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Quality Time

After years of struggling to meet demand for tobacco, growers and cigarmakers are again focusing on quality, not quantity
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

Genuine cigarmakers take their materia prima very seriously. Without the best raw material, they can't make serious cigars. It's like the relationship of great grapes to great wine or excellent ingredients to excellent cuisine. Just like top-class wine and cuisine, it takes time to produce superlative raw material for cigars.

This is a fundamental philosophy for preeminent tobacco men. I have traveled to most of the key tobacco-growing areas in the world. The common thread binding together everyone who grows the best tobacco, or makes the best cigars, is that they are obsessed with quality. And they take their time to make excellent smokes.

I remember one hot summer evening sitting on the porch at Finca La Pina in the Pinar del Río with the great Cuban tobacco grower Alejandro Robaina and some of his family. They have been making some of the best wrapper tobacco in Cuba's Vuelta Abajo for more than a century. For them, the quality of their leaf is more important than anything else.

Robaina's nephew Frank was telling a story about his grandfather. Apparently the old man seldom spoke as he was approaching his 100th birthday. He spent most of his days in a rocking chair on the porch, smoking homemade cigars and watching the slow-paced country life go by. Frank said that his grandfather often wouldn't say a word for days; he would mostly nod or shake his head to communicate. It was the pungent blue smoke of his cigar that assured everyone that his grandfather was still breathing.

One day, he spoke. It was the day that samples of flue-cured wrapper tobacco arrived from the state tobacco technicians. Frank's grandfather was shuffling over to one of the barns, just as Frank was walking up the dusty road from the main entrance of the plantation with the tobacco in his hands.

"Grandfather, look at this tobacco that I just received," said Frank, holding out the light brown leaves, which had been artificially cured in what in effect is a giant oven.

Frank's grandfather stopped for a moment to look. His tanned, weathered face drew closer to the tobacco as he squinted to get a better view. "Merda," said the old man, and he slowly turned and continued his labored journey to one of the barns.

"For him, the tobacco was shit," says Frank. "He probably wouldn't have said a word for weeks, if he hadn't seen that tobacco, but he believed that nothing was more sacred than tobacco. And he had to say something about the quality of the leaf I had in my hands."

The point of the story is not to illustrate the pitfalls of artificially cured tobacco. If done correctly, flue-cured tobacco can be as good as naturally cured leaves. At least, Cuban tobacco experts assure me that's true. I doubt anyone could tell the difference anyway, once the tobacco is used to make premium cigars. The Cubans began using flue curing on wrapper leaf on a large scale in the mid-1990s, when they started growing and selling Connecticut-seed wrapper in the Partido region of the island, about 30 minutes from the outskirts of Havana. There were rumors that some of the leaf found its way onto exported, hand-rolled cigars, but Cuban cigar officials always denied this. The leaf, they insisted, was sold to machine-made cigar manufacturers in Europe.

However, the Cubans' experience with artificially curing the Connecticut leaf convinced them to do the same with Cuban-seed wrapper tobacco grown in Partido and the Vuelta Abajo. "We can better control the curing and we don't need to worry about the changes in the weather," says one technician. To my uneducated eyes, naturally cured wrapper tobaccos seem to have more oil and elasticity than artificially cured ones, but university-trained technicians in Cuba have said I am wrong.

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