cigars for the poor. But fermentation had given the Kentucky tobacco a very unusual flavor. "It wasn't just the lower classes who liked it – word soon got round to the wealthy as well. That was the start of our success," says Gaetano Marino, who is respectfully addressed as "ingegnere" in these parts.

Vincenzo Ruggiere separates out flawed cigars and places the good ones on mesh frames where they are left to dry.

Two weeks of cozy warmth

These days, that thunderstorm is artificially recreated indoors – under controlled conditions. In other words, the tobacco is dampened, packed into shoulder-high crates and placed in the fermentation room. "Every three days, we turn over the tobacco so that fermentation progresses evenly and no mold forms," explains Angelo Bencivenga, chief supervisor in Cava de’ Tirreni. He opens the side of one of the crates being taken to the start of the long tobacco processing line. It is insulated so that the heat produced by fermentation is held inside. "In this process, the tobacco can reach a temperature as high as 65°C," he says. The warm air in the room where tonnes of tobacco are fermenting in dozens of crates is heavily saturated with the smell of tobacco – not the ideal atmosphere for humans but perfect for the tobacco.

Ingegnere Gaetano Marino, technical director at Manufatture Sigaro Toscano, likes to play around with the arguments about smoking or not smoking. As regards clean energy, however, his choice of a combined heat and power plant made by mtu Onsite Energy was based on serious consideration.

Once fermentation is complete, the cozy rest period is at an end. "Now the tobacco is prepared for cigar production," explains Angelo Bencivenga. A stacker truck driver tips a good half-tonne of Italian Kentucky tobacco into a large metal hopper. Conveyor belts carry the dark brown leaves from one processing station to the next. Rollers, cutters, strainers and fans spread out, chop up, sort and dry the leaves. At the end of the process, Angelo Bencivenga points out the evenly cut tobacco flakes that will subsequently be used to make the inside of the cigars. The thick panicles and stalks have been filtered out.

Turning a leaf: Italian tobacco ferments at temperatures up to 65 degrees Celsius.

Energy system gives up smoking

Gas plays an important role in production. That is because a gas-driven Combined Heat, Cooling and Power Module (CHCP) supplied by mtu Onsite Energy caters not only for electric power but also the required atmospheric conditions. "We have to have constant, controlled conditions from start to finish. That is how we ensure the quality of our products," says Ingegnere Marino. Air temperature and humidity have to be exactly right for fermentation, processing, storage and drying. That requires a lot of energy. In the summer, of course, the hot Mediterranean climate goes some of the way to keeping the rooms at the required temperature. However half of the electricity for the controlled-climate cabinets where the cigars dry and mature, for example, is produced by the cigar factory itself. "That is significantly cheaper than electricity from the public grid," says Marino. 20% comes from a photo-voltaic array and 30% is generated by an mtu Onsite Energy gas-driven CHP module. This was installed in 2011 to replace the old steam boiler that ran on heating oil. Now, a low-emission, 12-cylinder Series 400 gas engine purrs reassuringly in the room next door. The factory chimney has ceased to emit black smoke. The energy system at Sigaro Toscano has managed to kick the smoking habit.  

Power, heat and cooling, all from gas

The gas that fuels the engine is natural gas from the national grid. As technical director from the head offices in Lucca, Gaetano Marino is still proud of the system installed here three years ago. Besides the electrical power generated by the CHP module – up to 375 kW – Sigaro Toscano also harnesses the waste heat from the engine to provide comfortable temperatures in the office, even in summer. When the southern Italian sun is beating down mercilessly, an absorption chiller turns the recovered engine heat into cooling capacity for air conditioning.

The 'ingegnere' designed this tri-generation system himself, as he reports with some pride. Enplus, the Italian distributor for mtu Onsite Energy, put it together and configured the CHP module and chiller to work in harmony with each other, the power grid and the company's heating network.

Costs down by 25 percent
"The mtu Onsite Energy CHP module is the perfect size for us. It is an excellent system. And it is very quiet. I don't think any of our neighbors have noticed that we have one," grins Gaetano Marino. "Not only are we complying with the legal requirements, we are supplying ourselves with electricity, heat and cooling more efficiently and ecologically than before." The bottom line after roughly three years of operation is that energy costs are down 25% compared with the old system. Electricity and heat from the public grid are twice as expensive as the energy the factory generates for itself.

