Cuban cigar factories are changing for the better. What they are going to look like is going to be hard for some to believe, or even understand. They will be well-appointed buildings and comfortable workplaces where tobacco and people are efficiently managed in the best way possible to produce the best possible cigars.
At least this was the idea I had when I visited two new factories in Havana late last year.
I saw the factories, one in Nuevo Vedado and the other in Boyeros, two neighborhoods outside old Havana. The buildings were still just freshly painted shells, but the plans, according to Fernando Lopez, the head of all Cuban cigar factories, was to "create modern and efficient factories in which to make cigars." Some of the buildings' interiors were already constructed, with everything from marble floors to the latest in ventilation, humidity and temperature control, as well as bright and clear lighting.
Images of clean and well-run factories in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua ran through my mind. Lopez described what the new factories would become as we walked through the building sites. It seemed slightly surreal strolling through the expansive modern interiors after more than a decade of visiting historical, decaying cigar factories, the norm in Cuba. I had to keep pinching myself as a reminder that I was still in Havana.
The fabrica in Nuevo Vedado formerly was used to make Partagas cigarillos, also called minis, while the building in Boyeros was used to produce H. