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Cigar Insider—Cuba's New Box Code

David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 1)

Cuban cigar producers are marking boxes of cigars to designate where they were produced, despite saying earlier in the year that the nation's cigar factories were discontinuing the practice.

"Yes, the boxes do carry a factory code," said one high-ranking factory worker, who insisted on anonymity. "The code stays the same every month. It is important for following quality." The new code is similar to past ones in which a few letters are used for the factory designations.

So far, Cigar Insider has been able to decipher only a few of the new codes, including El Laguito (LOME), Partagas (OSU), José Martí (ECA, which is unchanged from the previous cigar box code) and Romeo y Julieta (PEL). Cracking those codes is not very difficult. A quick visit to a few cigar shops in Havana in August revealed most of them. By knowing which cigars are made exclusively in which Havana factories, you need only to look at certain boxes of cigars to learn their codes. The easiest to crack was El Laguito, where all Cohiba Lanceros, Coronas Especials and Panetelas are made, along with Trinidads.

The current production boxes had a code of LOME. Every new box of Cuaba cigars, the perfecto-shape brand made only at Romeo y Julieta, had the letters PEL, revealing the code for that factory, which is also known as Briones Montoto. Diplomatico, a brand with the same size cigars as Montecristo, is made exclusively at the H. Upmann (aka José Martí) factory, and all Diplomaticos we saw had the box code of ECA. This was the first code we encountered that was unchanged from CODIG UNETA, a 1999 Cuban date code.

The Partagas code was much tougher to uncover; no cigar brands are made exclusively at this factory. By comparing Partagas Lusitanias, Bolivar Belicoso Finos and Ramon Allones cigars, however, it seemed clear that the Partagas code was OSU—all of these brands are made at the Partagas factory, and every box we found had the OSU code. In addition, boxes being finished in the factory carried the code.

We think the La Corona factory code could be SUA, based upon looking at boxes of Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch cigars, but at press time it was impossible to be certain. The one thing that is undeniable is that there is a Cuban factory code. We asked regular posters on www.cigaraficionado.com to search through their stocks of Cuban cigars to determine if they also had similar codes, and they corroborated our findings.

Earlier this year, the newest date code was revealed on various Web sites, including cigaraficionado.com. The system is simple, following the months of the year in Spanish along with the last two digits of the calendar year. For example, January 2000 is "ENE00." And April 2000 is "ABR00."

If the Cubans continue with this system, next year's code will be the same, with only a change in the last two digits. For instance, January 2001 should be "ENE01." The "Current Date Code"—as some Cuban cigar aficionados have come to call it—is the fourth code system to be used on the island.

The first was initiated in 1985 by Francisco Padrón, then the president of Cubatabaco, which became Habanos S.A. The clever head of Cuba's global marketing organization for cigars wanted a method for keeping track of when and where Cuban cigars were produced.

"It was the only way to control quality," he said a few years ago. This was the famous NIVEL ACUSO code, which was used until last year. The code not only denoted the month and year when the cigars were placed in the box, but it also used a code for the factories, such as JM for José Martí and EL for El Laguito.

The code was first published in Cigar Insider in February 1996, infuriating officials at Habanos. They threatened to change the code, and three years later, in early 1999, they introduced CODIG UNETA. It followed the same principle as the old code. The undersides of cigar boxes were printed with the month and date as well as a new factory code. For instance, José Martí became ECA, and El Laguito became EUN.

This code lasted until June 1999, when the Cubans began using a monthly code without factory designations. (Occasionally old factory codes also appeared on boxes.) Called the OO Code by some, it had no apparent system or order, and Habanos officials threatened to change the factory code on a monthly basis.

At the time, Cuban officials had become tired of consumers buying cigars by the code, meaning many boxes of cigars from unknown provincial factories were being bypassed for those made in reputable Havana factories. Nonetheless, the newest code was initiated after lobbying by a number of Cuban cigar agents from around the world.

"It is important for consumers and retailers alike to know how old their cigars are," said one Cuban cigar agent in Europe. "Factories are another thing."

Even some Cubans are not sure that including factory codes on boxes of cigars is a good idea. "Now that you know our code," said one anonymous Cuban official who confirmed one of the codes, "we may have to change it again."

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