The cigar factory uses the electricity from the CHP plant to run equipment such as the tobacco dryers and the controlled-climate cabinets where the cigars go through the secondary fermentation phase, mature, and then dry.

Tobacco ferments by the tonne in shoulder-high crates in the hot and humid atmosphere of the fermentation room.

No operatic romance

Before that of course, the tobacco has to be made into cigars. The clichéd image of women rolling cigars at long tables in semi-darkness as depicted in Georges Bizet's opera 'Carmen' is not one found here at Sigaro Toscano in Cava de’ Tirreni. The only women making cigars are those at the main plant in Lucca in Tuscany, and they only hand-roll the very best and most expensive varieties. Nor is the plant at Cava de’ Tirreni a dimly-lit dive, but rather a large, bright room where you mainly find men and machines. Around two dozen fully automated fabricators with complicated mechanisms have taken over the work of the women. The tobacco comes out of a large hopper in measured portions, and the individual outer wrapping is dispensed from a gauze roller (for those in the know: there is no need for an inner wrapper between the filling and outer wrapper). The men only come into the picture at the end – but no, not for smoking, for quality control. Antonio Polverino is one of them. He takes the cigars out of the machine from which they emerge. They are shiny and moist with cigar paste. His trained eyes spot immediately the ones that would have been better rolled by a skilled female hand, and separates them out as rejects. The others he spreads out on a wooden frame covered with a thin mesh, strokes them with a practiced hand, picks the odd one out, inspects and rolls it with a critical eye, and throws it into the rejects bin. Any that are flawed in any way – too fat, too thin, too tightly or loosely rolled – are thrown out, shredded and returned to the production loop for a second go.  

Tobacco road: conveyor belts carry the tobacco to cutting and drying machines.

Weeks of feel-good weather

The cigars are dried and matured at the same time. Foreman Cristoforo Sannino points out that they may even need as long as 30 days or several months in a drying room, depending on the variety and flavor. The atmosphere – in other words the air temperature and humidity – in the drying room is automatically controlled using electricity from the CHP module. The cigars do not leave the room until they have the prescribed level of residual moisture. And until then they remain the characteristic elliptical shape – tapered at each end and fatter in the middle – like a zeppelin. Those are the big, long, all-evening types. In the past, so legend has it, smokers would cut or break their cigars in half in the middle – one half for the morning, the other for the afternoon. Today, a large number of cigars are packed off to the tobacconists already halved – ready to smoke, so to speak. Packed into small boxes of five, they are sealed in cellophane and sent out to be enjoyed by lovers of Italian smoking specialties.

Successful collaboration: Vincenzo Pardi (front) of mtu Italia and Ivano Odone from Italian maintenance service provider CCS work hand in hand. The overall system comprising combined heat, cooling and power plant based on a Series 400 CHP module was put together by Enplus, the Italian distributor for mtu Onsite Energy. The system is serviced by the subsidiary CCS.

The three-man cigar

Ingegnere Gaetano Marino reports that the Cava factory makes about 40,000,000 cigars per year. "Our cigars are luxury consumer goods, people call them lifestyle products these days. You should enjoy them responsibly." Connoisseurs of these particularly strong cigars are not new to such cautionary advice. The saying goes that you need three men for one cigar – one man smokes it and the other two hold him still. 

The right atmosphere: air temperature and humidity in the drying room have to be exactly right for the cigars to continue maturing. Quality controller Gerardo Alfieri is satisfied.

Two long histories

Manufatture Sigaro Toscano can trace its history back to a tobacco manufacturing business founded in 1818 near Florence. Today the company is part of the 135-year-old Maccaferri Group based in Bologna in northern Italy. Other subsidiaries are involved in industries as diverse as civil engineering products, biotechnology, machine tools, construction, energy systems and foods. The cigar production arm was acquired as recently as 2006. The Italian tobacco industry had been run by the state since the 19th century until 2003, when it was taken over in its entirety by British American Tobacco (BAT), which subsequently sold the cigar-making division to Maccaferri three years later.

Point of contact

Daniele di Franco
+39 0187 9526 72