Posted January 31, 2000, 6:30 p.m. e.s.t.
What do these combinations of Cuban cigars and factories have in common? Trinidad in the El Laguito factory…Cuaba in Romeo y Julieta…Vegas Robaina and Diplomaticos in José Martí…San Cristobal in La Corona…the Cohiba Siglo Series in Partagas…and Vegueros in the Francisco Donatien factory in the town of Pinar del Río?
These cigars are made only in their respective factories -- a fact that gives (or should give) consumers confidence in the provenance of their cigars. It assures a higher level of quality and a greater detail to craftsmanship. Granted, not all of the cigars mentioned above are great quality (Cuaba, in my opinion). But good or bad, we know where all of these cigars are made. It's not like other brands, which can come from dozens of different factories scattered across the island.
Every factory manager with whom I spoke last year in Havana agreed with me. They believe that factories that make a particular brand or size in exclusivity can better control the quality. Perhaps it's a matter of personal pride, since workers know that the cigars are "theirs" and can only come from "their" factory. The downside? If there is a problem with these cigars, the entire factory can be held accountable.
Why else would Emilia Tamayo, the head of El Laguito (the mother factory for Cohiba) want to enlarge her fabrica to a size where all of the classic Cohiba shapes are made within its walls?
"These are my cigars," she said to me in her office last year as I puffed on a Lanceros fresh from the rolling benches of her factory. "I don't like the idea of them being made outside of these walls."
Of course, Tamayo has a say -- in theory -- in the quality of Cohibas made outside of El Laguito. All major export brands have what the Cubans call a mother factory. For instance, José Martí (also know as H. Upmann) is the mother factory of Montecristo and its technicians regularly visit the dozens of other factories around the island to assure that the proper blends of tobacco are used to replicate the various sizes and shapes of Montecristo. Tamayo's technicians do the same with the Robustos, Esplendidos and Siglos, all of which have never been made at El Laguito. (Those Cohiba sizes are manufactured at the Partagas, H. Upmann and La Corona factories.)
However, as nice as all this sounds, it really doesn't work that way. Sure, technicians travel to the different factories and check blends, but they can't control workmanship. They don't walk around the rolling galleries and make sure that the cigars are being rolled properly. This responsibility is reserved for the factory managers and the quality control people. In other words, there are always going to be differences in quality between one factory and another. This is why we all used to buy our cigars by the factory code until Cuban cigar officials made it all undecipherable. They knew that there were differences in quality among their 40 or so factories and that savvy smokers wanted to buy their cigars only from the best fabricas. The fact that boxes of cigars with codes from JM (José Martí) or BM (Briones Montoto) sold out before those with codes from factories in the provinces infuriated them.
At the moment, three Havana factories stand out in my mind as the best on the island: El Laguito, La Corona and Heroes de Moncada. If you walk through the rolling galleries of these three fabricas, they have the oldest and most experienced rollers. By comparison, a large percentage of the rollers in such factories as Partagas and Jose Marti are young and unexperienced. On a whole, the best cigars are made by rollers with the most experience.
Heroes de Moncada (HM) is blessed with an extremely talented group of rollers. I saw bench after bench of super veteran rollers as well as their children who had learned from them. Unfortunately, HM does not have its own brand, factory manager Orlando Luis Marin would like one.
"My dream is to have a brand for our factory," said Marin, early last year. "It is important for the morale of the workers. It gives them something to be very proud about."
Being proud about something you make is what great cigars are all about. So, the more factory-specific cigars such as Trinidads and San Cristobals, the better for all of us -- smokers and cigar craftsmen alike.
# # #