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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 3)

As always, a man at the front of the room read to the rollers over the loudspeaker the day's news from the official state newspaper, Granma. Everyone was intently listening to the stories of the Pope's mission in one of the world's last bastions of communism, but their focus was mostly on the fresh cigars they were rolling. The month before, they and thousands of other Cuban rollers had reached the nation's 1997 goal of rolling more than 100 million cigars for export. This year the government plans to make a mind-boggling 160 million. Like just about every other cigar factory in Havana, Fernando Perez German (which was known as Partagas until the early 1960s) proudly displayed in its entrance a certificate from the state-run Union of Tobacco Workers that cited the factory for helping make 102 million cigars in 1997.

On a different floor of the factory, cigars were being sorted by wrapper color, fixed with the proper bands and placed in boxes. In one room, thousands of pine and cedar boxes were being dressed with colors and designs of just about every brand conceivable, from Partagas to Hoyo de Monterrey. The boxes carried the appropriate factory code on their underside--"FPG," for Fernando Perez German. The code also indicated when the cigars were placed in their boxes--ONSU--or January 1998.

However, a few thousand boxes in the room seemed slightly different from the rest. Covered with the packaging for the Partagas brand, they carried the code "FP9" instead of the normal "FPG." Was this a new code? Was it a new factory? No. It was a simple yet large-scale printing mistake. All hell broke loose when I pointed out the problem to one of the heads of quality control in the factory. She asked various people to look at the mistake and then told them to correct it. This didn't change the fact that thousands of boxes with "FP9" were still being filled with cigars. "That's just a minor mistake," said one Cuban cigarworker. "We are not going to reject them for something like that."

Minor mistakes, however, may be adding up to a major problem for Cuban cigars. Just about every flaw imaginable can be found in Cuban cigars at the moment, from ugly wrappers to tightly rolled bunches to raw filler tobacco; yet, at the same time, some of the best cigars in years are being produced, perhaps some of the best ever. For instance, the quality of the wrapper tobacco currently used on the cigars is outstanding, with a dark, rich and oily look.

However, it's this outrageous quality versus quantity paradox at the moment that has people's heads spinning. Everyone from the Cubans themselves to serious cigar aficionados are asking if huge production increases set for this year and the future can be accomplished without ruining the quality and image of the Cuban cigar industry. Many say it doesn't look promising.

The Cubans are pushing themselves to the limit to meet massive production quotas set by the Ministry of Agriculture. From new plantations to new factories to new workers, everything possible is being done to increase cigar production to historic levels. If the Cubans reach their production goal of 160 million cigars by the end of the year, it will be the first time that they have surpassed 120 million since the early 1980s. If they reach 300 million by 2000 (a goal they revised from 200 million just a few months ago), it will be the first time in a century that they have attained such stellar production levels--and this is with a massive proportion of completely handmade, large-sized cigars, instead of the small ones that dominated the market until a few decades ago.

Cuba has apparently solved its tobacco-shortage problems of the mid-1990s. Last year's crop suffered a little during the production cycle, but this year's crop, much of which had been harvested by late January, looked fabulous. An early February storm, however, slightly changed the situation. Turbulent winds up to 100 miles per hour and torrential rainstorms ripped through most of the key tobacco growing areas, including the Vuelta Abajo and the Partido, as well as raising havoc in Havana. Although a large part of the crop had already been picked, the remainder was hit hard, especially the wrapper crop growing under the cheesecloth shades, called tapados.

"My crop was not affected very much, maybe five percent," said Alejandro Robaina, the legendary grower of wrapper tobacco near the town of San Luiz in the Vuelta Abajo. "However, it was a different story for those who planted later." News reports on Cuban television showed tapados shredded into bits, as well as leveled fields of tobacco. A quick trip in mid-February out to fields near the towns of Pinar del Río and San Juan y Martinez confirmed these reports; many of the tapados were torn down, tobacco plants were growing slightly askew and new plantings were underway. However, the handful of workers I spoke with said that the damage was minimal.

Though problems may have been averted in the fields, the Cubans still face them in the factories. "I am fed up," said Luigi Fasolini, a retired journalist from Milan and a longtime Cuban cigar lover, as he stood in a cigar shop in Havana in late January. "The quality is just not there all the time. The Cubans are making too many cigars. They have too many new rollers. I buy a box for $300 or $400, and four or five of the cigars are unsmokable because they don't draw. I am not complaining about the blend of tobacco. It's the construction of the cigars that I am worried about. I am going to start smoking more cigars from other countries or I am going to stop smoking altogether. It's just too frustrating."

Cigar merchants are equally anxious. "I don't know what to say," said one Cuban cigar agent based in continental Europe. "I am very concerned with the quality. How can the Cubans maintain quality when they are producing so much?"

A London cigar merchant added, "We have more large-sized and popular-shaped cigars than in years past, but we still receive boxes of cigars that I simply cannot sell because the quality is not there, whether it has bad wrappers or poor construction. What can I do about it?"

Even Cubans in the industry in Havana have their concerns. "I don't want to be quoted," said one cigar shop manager, "but the quality from some factories is very good, but in many others it isn't. When you talk about the quality of cigars, you really have to discuss it on a factory-by-factory basis."

