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Cuban Comeback

Though Still Beset by Tobacco Shortages, Cuba Gears Up to Meet the Demand
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Benito Molina looks incredibly relaxed for a man whose cigar factory is running at a record pace. As he lazily smokes a Montecristo No. 4 in his office, the cigar rolling rooms of his José Martí factory are packed with workers busily crafting an array of hand-rolled smokes. It has been years since this cigar factory has seen so much activity. Not only is the quality of the cigars being produced very impressive, with their dark, oily wrappers and impeccable craftsmanship, but the number of new workers--almost all in their early 20s--is unprecedented. It's a new era for Cuban cigars.

The country will make 100 million cigars for export this year, boasts Molina, his Cheshire-cat grin pinching the cigar between his teeth. Besides such coveted brands as Montecristo and H. Upmann, his Havana factory is behind Cuba's newest brand, Vegas Robaina, launched in Spain in June. (See sidebar on page 117.) "That's an increase of 30 million cigars from last year," he says. "That's why we have been training more and more rollers, since we knew that there would be a big increase in the harvest this year and an expansion in the production of cigars. We have about 150 student rollers at the moment. They will help us reach our goal of producing 12 million cigars this year at José Martí. That's four million more cigars than last year."Molina's tale is similar to those told by other managers of export factories in Havana, all working at a fever pitch. New factories, new workers, new materials, new brands and new sizes--it's an all-new attitude and commitment from the management and workers in the cigar industry in Cuba. The nation's goal is to reach an annual production of 200 million cigars for export by the year 2000, says Fernando Perez Dil, manager of the Antonio Montoto (Romeo y Julieta) factory. "We are doing all that is necessary to reach that goal."

Mario Delgado, a director of the Union de Empresas del Tabaco, which oversees all tobacco products in Cuba, qualifies that: "What is true is that we are increasing the production. Whether we meet our goal of 200 million by 2000 depends on many things, such as future harvests and the market. We expect this harvest [1996-1997] to be superior to the previous one and so on. In addition, we want the traditional factories for export to reach their full capacity in annual production."

If the Cubans export 100 million cigars in 1997, it would be the largest amount shipped from the island since the 1980s. Cuban cigar exports dropped more than 31 percent between 1990 and 1994, according to figures supplied by Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution organization for Cuban cigars. Some sources in the cigar industry claim the decrease was actually double the percentage reported. Habanos said it shipped about 70 million cigars in 1996.

"We actually exported 72 million cigars last year," says Francisco Linares, head of Habanos. "I don't know why people are saying otherwise. I know what we exported. And we are going to export more. We are in a new era for Cuban cigars. We are in an era of continued increase in production and quality."

Whether the Cubans reach their goal of 100 million cigars this year or 200 million by the millennium remains to be seen. Despite upbeat comments and reports from the island, there are still problems with tobacco and cigar production, especially with the care and processing of the tobacco once it is taken from the fields. Although definitive figures were unavailable at this writing, Alfredo Jordan, Cuba's minister of agriculture, forecasted the 1996-1997 harvest would total roughly 43,450 tons of tobacco, an increase of 31 percent from the preceding year. Plantings of tobacco have increased across the island. About 76,000 acres were reported to have been planted this year in the Pinar del Río, which includes the prime growing region for cigar tobacco, the Vuelta Abajo. That's 27 percent more than the 1995-1996 season, when 60,000 acres were under leaf in the same area.

Besides the Vuelta Abajo, the region of Partido in the province of Havana is becoming more and more important for providing tobacco for export quality cigars--almost entirely wrapper tobacco. Although a large part of the crop from there is still used for export in bulk or domestic consumption, the plantings of wrapper tobacco are on the increase and the quality looks very good, according to sources in Havana. "Years ago, the quality of wrapper tobacco was always considered the best from Partido," says Fernando Pina, agricultural adviser for Habanos S.A., who lives in the town of Pinar del Río. "The wrapper tobacco is finer and more uniform in quality than the Vuelta Abajo."

