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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

(continued from page 1)

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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