Sometimes I feel incredibly helpless when I smoke Cuban cigars. Take, for example, a recent trip I took to London with the editors of this magazine. We stopped at Desmond Sautter's cigar shop in the city's Mayfair neighborhood on the day of our arrival. Sautter kindly offered us each a Partagas Piramide Limitada, one of the new small-production Cuban cigars.
The dark chocolate-colored torpedo cigar looked rather rough with its maduro wrapper, which the Cubans say has been aged and slowly cured two years to achieve its dark color. But I had great expectations for the smoke considering all the fanfare it had caused in Havana. I quickly cut a bit off the tapered end and lit the cigar. It took a minute or two to get going, which should have been an indication of something amiss. I puffed and puffed and puffed. But it only seemed to be half burning.
I asked my colleague George Brightman how his Piramide was smoking. He said just fine. I could see the bright glow of ash beginning to build on his cigar. I finally asked him if I could have a hit off his smoke. He passed it over and it drew wonderfully, slow and steady, yet with great ease. Mine was like trying to smoke a lead pencil. It was obviously partially plugged and was not drawing correctly.
Sautter was nice enough to offer me another Piramide. He carefully felt a half dozen of the cigars in their ornately decorated box before handing me one. He squeezed each one just the slightest from head to toe, checking for hard spots and overfilling, which could suggest that the cigar would draw poorly. "This one's overfilled with tobacco," he said with great discernment. "That one seems to have a hard spot just under the band. Ah. Here's a nice one. It feels just right. That will do you good."
I had an immediate smile on my face in anticipation of a satisfying smoke. I cut a half inch off its tapered end and I began to draw on the cigar before lighting it. "Desmond, I don't want to be ungrateful, but this cigar is also plugged," I said.
Sautter looked distraught. "This is a big problem," he said. "I have a number of customers complaining how their cigars won't draw. And there's nothing we can do to correct the problem."
Finally, the third Piramide I tried from the box did finally draw, and it smoked wonderfully. Granted, the Partagas Piramide Limitada is a young and rough smoke at the moment. One of my fellow editors pitched his into the gutter after a few minutes, saying it was much too harsh. But I still believe that it will be a well-regarded smoke in three or four years as the tobacco begins to mellow. However, having to smoke three cigars to find a smokable one is ridiculous.
My experience is apparently not an isolated one. What I can ascertain from friends and members of the cigar trade around the world is that the percentage of plugged smokes in a box of Cuban cigars is running about 20 to 30 percent. If this is true, it's totally unacceptable. So, if you buy a box of 25 Cuban cigars, which may cost $300 or $400, up to seven or eight of the cigars will not smoke. That's throwing away -- or shall we say not burning -- close to 100 bucks a box. How incredibly unfair!
The Cubans are certainly aware of the problem and are trying to correct it. They are even planning to use suction machines to test the draw of their cigars before they are placed into boxes. This is a popular apparatus in many of the Dominican Republic's top cigar factories. The most widely used machine tests the cigar just after it comes out of the presses and before the wrapper is applied. The bunch is placed in the mouth of the machine, which looks like a small plastic tube, and the machine measures the resistance of the air being drawn through the bunch. Those with too much resistance, which would assimilate a plugged cigar, are rejected. Moreover, the roller who made the cigar is reprimanded and instructed how to improve the technique.
One of the pioneers with this form of quality control is the Dominican Republic's Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. in La Romana, now the property of the Spanish/French tobacco giant Altadis, which makes such U.S. brands as H. Upmann, Montecristo, Santa Damiana and Oynx. The manager of the factory, Jose Seijas, said that it has reduced its rejection level of plugged cigars to 2 to 3 percent with the machine (before it was used in the late 1980s, the level was about 35 percent).
"If you have the greatest tobacco in the world and you make a cigar that doesn't draw, then you have nothing," Seijas said during a visit by Cigar Aficionado editors to the factory this winter. The hundreds of rollers in his factory obviously know that Big Brother (in the form of the suction machine) is going to check the draw of their cigars, so they better make them the best quality possible from the beginning.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for rollers in Cuban factories, although the situation may change with the introduction of the machines mentioned above. Currently, the only form of quality control is through visual observation of the rollers by floor managers as well as limited weighing of bundles of 50 cigars from each roller and the periodic smoking of a few cigars by quality control personnel. I can't say how rigorously these simple forms of quality control are carried out, but if my recent bad experiences with plugged cigars are any indication, they need improvement.
Factory quality control people I know in Havana say that rollers can be put on probation and can even lose their jobs if they continually make poor quality cigars. I am sure that this happens. However, I have to wonder if the average cigar roller in Cuba, particularly the younger ones, really cares that much about the craft. Salaries are extremely low. Life is not easy. The incentive to do well isn't there.
Nevertheless, no one can say that Cuba doesn't have the best cigar rollers in the world. Some of the old masters of the craft, the men and women who have sat at their worktables for decades, are true artists in the way they roll their cigars. They are the best in the business.
However, I have a hunch that a lot of the plugged Cuban cigars we are smoking at the moment are due to the carelessness of inexperienced, young rollers. Hundreds of new rollers were brought on board a few years back to make hundreds of thousands of cigars. Just five or six years ago the Cubans were exporting about 50 million cigars a year. This year they hope to export 150 million. That's a huge increase, and the new rollers had to be hired and rushed into production. I remember 10 years ago, when it took close to a decade to be a top-rated roller -- one who makes such cigars as the double corona or pyramid -- but today it can take less than a couple of years.
That said, however, the blame for plugged cigars may not even be the fault of careless rollers who twist the bunch of their cigars as they make them. According to some tobacco officials, the new types of tobacco used on the island as well as the rushed fermentations and curings may lead to overfilled cigars. The tobacco that rollers use may be thicker, wetter and harder to roll than material used in the past. So, a fresh cigar may feel correct in the hands of an experienced roller but it could still be overfilled. "It's always a combination of things when you have widespread quality control problems," said one highly respected cigar producer.
That statement most certainly underlines what is going on with Cuban cigars at the moment, and I am convinced that the Cubans themselves are going to remedy the situation. I spent a couple of hours in January with Oscar Basulto, the head of Grupo Empresarial de Tobaco, the new umbrella organization that controls tobacco growing, cigar production, and marketing and distribution of cigars. Before, each of the three cigar sectors operated separately, and often one didn't know or care what the others were doing. But today, the unification should improve just about everything in the production of Cuban cigars. "Just give us time," Basulto said in his office in Havana. "It all can't be changed overnight. We recognize the problems and we are going to correct them to the best of our ability."
If only he knew how much I was rooting for his success during my short trip to London a few days after our meeting. After my disastrous stopover at Sautter's shop, I smoked a San Cristobal de la Habana Il Morro after lunch at the chic West End restaurant Che -- and it didn't draw. I found a hard spot just under the band.
Luckily, I was able to cut the cigar in half just in front of the plug and it drew just fine. Hence, it was downgraded from a quasi-Churchill cigar to a corona, but the cigar had beautiful aromas and flavors. It was a glorious way to finish a meal. Maybe the San Cristobal was not the cigar I had completely hoped for -- it certainly was not what it should be in length -- but in this day and age, a Cuban cigar smoker has to do the best he can.