The Rolling Rooms
Six Factories That Manufacture Most of Cuba's Export-Quality Cigars Each Specialize in Certain Brands and Sizes
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94
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Havana factories get the pick of the tobacco crop each year. Many plantations, regardless of whether they are privately owned or government-run, have long-term contracts with factories for the best of their crop each year. Otherwise, factory technicians compete for the best tobacco after growers have sent their crops to nearby centrally located warehouses for processing and aging. Finally, processing, whether it is additional aging or fermentation, is done in-house at the factories.
Most of the factories specialize in certain brands and sizes, although the production of large-selling brands such as Montecristo may be shared. In addition, some factories are better geared to making special sizes of cigars. "There is no reason to think that one size of cigar from one brand cannot be made by four or five factories all at one time," says Julio Oliveria, chief for tobacco classification at La Corona factory. "The tobacco and blends are kept consistent and the production closely monitored."
Even the making of Cuba's prized brand of Cohiba is shared among factories. El Laguito makes about 2 million cigars, mostly Cohiba, the remaining 1 million to 2 million are made at Upmann and Partagas. The latter is in charge of making Cohiba's new line of cigars, the Siglo series (see Cigar Aficionado Spring 1993). "We made 1 million of the Siglo cigars last year but we couldn't ship them all because there was a shortage in boxes," says Ernesto Lopez, manager of the Partagas factory. "We receive the tobacco from El Laguito and instructions for their production. We do the third fermentation here."
According to Avelino Lara, head of Cohiba's production, the arrangement makes good sense. "Not only do we not have the space, we don't make Robusto, Esplendido and Siglos at El Laguito because we have a tradition of making the thin, elegant-sized cigars," he says. "We have to be specialized. Our rollers are trained for this style of cigar."
Montecristo, however, is the most ubiquitous of all Cuban cigar brands. It is Cuba's largest-selling brand and accounts for half of all export sales. In a good year, more than 30 million cigars with the distinctive brown-and-white Montecristo band may be sold. Benito Molina, manager of the Upmann factory, oversees all of the Montecristo production and says there just isn't any other way to produce the cigar. "No factory has the capacity to make such a large amount of Montecristo; so it makes sense to share the responsibility," he says. "We oversee the production at the other factories."
The most important cigar factories in Cuba, both in and outside of Havana, make some Montecristos. All the export factories in Havana do. Nonetheless, as much as people such as Molina like to say that there isn't a difference in cigars coming from different factories, Montecristo connoisseurs know that the best come from the Upmann factory--which makes sense because the original owners of the factory, the Menendez family, started Montecristo in the early 1930s. Part of the affinity for H. Upmann Montecristos must be because the factory focuses on the best of the Montecristo spectrum: the elegant Especial range as well as the pyramid-shaped No. 2 and nightstick-sized A. In addition, it makes great Cohiba Esplendidos and Robustos as well as the best of the Upmann range such as the Sir Winston Churchill and No. 2.
The apparent reason for Upmann's consistently superior quality, regardless of the brand, is that its factory, according to our research, has the largest number of top-graded, quality rollers of any Cuban cigar factory. Take, for example, the Montecristo Especial, a long, thin 7 1/2 inch by 38 ring gauge cigar. You would expect El Laguito to make the best of this style of cigar since its Lancero and Corona Especial are the same ring gauge and different lengths. Laguito even produces some Montecristo Especials.
However, we have consistently found that Upmann's Especials are superior to El Laguito's Especials and Lanceros. In fact, the Cubans have received a large number of complaints about El Laguito's cigars being too tightly rolled--a sure sign of less-than-great rolling technique.
The number of top-rated rollers working for Upmann also illustrates the factory's prowess for rolling superb cigars. Rollers are given a grading from 4 to 7 for their ability. While most factories have only a few super 7 rollers working at one time, Molina says that he has more than 40, and all of them can make the extremely difficult No. 2. "You almost have to have mirrors to make the No. 2," he says, half joking about the difficulty in rolling such a cigar. He added that it may take six years before a roller can qualify to learn to make a No. 2, and even then, some may never be able to master the art of tapering the tobacco into the right shape. About 1.2 million No. 2's are produced annually at Upmann, although production was down slightly last year.
In addition, Upmann is the only factory that makes the 9 1/4 inch by 47 ring gauge Montecristo A. While a roller needs to have the fingers of a surgeon to make the No. 2, his hands must have the strength of a trapeze artist to roll the unwieldy Montecristo A. Only three men in the factory are capable of making the A, which is why production is a minuscule 15,000 a year.
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