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Cuba Quandary

As Cubans Increase Cigar Production, the Quality is Starting to Suffer
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 2)

The number of machine-made cigars is certainly higher than before. In 1997, machine-made cigars totaled about 13 million, although some say the official figure is much lower than what was actually made. This year, Cubans hope to make about 40 million machine-made cigars, and this doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of handmade cigars with short-leaf filler, or "Cuban sandwich" cigars as some like to call them. "We see a good market for such cigars since they are much less expensive than handmade ones and they have the same quality filler," said one Habanos spokesman.

The fact that specific brands continue to be produced in multiple factories may make it difficult for the Cubans to control the blends and rolling methods of particular brands. In other cigar manufacturing countries, cigar brands are normally made in a specific factory, where the quality of the brand and the blend of tobacco can be more closely monitored. "You can't properly control the quality of a particular cigar brand if you are making it in several factories," said Orlando Padrón, the patriarch of Padrón Cigars, which produces cigars in Nicaragua. "We have tried and it doesn't work."

It is certainly debatable if multiple-factory, single-brand production works in Cuba. For years, Cubans have said "mother factories" systematically send technicians to satellite factories to control the blends and quality of their cigars, but in some cases, it doesn't appear to be true. Smoke a Montecristo made outside Havana--with box codes such as VC or CM--and see for yourself. The quality is not there. Various factory managers outside of Havana admit that they never see technicians from mother factories. They do not even see quality-control people from the Ministry of Agriculture. Moreover, they say that they have to use every bale of tobacco sent to them from the ministry, regardless of its quality.

This isn't to say that some factories do not work extremely well. The highest-quality factories are Havana's El Laguito (EL on the box), José Martí (JM), formerly H. Upmann; Fernando Roig (FR), formerly La Corona; and Briones Montoto (BM), formerly Romeo y Julieta. Buy boxes of cigars from these factories--be sure to check the code on the bottom of the boxes--and you shouldn't have a problem acquiring quality smokes. (Be aware that the codes are expected to be changed sometime this year.)

When we visited them this past winter, the managers and quality control people at these factories were the country's most conscientious about quality. Moreover, handmade cigars being produced in the rolling rooms in these factories looked magnificent, although a large number of tobacco workers recommended aging the cigars for up to a year before smoking to overcome their slightly raw character. All the quality-control people agreed that the pressure from the government to produce and ship cigars was so intense that they could not process or age their tobacco and cigars properly.

Of all the cigar factories, El Laguito is probably the best. The mother factory for Cohiba, it exclusively produces four sizes: Lancero, Corona Especial, Exquisito and Panatela. So if you must have a Cohiba, buy those. The other sizes, such as Esplendidos and Robusto, are made in a number of other factories in Havana, and their quality is less consistent. El Laguito also makes the new Trinidad cigar, which was launched in Havana in February at a gala dinner at the Habana Libre Hotel (see sidebar, page 100). El Laguito manager Emilia Tamayo soon hopes to produce the entire range of Cohiba cigars at her factory when it is enlarged this year, instead of having such sizes as Siglo, Robusto and Esplendidos made in other factories. "I want to be in control of my cigars. It makes sense," Tamayo said, adding emphatically, "I would rather die than produce poor cigars in my factory."

Whether changing the production structure would ever make sense to the Ministry of Agriculture remains to be seen. No one from the agency would comment or meet with Cigar Aficionado to discuss the quality dilemma. The ministry did insist that editors from this magazine as well as anyone else visiting the factories pay an entrance fee: $10 for a tour, $75 for taking photographs and $150 for filming. "The entire thing is out of hand," said one factory manager. "We have to reduce the number of tourists visiting factories since it inhibits workers from doing their jobs, but they seem to see the visitors as a source of income."

Indeed, cigars are an increasingly important source of income for the Cuban economy. This year, Cuban cigar exports will approach US$300 million. The local market for tourists buying Cuban cigars has risen from just a few hundred thousand dollars about five years ago to close to $10 million last year. Factory visits, gala dinners and cigar sales add up to a lot of money in the government's coffers.

But some people are fed up with what they perceive as the government's obsession with hard currency. "I did not go to the Trinidad dinner this year because I felt that the Cubans do not appreciate the work which we have done promoting and selling their cigars," said Edward Sahakian, owner of the Davidoff shop in London. "All they seem interested in at the moment is gaining more money."

It's this perceived obsession that could ruin Cuba's plans for selling 300 million cigars two or three years from now. Printing the wrong code on a few thousand boxes is a mistake that few will take seriously, but making mediocre cigars is another matter. In the April 1998 issue of Cigar Aficionado, a Cuban Partagas received an 80, the worst rating the magazine has ever given to a Cuban cigar.

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