For a small-town farmer in the Vuelta Abajo, making quality cigar wrappers is all in the family
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Francis Milian has been growing wrapper tobacco for as long as he can remember. His father did the same, just as his grandfather and his grandfather's grandfather did before him. "I am no one special," he says, a few moments after meeting me and a small group of British cigar merchants and smokers. "I inherited the land and I do what we have always done here--grow tobacco. All I want to do is grow good tobacco with the best quality possible. We want to do it the traditional way."
Milian, 51, owns Pancho Cuba, a tobacco farm located in the heart of the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's premier tobacco growing region in the island's southwest. As with many of the privately held tobacco farms near the town of San Juan y Martinez, a long bumpy, dusty dirt road leads to Pancho Cuba. The farm has a small whitewashed wooden house with a large porch and a garage. Nearby sit a couple of large rickety curing barns. Miles and miles of cheesecloth cover thousands of tall, bright green, velvety textured tobacco plants.
It's not like this all year. Tobacco is grown only between September and March at Pancho Cuba and other plantations, or fincas. This two-horse town, as well as its neighbor San Luís, is ground zero for great tobacco. Few other places in the world grow better quality. It is what the Caspian Sea is to caviar and what Pomerol is to Merlot.
Milian, wearing a pair of soiled jeans, a plaid shirt and a straw cowboy hat, has recently finished hanging thousands of tobacco leaves in one of his 30-foot-high curing barns. The leaves hang in pairs on long wooden poles, which are then placed in the A-frame building at various heights.
The building is hot, a bit like a sauna, and the dry heat is changing the leaves from a moist, sticky green to a dry, silky light brown. The curing process takes about a month. "This is one of the best harvests I can remember," the diminutive Milian says. He isn't used to having visitors, especially foreigners, and he is a little reserved. "Everything has gone well. The leaves are large. The crop is plentiful."
Shortly thereafter, Milian's son Jorge drives onto the farm in his faded red-and-white 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air four-door. The vintage American automobile makes a sound more like a steam train than a car. It chugs along steadily past Milian and me and into the garage. Francis's father bought it new and never thought about having another car. Francis brushes aside my observation that it would be worth a lot of money in the States. "Let's talk about tobacco," he says, brusquely. "That's what interests me."
Milian isn't very interested to know that his tobacco is probably used on the best cigars Cuba has to offer--names such as Cohiba, Trinidad, Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch. I decide not to mention how much these cigars cost in today's market--up to $30 or $40 apiece for some highly coveted Cuban smokes. A couple of boxes of these cigars probably cost more than Milian makes in an entire year.
Milian is very keen to talk about the new types of tobacco he is growing on his nine-acre property. For years, probably most of the last century, his family had grown a variety known as el corojo. It is a wrapper tobacco developed at a nearby finca that produces large, well-formed leaves with a fine texture and plenty of oil, just the sort of leaves with which cigar factories like to make large and long smokes. However, recent crops of el corojo have not been what they used to be. The tobacco has been highly susceptible to a terrible fungus called blue mold. The fungus grows on the leaves of a tobacco plant and makes them discolored and brittle, rendering them useless for cigar making.
In the late 1990s, Milian says he began to plant a new tobacco called Habana2000. Government officials sold him the seeds, saying that they were much more resistant to blue mold--and they were right. Not only was the new variety more resistant to disease, Habana2000 produced even larger leaves than el corojo. "I smoked the tobacco myself to see that it was acceptable, and it was just fine," he says. "So I stopped using el corojo. I didn't want to risk getting blue mold." However, even with the more resistant Habana2000 tobacco, Milian and many other tobacco farmers in the Vuelta Abajo were surprised to discover blue mold on last year's crop.
The problem caused some of the cigar factories in Havana to close or use a reduced workforce earlier this year. The factories didn't have any wrapper tobacco to make cigars. Last year, the Cubans exported about 148 million cigars (including about 11 million sold in Cuban shops), although they expected to ship close to 200 million. This year, they hope to sell about 158 million, but many experts think this is highly unlikely.
In hopes of producing more high-quality tobacco, the local tobacco research center near Milian has been developing other tobacco types, even better ones than Habana2000, according to officials at the center. The two types most in favor now are called corojo 99 and criollo 98. They apparently are even more resistant to blue mold than Habana2000 and produce even better formed leaves. Milian has tried them both.
"I am very happy with the results. Look at this leaf," he says as he holds up a 30-inch-long piece of tobacco that slightly resembles the end of a canoe paddle. It is criollo 98. "This is what we have to achieve. We can use it for a Montecristo 'A' [a colossal smoke measuring 9 1/4 inches by 47 ring gauge] or a petit corona [a small cigar that's 4 inches by 42 ring gauge]. It's a crime to think about burning this leaf as a wrapper one day. It's just too beautiful."
It is getting hot and stuffy under the cheesecloth as Milian describes how he grows his tobacco. But there is also a sense of peace at being under the eight-foot-high tent and the seemingly endless rows of soon-to-be picked tobacco leaves. The light casts a soft shadow, giving the tobacco a more uniformed color and texture. That's why it's called shade-grown tobacco, or tabaco tapado (cheesecloth tobacco). Sun-grown, or tabaco sol, is much coarser, richer in nicotine and uneven in color. It's seldom used for cigar wrappers.
Once we leave the fields and examine the tobacco in the curing barns, Milian speaks about the importance of picking his tobacco between the half moons of each month. I must admit that I don't understand much. I probably wouldn't have understood better if he had been speaking in English.
Yet, I appreciate his enthusiasm and dedication to tobacco. If he believes that some sort of mystical power improves his tobacco, I am all for it as long as the results are outstanding.
Another thing to like about Milian is that he enjoys a good smoke. He smokes a cigarette during most of my visit, but admits that there isn't anything much better in this world than a good cigar. "I don't like to smoke a cigar when I am working in the finca," he says, puffing on one of his black tobacco, filterless cigarettes. "You need to relax with a cigar. I like to smoke one after a good meal when I am sitting out on the porch with my friends drinking rum."
He tells me that his grandmother Guadalupe Diaz Duque also enjoyed a good smoke and even the occasional glass of rum. "I don't think I ever saw my grandmother without a cigar in her mouth," he says, brightly. "She lived to be 102 years old. So forget about cigars being bad for your health."
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