The combination of ammonia, cedar, soil and vegetation was slightly stifling as Rafael Collazo assessed the fresh tobacco leaves drying in the warehouse-like buildings known as casas de tabaco. The buildings were surrounded by the red-colored soils of the Partido, a key tobacco growing region about an hour by car from Havana. It was hard to breathe in the thick, saturated air inside the hot building, but the weathered-looking tobacco man was relishing the smell of the new crop.
Collazo, the manager of technical services at this plantation, had a proud glow to his face. It had been years since he had seen such a good wrapper crop in his area, and the fact that he was now holding a handful of days-old harvested Connecticut shade leaf tobacco from an exciting new plantation only added to his delight. A few months before, he had been worried that the crop would be ruined by the tremendous rain storms in November and January, but the wrapper tobacco had been virtually unscathed.
"This is very good indeed," he says, caressing an amber and green leaf with his hand, smoothing over the surface like he was touching the soft bottom of a baby. "This is only our second harvest of Connecticut tobacco. Last year we weren't sure how to cure it properly, but this time we got it right."
With the only light coming from sunlight shining through the small door at one end of the tobacco barn, Collazo continued to examine a bunch of half green, half amber-colored leaves. Hanging in pairs on long poles above the dirt floor of the tobacco barn, the leaves had begun to shrink and shrivel from the heat in the barn. Like a Savile Row tailor feeling his newest shipment of fine cloth and dreaming about the wonderful clothes he would craft for his exclusive customers, Collazo was thinking about the fine cigars these leaves would eventually produce in such far-away markets as England, the Netherlands and Germany. The prestige of producing Connecticut wrapper leaf in Cuba may not be as great as growing El Corojo tobacco in the Vuelta Abajo for handmade Habanos, but Collazo was nearly as proud to think that foreign customers would be clamoring to buy his product.
"This is primarily for export in bales," he explains, noting that this year's planting covered about 500 acres near the town of Sabedero, or about one-fourth of his total plantings. The project is a joint venture with tobacco specialist Lippoel Leaf BV of Baarn, the Netherlands. About $1.2 million has been invested so far. "It is for whoever wants to buy it, but it is mostly for small cigars. We haven't tried to make large cigars with the Connecticut, but there isn't any reason why it wouldn't be outstanding."
So far, the crop, which Lippoel Leaf prefers to call "Cuban-grown shade tobacco of the Connecticut type," has been used for the Dutch firm's clients who make small machine-made cigars in Europe, but there is hope of increasing the market for the product. "It takes time to build a market for something new, " says a spokesman for Lippoel Leaf. "But we are very positive about the future for this new tobacco. There is a demand for light-colored shade tobacco. We are only sorry that it is forbidden in the United States."
Adds Adriano Martinez of Habanos S.A., the world distribution and marketing organization for Cuban cigars: "It has an important place in the market, and we want a part of the action. I can't see how any of the growers or manufacturers of cigars with Connecticut wrapper should care. Most of them have made a point of growing Cuban seed tobacco; so it's the same thing."
Americans are already fully aware of how good a cigar made with Connecticut wrapper can be. Brands such as Macanudo, Davidoff and Dunhill extensively use Connecticut wrappers. Their light brown, almost yellow, color and smooth, silky texture are trademarks for these cigars. In addition, the tobacco is very popular with European producers of small, machine-made cigars and cigarillos, although they usually buy the grades of tobacco not good enough to be used for wrappers. The Cubans hope to tap into the European market with better-quality Connecticut at a lower price. The small cigars could also be sold as 100-percent Havana leaf, which is a plus in many European countries, especially France.
Connecticut wrapper leaf has been grown in various tobacco regions, but none have produced as excellent results as its namesake. The Connecticut River Valley, stretching north from the state capital of Hartford, has the perfect combination of soil and climate to produce extremely large leaves with uniformly fine texture and color. Although plantings are now on the increase, many of the growers in the region had curtailed their production in the early 1980s. Just three years ago, the valley was growing about 1,200 acres of tobacco, but the boom in premium cigars in the last two years has encouraged growers to plant more. In fact, a shortage now exists for large wrapper leaf tobacco, especially the darker brown grades.
Cubans do not expect to sell their Connecticut wrapper tobacco to makers of handmade cigars in such countries as the Dominican Republic or Honduras. Besides, there might be legal problems with such a move, since cigars with Cuban-grown wrappers would be technically illegal to sell in the United States, as are all Cuban products under the 1962 embargo.
Another place where the new crop won't be used is in Cuba itself. "We could use the Connecticut wrapper grown here, but we won't," says Habanos' Martinez. "We will never do that, since it would change the character of the cigars. Our cigars have a unique character and this has not included Connecticut wrapper."
Traditionally, all premium Habanos made for export are produced with wrapper leaf called El Corojo. It is a special strain of tobacco developed in the 1920s and '30s at the famous estate of El Corojo in Cuba's premier growing region, the Vuelta Abajo (See Cigar Aficionado Summer 1995). It is grown under large cheesecloth tents called tapados, as is all shade-grown wrapper tobacco. The shade helps protect the leaves from direct sunlight, giving them a more even color and texture.
Collazo says that El Corojo wrapper is slightly smaller in size and richer in character than his Connecticut tobacco, although he hasn't found huge differences between the two tobacco types. It's also more expensive. Although most of the El Corojo crop comes from the Vuelta Abajo, a fair amount also comes from the Partido and is used for export cigars. "I am very pleased with the color of the Connecticut," says Collazo. "I have looked at U.S.-grown Connecticut tobacco, and I am impressed with the color. It is much deeper colored brown with an almost reddish hue." Given the way the mature plants appeared under the tapados in the Partido fields, the Connecticut variety is thriving in the hotter, tropical climate in Cuba.
Others who have tried the Cuban-grown Connecticut shade are less impressed. "It isn't bad. It isn't good," says one tobacco specialist familiar with the Cuban project and the global market for tobacco. "It doesn't taste like Cuban leaf and it doesn't taste like Connecticut. If you want to do Connecticut, why do it outside [the state]? There is so much land out there still to be planted in Connecticut, but everybody around the world is copying Connecticut. You can find it in Ecuador or wherever, even in Indonesia."
"The most generous thing I can say is that it is an honor and privilege having the Cubans recognize Connecticut as an important tobacco by planting it themselves," adds Austin McNamara, president of General Cigar Company, whose parent company, Culbro Corp., is a leader in U.S.-grown Connecticut shade tobacco. "However, it is hard to imagine that Connecticut shade grown in Cuba will have that sweet, medium body with a clean aftertaste which we get in our fields in Connecticut. Cuban tobacco is known for being much richer and more powerful."
Potentially, the Cubans could plant up to 2,000 acres of Connecticut tobacco--nearly the total shade leaf planting in the Connecticut Valley. "It all depends on the demand in the market," says Collazo, who adds that they exported 90 percent of the crop last year. "It is a commodity. This whole thing is totally commercial. It is clear, given the economic situation that we are in, that we need to find new sources for hard currency."
This year's Connecticut-tobacco crop in Cuba could bring in as much as U.S. top-grade Connecticut wrapper leaf, currently at $30 to $40 a pound. Although Collazo doesn't have a total figure yet, it will number in the millions of dollars--which is perhaps why he seems so full of glee every time he visits a tobacco barn filled with the curing leaves.