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Havana's New Cigar: Cuaba

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

The large ballroom of the elegantly formal Claridge's Hotel in London is packed with tuxedo-wearing, claret-drinking, cigar smoking revelers celebrating the launch of Cuba's newest cigar brand, Cuaba. A fog bank of cigar smoke rolls past the podium as Francisco Linares, president of Habanos S.A., the global marketing organization for Cuban cigars, tells the group of about 200 why the brand has been developed.

The tall, stern-looking man explains how he had been in London a year before and noticed in cigar shops samples of antique Havana cigars that were perfecto/figurado shaped--the classic stogie, pointed at both ends. He decided that these shapes should be brought back into production. "London seemed like the right place to launch Cuaba, since these old Havana cigars have been preserved for many, many years there; and [Londoners] have loved smoking Havana cigars for more than 200 years," he tells the group.

As the Cuban speaks, a small, dark-haired man sits at one of the plush tables piled high with crystal glasses of Château Lafite Rothschild and plates brimming with rich food. He is fumbling with his black bow tie, which is slightly askew. He looks somewhat uncomfortable, like someone who would rather be doing something else. He turns to a cigar merchant sitting next to him and says in Spanish, "I would much rather be back at the factory rolling my cigars." He isn't joking.

Carlos Izquierdo Gonzalez, 61, has been in London for nearly a week, and even though it is his first time abroad and he finds England fascinating, he is longing to be back home in Havana with his family and his team of cigar rollers at the Briones Montoto factory (formerly Romeo y Julieta), producing one of Cuba's most exciting brands. Gonzalez masterminded the logistical rebirth of the figurado cigar through the creation of Cuaba. He was one of the last persons in Cuba who could still roll the figurado shapes. They hadn't been commercially rolled for nearly four decades, even though Partagas makes a figurado (the Presidente), which until recently was partially machine-made. It is now totally handmade.

"I had been trying for years to convince the factory to make figurados," he says during an interview in London the day before the Nov. 19 dinner. "I was making the cigars for myself to smoke. I didn't want to lose the tradition. It had to be continued. We had been talking about making these sizes again for years, and then someone finally listened to me at Habanos. It was a dream come true."

His team of 15 rollers made 40,000 to 50,000 cigars in 1996, and this year they expect to make about 150,000. Until this summer, the four sizes under the brand will be sold exclusively in the United Kingdom. Afterwards, they will be sold primarily in Casa del Habano (Havana House) shops around the world. The sizes are: Exclusivos, 46 ring gauge by 5 5/8 inches; Generosos, 42 by 5 1/8 inches, Tradicionales, 42 by 4 3/4 inches; and Divinos, 43 by 4 inches. They sell in British cigar shops for, respectively: £8.40 (about $14.30); £6.20 ($10.55); £5.80 ($9.85) and £5 ($8.50). "Today, there are too many people who want Cuaba," says Linares. "They ask for Cuaba in Spain. They ask for Cuaba in Mexico. They ask for it in Canada. But we have made an agreement [with the British] for six months. We are not in a hurry."

The name of the brand originates from the Taino Indians, the indigenous inhabitants of Cuba before the Spanish discovered the island in the fifteenth century. Apparently, cuaba was a type of bush the Indians used to light their cigars. The cigars themselves were called cohiba, the name given to Havana's previous new brand created in the mid-1960s.

The first thing you notice about the new line of Cuabas are their varied shapes. The are all standard lengths, but if you look at a box of, say, Generosos, you notice that they are all slightly different in shape. This is because the cigars are made without the aid of a mold, which standardizes the girth and shape of a cigar.

"These new sizes are some of the hardest to make in Cuba at the moment," says Gonzalez, who has been working at Briones Montoto since 1948. "You have to have great strength and skill in your hands and you have to know where to put the right amount of pressure on the filler and binder. The only other cigars as hard to make are the gran corona [Montecristo A] and prominente [double corona]. With those you have to have very strong and large hands."

He says that all the rollers recruited to make Cuaba are "grade seven," the highest rating a roller can achieve in an export cigar factory. (Apparently, some factories are considering introducing an even higher grade for rollers.) A handful of other rollers are being considered for the Cuaba group. "Most of the members of our team are young, in their 20s," Gonzalez says. "These young rollers are very capable and they learn fast."

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