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Back to the Drawing Board

Plugged smokes are plaguing the quality of Cuban cigars
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

(continued from page 1)

"If you have the greatest tobacco in the world and you make a cigar that doesn't draw, then you have nothing," Seijas said during a visit by Cigar Aficionado editors to the factory this winter. The hundreds of rollers in his factory obviously know that Big Brother (in the form of the suction machine) is going to check the draw of their cigars, so they better make them the best quality possible from the beginning.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for rollers in Cuban factories, although the situation may change with the introduction of the machines mentioned above. Currently, the only form of quality control is through visual observation of the rollers by floor managers as well as limited weighing of bundles of 50 cigars from each roller and the periodic smoking of a few cigars by quality control personnel. I can't say how rigorously these simple forms of quality control are carried out, but if my recent bad experiences with plugged cigars are any indication, they need improvement.

Factory quality control people I know in Havana say that rollers can be put on probation and can even lose their jobs if they continually make poor quality cigars. I am sure that this happens. However, I have to wonder if the average cigar roller in Cuba, particularly the younger ones, really cares that much about the craft. Salaries are extremely low. Life is not easy. The incentive to do well isn't there.

Nevertheless, no one can say that Cuba doesn't have the best cigar rollers in the world. Some of the old masters of the craft, the men and women who have sat at their worktables for decades, are true artists in the way they roll their cigars. They are the best in the business.

However, I have a hunch that a lot of the plugged Cuban cigars we are smoking at the moment are due to the carelessness of inexperienced, young rollers. Hundreds of new rollers were brought on board a few years back to make hundreds of thousands of cigars. Just five or six years ago the Cubans were exporting about 50 million cigars a year. This year they hope to export 150 million. That's a huge increase, and the new rollers had to be hired and rushed into production. I remember 10 years ago, when it took close to a decade to be a top-rated roller -- one who makes such cigars as the double corona or pyramid -- but today it can take less than a couple of years.

That said, however, the blame for plugged cigars may not even be the fault of careless rollers who twist the bunch of their cigars as they make them. According to some tobacco officials, the new types of tobacco used on the island as well as the rushed fermentations and curings may lead to overfilled cigars. The tobacco that rollers use may be thicker, wetter and harder to roll than material used in the past. So, a fresh cigar may feel correct in the hands of an experienced roller but it could still be overfilled. "It's always a combination of things when you have widespread quality control problems," said one highly respected cigar producer.

That statement most certainly underlines what is going on with Cuban cigars at the moment, and I am convinced that the Cubans themselves are going to remedy the situation. I spent a couple of hours in January with Oscar Basulto, the head of Grupo Empresarial de Tobaco, the new umbrella organization that controls tobacco growing, cigar production, and marketing and distribution of cigars. Before, each of the three cigar sectors operated separately, and often one didn't know or care what the others were doing. But today, the unification should improve just about everything in the production of Cuban cigars. "Just give us time," Basulto said in his office in Havana. "It all can't be changed overnight. We recognize the problems and we are going to correct them to the best of our ability."

If only he knew how much I was rooting for his success during my short trip to London a few days after our meeting. After my disastrous stopover at Sautter's shop, I smoked a San Cristobal de la Habana Il Morro after lunch at the chic West End restaurant Che -- and it didn't draw. I found a hard spot just under the band.

Luckily, I was able to cut the cigar in half just in front of the plug and it drew just fine. Hence, it was downgraded from a quasi-Churchill cigar to a corona, but the cigar had beautiful aromas and flavors. It was a glorious way to finish a meal. Maybe the San Cristobal was not the cigar I had completely hoped for -- it certainly was not what it should be in length -- but in this day and age, a Cuban cigar smoker has to do the best he can.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Stefan vachev December 13, 2011 2:54am ET

If you do not remove tobacco from a plugged cigar, The plugged cigar will more then likely stay plugged. check out PLUGGED CIGAR TOOL on You Tube.

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