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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

I wasn't sure if I was being stonewalled, or simply being politely told to mind my own business. But the two officials from the Cuban cigar global distribution organization, Habanos S.A., clearly did not want to tell me their export figures for 2001, when I interviewed them in early February. "We are not concerned with figures anymore," said Ana Lopez, the head of marketing for the organization. "We are only interested in quality. Quality is the key for Cuban cigars at the moment."

"I couldn't agree more," I told her. "But I have seen figures in the press saying that shipments last year were down 30 percent and I would like to confirm that." I was following up on press reports that said Fidel Castro had given out that figure, but it had never been officially confirmed.

"You know that we can't win, when we give out our export figures," she added, only half-joking. "If our sales are up, then people say that we are exporting too much, but if our exports are down, then they say that we are not exporting enough. Let's forget about figures, and let's focus on quality."

I did just that for a couple of days in Cuba. I looked at quality, literally from the ground up. I took a couple of trips to factories, such as Romeo y Julieta and El Laguito (home of Cohiba), as well as visits to various areas and plantations in the Vuelta Abajo, the prime growing region for tobacco.

What I found is that Habanos is right; a new emphasis on quality can already be seen, from better cultivation techniques in the plantations to more rigorous quality control in factories. However, quality is not achieved overnight, especially with tobacco and cigars. It is going to take time to get it right. The cigar industry in Cuba is like a supertanker in the middle of the Atlantic, going full speed. It's not an easy task to slow down and change direction, even for the most talented helmsman. For years, the Cubans have been steaming ahead with an ambitious plan to produce more and more cigars, but after a quick lesson in free market economics, they've realized they must change strategy. The downturn in the global economy obviously has undermined the Cubans' rapid expansion plan, since luxury products, like cigars, were the first to be hit. As a result, the growers and cigarmakers have received their new orders of "quality first." Maybe this is a slightly cynical view of their change of mind, but regardless of the reasons, Cuba's renewed emphasis on quality is a major step forward.

For instance, I spent an hour with Emilia Tamayo, the gregarious manager of the El Laguito factory, the home of Cohiba cigars. What I saw there convinced me that it makes sense to buy cigars made in her factory. Look for the initials CLE stamped on the bottom of boxes, which stands for El Laguito. Some of her pronouncements during my visit to El Laguito were obvious bravado, but I have been to her factory numerous times over the last 10 years and I have never seen it in better condition.

It wasn't a question of the 100 or so rollers doing their craft quietly and intently. Working on the ground floor of the small villa-cum-factory, they have always done that since Tamayo took over the factory in the early 1990s. What was really impressive this time was the increase in the number of people on the first floor of the factory, where workers carefully check every cigar, from the quality of the color and texture of the wrappers to the ease of the draw.

El Laguito is one of the very few of the 50 or so cigar factories in Cuba that have a machine that can test the draw of bunches, which is basically a cigar without the wrapper. So every cigar made in El Laguito is mechanically checked for its draw before the wrapper is applied and the cigar is finally placed in its box.

Furthermore, Tamayo says that, within the next year, she hopes to have a large percentage of the production of Cohiba produced only in her factory. "The remainder will be made at my friend Hilda's factory, Partagas," she said. "It's only right that another woman makes my cigars, because Cohiba is like my own brand."

In the past, Cohiba was made in various factories, primarily in Havana. Under those circumstances, Tamayo admitted that it was difficult to maintain the quality of the blend as well as the quality of the cigars. It's a problem with all the brands that are not made in a single factory. For instance, Montecristo is made in dozens of factories around the country. How in the world can the brand's quality be consistent? At the moment, Tamayo says that all Cohiba Lanceros, Corona Especials, Exquisitos and Panetelas are made at El Laguito. Most of the Robustos and Esplendidos are also made there. In all, the factory is making about 5 million cigars annually (500,000 are Trinidads).

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