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The Rebirth of Habanos

Are Cuba's cigar mavens finally shifting from quantity to quality?
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

(continued from page 1)

Construction of a new building behind the factory, to house more rollers and workers, is expected to begin this year. This would enable the total Cohiba production of approximately 7 million to 8 million cigars to be made in El Laguito, Tamayo said. "I want my factory to be a model for other factories," said Tamayo. If all that she is predicting actually happens, El Laguito could certainly be just that.

My visit to the Romeo & Julieta factory represented the flip side of the situation. As well intentioned as the manager and other senior officials were, the quality control at the factory seemed antiquated at best. The couple hundred rollers seemed to have little or no supervision. Moreover, the dozens of tourists who were visiting the factory—most were package tourists who didn't smoke—only added to the chaotic atmosphere.

The final quality control was a joke. Granted, when I visited, the four or five people in the department were on their lunch break. But the systems for checking the quality of the cigars seemed incredibly inadequate. Most of the factory's system depended on weighing samplings of bundles of 50 cigars, and if the weight was under or over a certain level, the cigars would be unbundled and checked for construction flaws. It's clear that the quality control there could be more rigorous. How in the world can they take a serious sampling, with four or five people and simple scales for weighing, when the factory makes from 6 million to 8 million cigars a year?

At least the factory management wants to achieve better quality. The manager at Romeo y Julieta continued to speak about la calidad throughout our hourlong conversation. He said that the days when the government was pushing them to make more and more cigars were over. Quality was the key element for Cuba's cigars going forward, he said.

One of the keys to improving the quality of Cuban cigars will be improving the tobacco, both wrapper and filler tobacco. You can't make great cigars without great raw material. What I saw in the fields and in the tobacco barns in the Vuelta Abajo held great promise.

This year's harvest may be one of the best in years. I spent a morning at the plantation of Alejandro Robaina, near the town of San Luis, and the quality of the leaves was phenomenal. Still drying in the barns, the tobacco not only was perfect in texture, it was long and wonderfully formed. It was one of the Robainas' earliest completed harvests in years.

Hirochi Robaina, the 25-year-old grandson of Alejandro Robaina, was beaming with pride. It was his first harvest as the head of the family farm and he said it couldn't be a better way to start his new position. Of course, he knew that a lot of the success had to do with Mother Nature. "The weather has been perfect all year," he said. "Even when we thought late last year that disaster would strike because of a hurricane, but at the last minute, it changed direction and we have had very good weather ever since."

Not everyone, however, was rejoicing over this year's harvest. A small grower near the town of Piloto, which is off the beaten track (even though some of the best strong tobacco comes from that region), had already run out of gasoline to run the pump that supplied water from the nearby stream to his fields. Most of his crop of sun-grown tobacco barely reached his knees, and it was doubtful he would harvest even a fourth of his normal crop.

"All the tobacco plantations that are on the main roads, or near other tourist destinations, have all the gasoline, fertilizer and whatever else they need," he said. "But for tobacco growers like me, fat chance."

The inconsistencies that I found remain one of the biggest stumbling blocks in Cuba's drive to reestablish the quality of its cigars. However, the situation is obviously getting better. And that means better Habanos to smoke for all of us.

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