Quality was a hot topic during a daylong mid-February seminar in Havana attended by cigar merchants and consumers from around the world. Speaker after speaker asked how Cuba could maintain the quality of its cigars when production was increasing geometrically.

To give the Cubans some credit, key members of the island's cigar industry are not completely blind to the quality issue. Officials at Habanos S.A., the government's global cigar marketing and distribution arm, said that they were attempting to install better quality control measures. "We have definitely increased the quality control," said Ana Lopez, head of marketing for Habanos. "We have heard from the consumer and clients that they are concerned, and we know that there may be some problems. But we are doing the most we can to fix this. For example, we are now going to the factories and checking the quality of the cigars before they are shipped out. We want to reinforce the quality. It is one of our main points for this year. We must maintain quality."

Still, various sources in Cuba concede that enforcing a high level of quality control is very difficult. For instance, Habanos has been trying to persuade the ministry to integrate the production, distribution and marketing of cigars, but its efforts for the most part have fallen on deaf ears. Interestingly, a similar suggestion was made about three years ago by former Habanos head Francisco Padron, and after he was rebuffed, he resigned in protest. (He now teaches at the University of Havana.)

"Some sectors in the government obviously see cigars as an important source of revenue, and they don't want to lose control of that source," said one cigar man in Havana. "They don't want Habanos in control."

The government is certainly putting production in top gear. Just five years ago, fewer than one dozen factories produced cigars for export. The count now tops 30. Most of the new factories are facilities that had made cigars for the domestic market, but were switched to export poduction. How the factories' production methods are improved for export is unknown. Local-market cigars have always been of lower quality, both in craftsmanship and tobacco, than those for export.

In addition, thousands of new rollers are being introduced to cigar factories. Nearly every factory has a rolling school with 100 or more students learning the craft. Most instructors say it takes nine months for a roller to learn, but they admit that some are put to work after a couple of months if they show promise. Some factory officials say that rollers with just over a year's experience can qualify for rolling the illustrious category-seven sizes, which include such difficult-to-roll cigars as double coronas, torpedos and Churchills. Just three years ago, this would have been unthinkable. The same people say that it used to take up to three or four years to do the same. Are the new students' abilities so much better than before, or do the factories need to increase their production regardless of the rollers' talents?

"I am very impressed with the quality of the young rollers," said Natari Fernandez, head of quality control for the Romeo y Julieta factory. "They do their work with the same skill and love as the older rollers before them. I am sure that the quality is as good or better than before."

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.

All of these concerns about quality were thoroughly discussed in a meeting with Francisco Linares, the head of Habanos S.A., and he took serious note of every point. "We are not going to let anything ruin the reputation of Cuban cigars," he declared. "We are extremely concerned with the quality of Habanos, and we will do everything possible to control it." Trumpeting Trinidad Cuba Launches its New Cigar Brand with a Gala Dinner and Auction in Havana

A dozen people were standing at the door of the cigar shop at the Melía Cohiba hotel. It was morning, minutes before the shop opened on February 21, the day after a gala dinner to launch Cuba's newest commercial cigar brand, Trinidad. Cubans had never seen anything like it. Hotel workers and passersby stared at the line in disbelief. As soon as the glass doors opened, cigar smokers piled into the small shop, grabbed their cedar boxes of Trinidad and quickly paid for them at the tiny cash register.

Marco Bacchetta, a Swiss banker and restaurant owner based in London, was the last in line. "It seemed crazy to stand in line to buy some cigars, but I wanted to make sure that I received a few boxes of Trinidads," he said after buying two boxes containing 24 cigars in each. "I came to Cuba for the dinner so I am certainly not going back without the cigars."

With the official send-off behind it, Trinidad is set to be introduced into Mexico and Canada in late spring, and already the legendary marque is receiving great fanfare. Only one size is currently available. Banded with the brand's distinctive gold-and-black label, the Trinidad Fundador measures 7 1/2 inches long by 40 ring gauge, the same length as the well-known Cohiba Lanceros but two millimeters thicker. The cigar is available in boxes of 24 and 50. Trinidad sells for about $330 a box of 24 in Havana, priced between Cohiba Lanceros and Esplendidos.

Originally, Trinidad was the same size as the Cohiba Lanceros, although its darker wrapper made it slightly stronger in flavor. First rolled in the early 1990s in response to Cohiba's soaring popularity, a few hundred Trinidads were made each month, for use almost exclusively as diplomatic gifts from top Cuban government officials. It was first served publicly at a dinner organized by Cigar Aficionado in Paris in 1993.

Trinidad is made at El Laguito--the same factory as most Cohibas. About 1 million Trinidads are expected to be made there this year. Its blend is slightly different from Cohiba, although Emilia Tamayo, El Laguito's manager, says that the same quality of tobacco is used. "All the raw material that we use for Trinidad is ours," said Tamayo, who added that the tobacco for Cohiba and Trinidad is given a third fermentation at the factory before being used. She said that other sizes of Trinidad may be made in the future, but that she hasn't received any orders from Habanos S.A., the Cuban organization in charge of global marketing and distribution of cigars. "Of course, Trinidad is not Cohiba and it will not have the same rigor in wrapper colors. But it will be a very good cigar."


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