The Cubans finally appear to have the growing and harvesting of premium tobacco under control again after nearly a decade of problems arising from everything from bad weather to lack of fertilizers and insecticides. However, the drying, fermenting and aging of the tobacco--and all other processes before the tobacco is sent to the factories--still needs improvement. Sources in the cigar trade both in Cuba and abroad say that tobacco yields--the percentage of raw tobacco transformed to a usable form for cigar production--are on the rise on the island but still nowhere near where they should be. "Just a few years ago we were lucky to get 3 percent of a wrapper crop due to poor handling and processing," says one source who is involved in the process. "Recently the percentage has been brought up to between 15 and 20 percent." By comparison, wrapper tobacco suppliers in Connecticut usually average about 80 to 90 percent. Of course, they are much better equipped and more modernized in their processing. Increases in filler and binder are even higher.

Yet some growers in the Vuelta Abajo and Partido are apparently getting near-perfect yields. Growers such as Alejandro Robaina, who is considered Cuba's best tobacco grower and recently had a new cigar brand named after him, gets very close to 90 percent yields. He has won numerous awards for his farming savvy. "This last harvest, my yields were 82 percent," says the 78-year-old tobacco farmer. "I hope to get even better yields this year. Other growers in the Vuelta Abajo could do the same. It's just that other growers or workers in the field do not take the same care as I do. You have to do everything necessary to produce a great crop and do everything at the right time."

Recent reforms in the ownership of tobacco farms could help improve the situation. Cuba has 30,000 private tobacco farmers; 12,000 are in the Vuelta Abajo. Until a few years ago, most of the best plots of tobacco land in Cuba were owned by the state or they were grouped together into large cooperatives with hundreds of members. Students were used for harvesting. The bottom line was that workers in the fields had little incentive or knowledge to care for the tobacco or process it later. Today, growers have the opportunity to buy land though governmental loans, which are paid in kind through tobacco harvests. The difference in quality and yields is quickly improving. "There wasn't much incentive to work more than eight hours a day and do the best you could," says Genoveo Fundora, a tobacco farmer who owns a few acres of land just outside the town of San Luis. "We work all the time now and the land is ours. We are proud of what we do. We wake at 5 a.m. and work until late at night--even on Saturdays and Sundays. It's our land now."

The quality of the tobacco in Vuelta Abajo appears outstanding. The tobacco is pristine looking, large and finely grained. Growers said that it would be lighter in nicotine than some harvests, so it wouldn't take as much processing as other crops. Some compare the quality to the high-quality harvestsof 1981 and 1982. "This is the best harvest I have seenin 20 years," says Jose Emilo Lanza, 74. "We are really increasing the quality this year. The only problem is that it's more and more work. I am not getting any younger. The only problem will be the processing." Recent reports from visitors to Cuba suggest that some problems occurred with the processing due to wet weather in April and a lack of space for drying and fermenting the new tobacco. One source said the Cubans were even using an old movie house to dry and process tobacco since the warehouses were either full or unavailable.

"We had some problems with processing tobacco," admitted Linares in a June interview in Madrid. "But the quality and quantity has never been so high. It's difficult to say exactly how it will turn out at this stage. But I expect the yields to be close to 25 percent for wrapper tobacco in the Vuelta Abajo this year. We are working towards getting better yields every year."

The recently harvested tobacco won't be available for cigars for some time. Some of the wrapper leaf is expected to be usable by early next year and the rest of the crop for filler in another year or two. Still, tobacco reserves for cigars are obviously increasing, meaning the Cubans have latitude to release other tobacco stocks to increase cigar production. This is why a number of cigar factories for the domestic Cuban market have been changed over to produce export quality cigars, and three new factories have been opened, one in the town of Pinar del Río and the other two in Havana, including Por Larrañaga.

The Por Larrañaga factory dates from the early 1830s. Until recently, it was used as a warehouse for second-quality cigars, although it was obviously once a cigar factory--the name "Por Larrañaga" is etched into the building's facade. It is located at 713 Salvador Allende and will house about 250 employees, of which 150 will be rollers. At full production, Por Larrañaga should be producing about 4 million cigars a year. It's expected to produce its namesake as well as Partagas, Bolivar and Ramon Allones cigars. "We will be opening new factories next year and we are planning to plant much more tobacco in the Vuelta Abajo and Partido," said Linares. "This all means more tobacco and more cigars. We are doing everything possible to increase production."

