Still Smoking - Tobacco and Cigars in Cuba
From Havana to Hamburg, Cuban cigars are prized as the very best in the world. Cuba has excellent conditions for growing tobacco, and several hundred years of growing experience. The country’s iconic cigars are an important component of the Cuban cultural heritage. Whether or not you smoke, learning about the history and culture of these cigars is absolutely fascinating.
Cigar culture is huge in Cuba. Walk down any street in Havana and you’re bound to see a handful of locals puffing away on puros as they go about their daily business. The people love cigars, as do the travelers who come here to buy and smoke them. Thanks to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Cuban cigars have been tough to come by in the U.S. and have enjoyed a certain mystique for the past half-century. Things are changing these days, but most tobacco aficionados still agree that Cuba produces the best tobacco on the planet.
Location, Location, Location
We all know that location matters, especially when it comes to agriculture. Cuba is blessed to have some of world’s best locations for growing tobacco. The entire island, however, isn’t fertile ground for this endeavor—many places are just too hot or cold or rocky to grow plants. However, there are a few regions that enjoy world-class conditions for growing tobacco.
The best tobacco comes from the Vuelta Abajo area of Pinar del Río Province near the town of San Luis. This place has perfect growing conditions—the average temperature is around 73°F (23°C) and the humidity is about 65 percent. What’s more, the subsoil is a rich, reddish loam that is packed with nutrients. In this area, the best fields are almost solely devoted to producing wrapper leaves.
Certain experts claim that plants grown in the Vuelta Abajo region have a higher concentration of nitrate. This nitrate makes the tobacco more powerful and flavorful. The leaves are also stronger and better for rolling. People have tried to emulate the tobacco from this region by using the same seeds and even the transporting the soil, but none have been able to grow a comparable crop.
Other major tobacco regions in Cuba include Villa Cara and the Valle de Viñales. Villa Clara’s Vuelta Arriba region, east of Santa Clara, is said to be second to Pinar del Río when it comes to tobacco production. Since Viñales is inside a national park, chemical fertilizers are illegal and all of the tobacco is organic. Local tobacco growers, known as vegueros, insist that this makes their tobacco the best in Cuba.
As you drive through these regions, you’ll see tobacco fields along many of the roads. The fields are home to waist-high tobacco plants lined up in evenly spaced rows. The fields are scenic, especially when workers are out harvesting leaves. Take time to stop and take pictures.
In Cuba, tobacco is grown on small plots of land. The growers can own up to 165 acres (67 ha) for tobacco cultivation, but most plots are less than 10 acres (4 ha). Tobacco seeds are planted in late October. Initially, the seeds are kept in greenhouses, but they are transplanted to the fields after about a month. The plants then take about 4 months to grow, and are typically harvested in March and April.
During the harvest, the leaves are picked and bundled—the bundles are then hung in a barn to dry. After 45 to 60 days, the leaves are removed from the drying poles, packaged in wooden crates, and taken to the sorting house. At the sorting house, the leaves are dampened, aired, and flattened. Bunches of leaves are then fermented in piles for up to 3 months.
The leaves are graded based upon where they grow on the plant. Leaves from the mid-to-upper portion are strong and usually used as binder leaves, which hold the whole cigar together. On a cigar, the binder is found in between the filler and the wrapper. Binder leaves typically have very little flavor.
The filler leaves can come from any part of the plant. The top of the plant, known as the corona, typically produces leaves with a strong flavor. The bottom of the plant often has leaves that burn the best. For this reason, filler is usually a blend of different leaves to achieve a mixture of taste and burning qualities.
The wrapper is very important. These leaves are usually grown in the shade to prevent the leaf from becoming too oily or thick. Wrappers should have few veins and be fairly soft. Most of the flavor of a cigar comes from the wrapper. For this reason, these leaves are also the most expensive to purchase.
After the leaves are fermented, they are graded, flattened, misted with water, re-fermented, reclassified, and then finally sent off to the cigar factories. The whole maturation process can take up to two years.
At the cigar factory, the leaves are graded by strength and color. Each cigar has a recipe that includes a specific type and ratio of leaves. The recipes are mixed in a blender before being sent to the production room. In the production room, rollers sitting at workbenches are given enough tobacco to roll around 100 cigars each day. Incredibly, the rollers only have one tool—a rounded knife. They use this to cut and smooth the leaves.
The rolling process goes something like this. The roller grabs a few filler leaves and rolls them into a cylinder. The cylinder is then surrounded by binder leaves to make a “bunch,” which is then pressed into a mold. The roller then chooses a wrapper, trims it, and lays the “bunch” inside the wrapper. The “bunch” is then rolled. A piece of wrapper is cut for the cap and glued into place with a flavorless gum. The cigars are kept in a humidor for three weeks and then are ready to be sold.
The trademark paper band is placed around the cigar and then groups of cigars are laid in wooden boxes. The lightest cigars are set along the right and the darkest are on the left.
Cigars are judged on eight criteria, including weight, length, smoothness of wrappers, firmness, draw, and burn. Cigars are graded based upon color. In Cuba, cigars are known by many names, including puros, tabacos, and habanos. The Cuban government regulates cigars and all tobacco is sold to the government at a fixed price.
Touring Tobacco Farms and Cigar Factories
Whether you’re touring a tobacco farm in Pinar del Río or puffing a puro in Havana, there are many ways to engage with the cigar culture in Cuba.
Visiting a tobacco farm is one of the best options. You can walk through the fields to see plants growing and visit the barn where the leaves are dried in bundles. Knowledgeable guides lead travelers on tours and provide an ample amount of information.
One of the world’s most famous tobacco farms is found in the Vuelta Abajo area of Pinar del Río Province. The El Pinar Robaina Tobacco Farm has been in operation since 1845, and the Robaina family has farmed this plot of land for six generations. The most formative years came under the supervision of the late Alejandro Robaina. Alejandro died in 2010, and his grandson, Hiroshi, now runs the farm. Travelers can tour the farm to learn about the planting, harvesting, and drying methods. You’ll even be given your very own, hand-rolled cigar at the end.
Tours of cigar factories are equally worthwhile. The factories are often found within old colonial buildings. Each building specializes in producing certain cigar brands, which are assigned by the government. The tours usually start in the rolling rooms, where you’ll see rows of men and women sitting at desks, smoking and rolling cigars. The aroma is remarkable. You will also usually be shown how leaves are judged for quality. Havana has several factories that you can tour with a guide.
Buying Cigars and Coming Home
Cuban cigars can be purchased at official La Casa del Habano stores. There are about 20 of these stores in Havana and many more in other cities. These stores may have walk-in humidors and smoking lounges. The managers are typically extremely knowledgeable and can help you pick out the perfect cigar. You can also buy cigars at most tourist hotels.
As a general rule, don’t buy cigars on the street. Although the seller will claim that they have brand name cigars, the cigars are usually inferior and cheaply made. It’s best to buy cigars from a reputable shop or dealer.
Handmade Cuban cigars have a Cubatabaco stamp and a factory mark. Handmade cigars also have the words, “Hecho en Cuba. Totalmente a Mano.” (Made in Cuba. Completely by Hand.). If the label reads “Hecho a Mano,” the cigars were likely hand finished, with the wrapper put on by hand, rather than completely handmade. Finally, if it says “Hecho en Cuba,” the cigars are machine made.
There are around 40 brands of Cuban cigars, each of which sells cigars in different sizes and shapes. In general, fatter cigars smoke more smoothly than smaller cigars, and dark cigars tend to be sweeter. The quality of a certain brand may change year to year, just like wine. Also like wine, cigars continue to age and mature when they are well cared for. Most cigar aficionados agree that the best cigars are those that have aged for 6–8 years. The cigar should either be smoked within three months of being produced or after a year—the period of time in-between is a notoriously bad time to smoke them. The cigar should have a smooth texture and fresh smell, and feel slightly soft when squeezed. Cigar factories in Cuba produce several brands. Experts consider the El Laguito factory in Havana to be the country’s best.
As relations improve, the Cuban cigar industry is looking to enter into the $13 billion U.S. cigar market. Even so, it’s unlikely that you’ll see Cuban cigars appearing on U.S. shelves anytime soon. Most people familiar with the industry think it will be at least five years before that happens.
As of June 2015, American citizens can return to the U.S. with $100 worth of Cuban cigars. These cigars are only for personal consumption and cannot be sold.
If you’re not American, you can leave Cuba with a maximum of CUC5,000 worth of cigars (with receipts). After passing through customs at the airport, you can purchase additional cigars in the duty-free shops.
Remember to bring a humidor with you to Cuba if you plan to return with cigars. This will ensure that the cigars maintain the proper humidity while traveling. You don’t want to return home with a box full of bone-dry cigars!