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Cuban Comeback

Though Still Beset by Tobacco Shortages, Cuba Gears Up to Meet the Demand
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

The quality of the tobacco in Vuelta Abajo appears outstanding. The tobacco is pristine looking, large and finely grained. Growers said that it would be lighter in nicotine than some harvests, so it wouldn't take as much processing as other crops. Some compare the quality to the high-quality harvestsof 1981 and 1982. "This is the best harvest I have seenin 20 years," says Jose Emilo Lanza, 74. "We are really increasing the quality this year. The only problem is that it's more and more work. I am not getting any younger. The only problem will be the processing." Recent reports from visitors to Cuba suggest that some problems occurred with the processing due to wet weather in April and a lack of space for drying and fermenting the new tobacco. One source said the Cubans were even using an old movie house to dry and process tobacco since the warehouses were either full or unavailable.

"We had some problems with processing tobacco," admitted Linares in a June interview in Madrid. "But the quality and quantity has never been so high. It's difficult to say exactly how it will turn out at this stage. But I expect the yields to be close to 25 percent for wrapper tobacco in the Vuelta Abajo this year. We are working towards getting better yields every year."

The recently harvested tobacco won't be available for cigars for some time. Some of the wrapper leaf is expected to be usable by early next year and the rest of the crop for filler in another year or two. Still, tobacco reserves for cigars are obviously increasing, meaning the Cubans have latitude to release other tobacco stocks to increase cigar production. This is why a number of cigar factories for the domestic Cuban market have been changed over to produce export quality cigars, and three new factories have been opened, one in the town of Pinar del Río and the other two in Havana, including Por Larrañaga.

The Por Larrañaga factory dates from the early 1830s. Until recently, it was used as a warehouse for second-quality cigars, although it was obviously once a cigar factory--the name "Por Larrañaga" is etched into the building's facade. It is located at 713 Salvador Allende and will house about 250 employees, of which 150 will be rollers. At full production, Por Larrañaga should be producing about 4 million cigars a year. It's expected to produce its namesake as well as Partagas, Bolivar and Ramon Allones cigars. "We will be opening new factories next year and we are planning to plant much more tobacco in the Vuelta Abajo and Partido," said Linares. "This all means more tobacco and more cigars. We are doing everything possible to increase production."

Por Larrañaga will be under the direct supervision of the Partagas factory, whose manager, Ernesto Lopez, is one of the most respected figures in the Cuban cigar business. "Por Larrañaga is the oldest cigar brand for Cuba, and lots of different sizes were made here," Lopez says. "At the time when the factory was going, everyone said that Por Larrañaga had the best rollers in Havana." At the moment, most of the rollers are still apprentices, although they should be up to speed by early this fall. Armando Rodriguez, 53, who was formerly with Romeo y Julieta, is the factory manager; he reports directly to Lopez. "It's all part of Cuba's drive to increase the production of quality cigars for export," he says.

Linares adds: "We have more and more of everything compared to before. We have more plantations. We have more yields. We have more factories and more workers. And we are going to have to work much more ourselves for the marketing and distribution of Cuban cigars."
Cuba's Newest Cigar

Sitting in a smoke-filled room at the Hotel Ritz in Madrid, Alejandro Robaina was a long way from home. He was at a cigar dinner in June to celebrate the launch of Cuba's newest brand, Vegas Robaina. Of course, he more than anyone should have attended, for the 78-year-old tobacco grower from Cuba's Vuelta Abajo is the namesake of the new cigar .

"In all my life, I never imagined that I would be here in Madrid and a cigar would be named after me," says the bantam-sized farmer. Robaina has won numerous awards in Cuba for the quality of his wrapper tobacco grown on his farm, Cuchillas de Barbacoa, near the town of San Luis in the Vuelta Abajo. "This is a great honor for me and my family. We have been tobacco farmers for many, many years and this is the greatest honor of them all."

Five sizes of cigars are made under the brown-and-gold Vegas Robaina band: Don Alejandro, a double corona (49 ring gauge by 7 5/8 inches long); Clasico, a lonsdale (42 ring gauge by 6 1/2 inches); Familiar, a corona (42 ring gauge by 5 1/2 inches); Famosos, a corona gorda (48 ring gauge by 5 inches), and Unicos, a torpedo (52 ring gauge by 6 1/8 inches). For now, the cigars are being sold exclusively in Spain, although they may be launched in another European market next year. The Cubans would not say which one. The cigars sell for between 610 pesatas (about $4) for the corona gorda to 1,200 pesatas ($8) for the double corona.

About 350,000 cigars were produced for the brand's debut. About one million are expected to be made by the end of the year, and two million in 1998. "We have not set a limit yet of how many cigars we want to produce under the Vegas Robaina brand," says Francisco Linares, the head of Habanos S.A., Cuba's marketing and distribution organization for cigars. "We have to see what sort of response we have from the market and how well the production goes."

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