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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.

Why the shift in the curing process? Flue curing is much quicker than the natural process. It can reduce the curing time by half. Traditionally, tobacco leaves need about 40 to 65 days to cure in the wooden drying barns found in the Vuelta Abajo and Partido. Flue curing only takes about 20 to 25 days.

However, saving time doesn't seem to mix very well with making high-quality cigars. It usually means the opposite. Cigar manufacturers who are in a hurry are usually not paying attention to quality. Look what happened during the cigar boom in the mid-1990s. Many cigarmakers were in a hurry to cash in. In their rush, they manufactured some of the worst cigars ever brought to market. I remember visiting new cigar factories in the Dominican Republic that were using partially fermented tobacco. Others used inexperienced cigar rollers and set high and unrealistic production quotas. The same was true in Cuba, for the most part, until a year or two ago. But I don't need to go into that again.

Today is a different situation. In the last three years, I have been to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic as well as Cuba numerous times. On the whole, the cigar manufacturers seem to be taking their time, focusing on the quality of their materia prima, or raw material, as well as their cigars.

In Nicaragua, I visited a half dozen warehouses full of tobacco, both in piles that were slowly fermenting and in bales. They all belonged to the Padrón family. "This is like money in the bank," says Orlando Padrón, the patriarch of the family-owned cigar company bearing his name. "It's an investment in the future."

The Padróns have always been afraid to increase their annual production above 3 million cigars because they don't believe they can maintain the level of quality. "You need an infrastructure to increase production -- more tobacco fields, more drying barns, more warehouses, more factories. It all takes time. And we didn't want to do it," says Padrón.

It was the same a year ago with José Seijas, the cool and thoughtful manager of the Altadis cigar factory in La Romana, Dominican Republic. "We have time now to build stocks of tobacco, develop and maintain blends, and make consistently good cigars," he says. "Before, we were just trying to keep up with the demand."

Cuba is adopting the same model, with the same focus on quality. "We have more time now to improve and maintain quality," says one official with Habanos S.A., the Cuban/Spanish distribution organization for Cuban cigars. "Quality means everything to us right now."

It's wonderful to hear everyone in agreement. Better yet, the evidence is already in the market. The current crop of cigars from Cuba looks better than ever. We should all be happy that the best producers of cigars are now dedicating more time to each step of the cigar-making process. They are taking the time to look after their material prima, which means they grow, cure, ferment and age their tobacco properly. They are taking the time to manufacture their cigars, which means they are properly blending, rolling and aging their cigars, and training competent rollers. It's never been a better time to smoke cigars.

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