Por Larrañaga will be under the direct supervision of the Partagas factory, whose manager, Ernesto Lopez, is one of the most respected figures in the Cuban cigar business. "Por Larrañaga is the oldest cigar brand for Cuba, and lots of different sizes were made here," Lopez says. "At the time when the factory was going, everyone said that Por Larrañaga had the best rollers in Havana." At the moment, most of the rollers are still apprentices, although they should be up to speed by early this fall. Armando Rodriguez, 53, who was formerly with Romeo y Julieta, is the factory manager; he reports directly to Lopez. "It's all part of Cuba's drive to increase the production of quality cigars for export," he says.

Linares adds: "We have more and more of everything compared to before. We have more plantations. We have more yields. We have more factories and more workers. And we are going to have to work much more ourselves for the marketing and distribution of Cuban cigars."
Cuba's Newest Cigar

Sitting in a smoke-filled room at the Hotel Ritz in Madrid, Alejandro Robaina was a long way from home. He was at a cigar dinner in June to celebrate the launch of Cuba's newest brand, Vegas Robaina. Of course, he more than anyone should have attended, for the 78-year-old tobacco grower from Cuba's Vuelta Abajo is the namesake of the new cigar .

"In all my life, I never imagined that I would be here in Madrid and a cigar would be named after me," says the bantam-sized farmer. Robaina has won numerous awards in Cuba for the quality of his wrapper tobacco grown on his farm, Cuchillas de Barbacoa, near the town of San Luis in the Vuelta Abajo. "This is a great honor for me and my family. We have been tobacco farmers for many, many years and this is the greatest honor of them all."

Five sizes of cigars are made under the brown-and-gold Vegas Robaina band: Don Alejandro, a double corona (49 ring gauge by 7 5/8 inches long); Clasico, a lonsdale (42 ring gauge by 6 1/2 inches); Familiar, a corona (42 ring gauge by 5 1/2 inches); Famosos, a corona gorda (48 ring gauge by 5 inches), and Unicos, a torpedo (52 ring gauge by 6 1/8 inches). For now, the cigars are being sold exclusively in Spain, although they may be launched in another European market next year. The Cubans would not say which one. The cigars sell for between 610 pesatas (about $4) for the corona gorda to 1,200 pesatas ($8) for the double corona.

About 350,000 cigars were produced for the brand's debut. About one million are expected to be made by the end of the year, and two million in 1998. "We have not set a limit yet of how many cigars we want to produce under the Vegas Robaina brand," says Francisco Linares, the head of Habanos S.A., Cuba's marketing and distribution organization for cigars. "We have to see what sort of response we have from the market and how well the production goes."

The cigars are made exclusively in Havana's José Martí (H. Upmann) factory. The wrapper tobacco for the cigars comes solely from Robaina's 30-acre farm, while the filler and binder originates from nearby farms. The cigars are strong, with lots of peppery and earthy character. A double corona smoked at the Madrid event almost blew my head off; a lot of the rough edges were due to its youth. "I find the cigar almost too strong for me," admits Robaina. "But it will improve with one or two years of age. These cigars are very young. They really need some time to improve."

The creation of Vegas Robaina highlights Cuba's recent commitment to introducing new brands into the marketplace. "This is the third new brand for Cuba, after Cohiba and Cuaba," says Linares. "The new brands create interest in the market; true cigar aficionados deserve more and more interesting things from Cuba."

Some of the cigar merchants attending the dinner in Madrid question why Cuba continues to introduce new brands (another brand is planned to be launched in Havana in February) when it can't properly supply well-established brands. In addition, some ask, why introduce large-sized cigars such as Vegas Robaina in a market that traditionally smokes small sizes, mostly petit coronas?

"Spain is our premier market and we owe a lot to it," says Linares. "There are more cigar connoisseurs in Spain than anywhere else in the world, and they like large cigars just like anyone else. I am sure if they had more double coronas, pyramids and others available to them, they would buy more of them." --JS

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