Cuban cigars evoke vivid images. Upon lighting a Partagás Lusitania, a Montecristo No. 2, a Cohiba Esplendido or something more obscure, one might imagine waving fields of green tobacco, hear the click-clack of chavetas in a rolling factory or have visions of a Havana nightclub. Few, however, will think of a panel of specially chosen tasters evaluating and discussing cigars in a conference room.
That decidedly unromantic picture is nevertheless a vital part of the process that leads to the creation of new Cuban cigar expressions and ensures continuity of flavor in your favorite brands. Behind the legendary cigars of the Caribbean's largest island is Habanos S.A., the monopoly that oversees the process from seed to store shelf.
"We sit around the room, all 25 to 30 of us, talking and discussing whether or not the cigar is producing the tastes that we have been asked to create by Habanos," says Amaury Borges, trying to explain how new brands are created in Cuba. "It's a very interesting process because everyone is used to smoking particular cigars, often from the factories where they work," he adds, "but when we are together we have to use criteria established for all Cuban cigars."
Borges, one of Cuba's leading tobacco scientists at the Instituto de Investigaciones del Tabaco (Tobacco Research Institute), explains that the institute has detailed records, with some information dating back to before the Cuban revolution, of the physical and chemical composition of tobacco grown on every principal farm in Cuba. "We know the sensory qualities of tobacco grown in every specific location in the country," he says.
As a result, when the marketing department at Habanos comes up with a proposed brand, and outlines the tastes and flavors they want in the cigar, the institute has a good idea of where they need to go to find tobacco for that type of cigar profile. Next comes a rigorous and long process of testing different blends, tasting them, making sure the blend is right for each vitola, or size, being created for the new brand. Then, for the final test, the best rollers in the factory where it will be produced are chosen to create a test batch for the panel.
But Borges' and the institute's role in the creation of Cuba's famous cigar brands goes beyond knowing where the best tobacco is grown in the country and testing cigars. They are part of a large apparatus that determines everything from the seeds authorized for each tobacco-growing season, to taking part in the taste tests for the final product, including the top export brands. The process carefully determines if exacting standards are being maintained for "tabaco negro" or the black tobacco that serves as the foundation for Cuban cigars.
Getting Borges to talk about how Cuban cigars are created stems from a simple, straightforward question: Does Cuba try to maintain a specific flavor profile for each of the country's major export brands?
In the past, seasoned smokers claimed they could tell a Montecristo from a Partagás, or an H. Upmann from a Romeo y Julieta. They assigned the major Cuban brands distinct characteristics: Hoyo de Monterrey was a medium-to-light blend with some herbal notes; Montecristo had a core of coffee and spice; H. Upmann was a lot like Montecristo (perhaps with less power but more finesse); Romeo y Julieta produced a medium-bodied cigar, with cocoa-bean flavors in its benchmark Churchill; and Partagás (especially in the Serie D No. 4 and Lusitania sizes) presented power and spice with long, earthy finishes. Other brands, such as Bolivar and Ramon Allones were often called out as very powerful cigars.
But today, many smokers think those distinctions have been lost, and Cuba's tobacco monopoly, Habanos S.A. has homogenized all the brands toward a common flavor profile.
Borges doesn't know how or why that perception exists today. "We are trying to perfect the selection process of tobacco for each brand," says Borges. "We try, and have always tried, to keep track of the farms that have traditionally supplied tobacco to each brand. We do select tobaccos specifically for each brand. We have a standard of quality that is always sought, of course with variations season to season." As diplomatically as possible, he says, "if a person doesn't have a scientific or objective basis for their perception, I'm not sure there is any reason to believe them."
Using the example of Cohiba, Cuba's most prestigious brand, Borges says that the tobacco for Cohiba's filler blends comes from a very specific region and certain farms, and provides continuity in the production and taste of that brand. "It is the same for other brands too," Borges says.
To ensure that continuity, he explains that samples of every brand from every factory's production are sent to the National Commission For Tasting, a panel made up of a few dozen tasters, all skilled tobacco industry officials and experienced smokers of Cuban cigars. The commission also includes the top tasters from each factory's tasting panel, usually made up of 10 to 15 persons, according to Borges. The tasters on those factory panels are constantly evaluated, and the best are sent to the national commission. The tasters gather once a month to taste together, discussing and debating the characteristics of each cigar. Sometimes the cigar is a new brand but more often it is a review of each major brand from each factory's production. Borges says the panel also judges any new tobacco seed variety that is being developed for commercial use.
One reason for the charge that Cuban brands are becoming homogenized may spring from the fact that since nationalization of the cigar industry in the early 1960s brands are not necessarily made in one factory, but production may be spread across a few facilities.
However, one independent taster, who asked to remain anonymous, is adamant that Cuba's big brands have identifiable flavor profiles. "When you smoke them side by side, you see that Habanos is still preserving the taste of each brand," the taster says. And, reporters visiting factories also have seen bales labeled with the names of specific farms and regions, supporting Borges' contention that factories receive specific leaves for the cigar brands that are rolled in that factory.
The institute's work begins long before the taste tests, with the choice of seed varieties that will be used in each planting season, and for each region where cigar tobacco is grown. Borges says that the current seeds being planted are derived from a core of four seeds, what he called the industry's "battle horses": Havana '92 and Havana 2000 (the first hybrids developed for use in 1992 to fight blue mold outbreaks in Cuba), and then the subsequent hybrids, Criollo '98 and Corojo '99. According to one of Borges' retired colleagues, Eumelio Espino, some subsequent hybrids have been based on those four seed types. But Borges declines to identify the new hybrid approved for the 2016-17 season or the seed it had been derived from. Nor will he describe any specific seeds from previous years.
"What I can tell you is that we have studied which seeds do best in which parts of the country, based on the climate and soil factors, and for which type of cigar leaf we are trying to produce, filler or wrapper," Borges says. He adds that the institute has direct contact with tobacco growers through an extensive network of the institute's agricultural extension offices spread throughout the tobacco growing regions. "We also discuss with the grower what he needs so that he is comfortable with the seeds he is going to be asked to use."
Borges compares the study of which seeds to use in which areas to the genetic studies that produce new seeds. Since Cuba only uses traditional methods of hybridization and cross-pollination, it can take 10 to 12 years to create a new seed variety. But there is an additional two years of testing the seed in the fields around the country. The aim is to identify which seeds produce the best yield and taste in each region. Then, the national commission, or the "inquisition panel" as it is called, judges whether a seed meets the criteria for Cuban black tobacco. Borges says, "It may have great characteristics, like yield or resistance to disease so we may fall in love with it in the field, but if it doesn't have the sensory characteristics of Cuban tobacco, it won't get approved."
Borges says one of the current focuses of the Tobacco Research Institute is to create male sterile varieties of the major hybrids being planted in Cuba. "You can see what advantage that would have for us because there would be no seeds produced by people who are not authorized to have seeds. So, it would be easier to keep the strain of tobacco only here in Cuba," he says.
While he might be secretive about many specifics of his job, Cuba's top tobacco scientist is forthcoming about his favorite cigar: a Montecristo No. 4. He says that he doesn't really like the current trend to bigger, fatter ring gauge cigars. He also says it is always a good idea to age cigars. The institute's studies, he says, have shown that cigars reach their first optimal stage for smoking, when the flavors have all blended together and the cigar acquires a "rounder" taste, after five to eight years.
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