The long journey a tobacco leaf takes through a Cuban cigar factory, from front door to cigar box
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By 7:30 in the morning, Avenida 20 de Maio is bustling with buses, motorbikes and a steady stream of old cars passing in front of the La Corona Cigar Factory. The workers are filtering into the building, getting ready for another day of making cigars. Factory manager Roddy Manuel Valdez and Osmar Hernandez Fuente, his number two, are settling in to oversee one of the biggest cigar factories in Havana. The multistory building makes a host of cigars: Romeo y Julieta, Hoyo de Monterrey, Cuaba, Por Larrañaga, Saint Luis Rey, San Cristóbal de la Habana, and, like nearly every cigarmaking facility in Cuba, some Montecristos.
I have toured dozens of cigar factories in my 20 years at Cigar Aficionado, but this time I wanted to do more than just walk around. Rather, I asked to be taken on the same journey a single tobacco leaf makes from the time it comes through the front door until it leaves in a box. The request took some time to filter through the bureaucracy of Habanos S.A., and the week I arrived, several factories had actually been shut down due to the excessive humidity in Havana during the last week of May and early June. La Corona was open, and it was a good choice: in fact, I had never visited there before, so I approached it with a fresh eye.
The metal gates that open on Avenida 20 de Maio lead into a large loading zone, which has direct access to a storage space that feels like a basement. It’s the first area for tobacco classification. According to Hernandez Fuente, the factory receives a tobacco shipment about once a month from the main warehouse of Tabacuba, where the tobacco is aged and stored. In early June, La Corona’s storage room was almost empty because the new month’s shipment hadn’t arrived, although it was
expected later in the week. The tobacco arrives in big bundles, wrapped in either burlap or palm fronds, and marked with codes designating where the leaves are from. One bundle still on the floor wore the stenciled letters V D-1, which designates a specific farm in the Viñales region, a notation of type (seco), the crop year (2009) and then a weight for the bundle.
From there the leaves go into a kind of first stage revision room, where the leaves in the bundle are counted by zafadores, or sorters, and given a quick once-over for quality and tied together in bunches of leaves known as hands. Two men, Torres Medina and Castillo (neither gave their first names) said they had been doing the job for more than 50 years. The hands, each tied with a string, are placed in a container and then moved to the moistening, or casing, room. Today in many cigar factories—even in Cuba—this has become an ultra-mechanized process. At La Corona there are three glass-sided machines, each with seven- to eight-foot-high poles with arms on which the tobacco is hung. The poles move in circles along tracks through a steady stream of mist for several hours up to a day. This system has replaced the old method of men shaking leaves under a mister, or simple wooden racks in a room that was filled with moist air.
The next day the leaves are moved from the casing room to the second floor of the factory, where they are stripped of their center veins. If they are wrapper leaves, they are sorted by color and size, and then they are moved to the blending room. The filler leaves are separated according to their strength—volado, seco or ligero—and put into black plastic bags with designations for which cigar brands they are destined for, and moved to a conditioning room. My tour stopped at the door of the conditioning room.
“This is the secret treasure of the factory,” said Hernandez Fuente, “and I can’t show you what goes on inside here.” I tried several different ways to get inside that room, but to no avail. The best I could get out of him was that the leaves would spend up to 72 hours in the room, all the wrappers, binders and fillers, and the ultimate goal was to have all the leaves with the same humidity levels by the time they were then moved to the Despacho de Materia Prima, or the Office of Primary Material, which is located at one end of the long rolling gallery at the factory.
The office is treated like Fort Knox, one of the visible signs that the Cubans are trying to prevent tobacco and cigars from leaving the factory illicitly. There is a list of people on the door, including the chief, Dreiser Torres, who are allowed inside the locked room. The interior is like a stockroom with big bins, each marked by type, filled with conditioned leaves ready to be rolled into cigars. The blends are already finalized, and a roller approaches the pass-through window in the morning to get their tobacco for the cigars to be rolled that day. After showing an identification card, which lists their skill level and which cigar they roll, they receive the appropriate stack of leaves for their blends and the amount of tobacco for the day.
“The rollers here will roll between 60 and 175 cigars a day, depending on the vitola [size/shape] cigar they are responsible for,” Hernandez Fuente says. “But they only get enough tobacco for their daily production quota. Not more. Not less.”
The rolling room is virtually indistinguishable from any of the other big factory rolling galleries, except it is bigger. There are 335 rollers at La Corona, with a lector at the front for the room on a small platform; the lector gets a daily break from 10:30 to 11 o’clock when a radio soap opera is played loudly throughout the factory. The rollers are divided into “brigades” of up to 30 to 40 people, with supervisors overseeing the production, usually of a specific size and shape. Throughout the rolling gallery, and in the entire factory, you see bug traps, which is a quality-control effort to identify if there are any tobacco beetles infesting the leaves.
The cigars leave the rolling room heading for the sorting room, an air-conditioned space that helps bring the humidity in the cigars down. The sorters may be some of the most skilled workers in the factory. There are seven different wrapper classes and a total of 64 different color classifications within the wrapper classes. A sorting table looks like a gigantic shell game with different stacks of same-colored wrappers; the sorter takes the cigars from the big rectangular, open-top boxes in which they arrived from the rolling room, and he keeps moving them into groups that to the untrained eye look virtually identical, but the sorter keeps moving cigars around based on his color judgment.
After the sorting process, the cigars are ready for the packing room. The bare wooden boxes have arrived there from a central location in Havana, and the workers there place the front marks on the boxes. In another part of the room, the workers are putting the bands on the cigars and getting them ready for the boxes. Then, the cigars are placed in the boxes, once again going through a color revision on each layer in the box.
There’s more to La Corona than just the rolling process. For the 650 employees who work there, it has a full-time doctor, a nurse and a dentist who treats the workers right on site. When needed, specialists are called in for specific medical problems. There is a cantina; lunch is served every day, and the workers get an hour off. The factory knocks off around 4:30 in the afternoon for the day.
There is also an official tasting room. Saul Gonzales is the head taster at the factory, and he has 12 people who will assist him, which is perhaps the dream job for the cigar aficionado. They test the blends each day, using a small sheet of paper to grade a cigar on draw, flavor, aroma, strength and combustion; the tests are conducted on a random selection from the day’s production.
As Gonzales says, “we start over every day with a new batch of cigars to taste.” Just like the factory itself, at the end of the day, the work has already been started for the production that will take place the next day.
How long does it take for that single tobacco leaf to move from the back door through the factory and then back out again in a box headed to a central warehouse somewhere down on the Havana docks? My educated guess is around a week. What happens after the box leaves the factory? That’s for a future story.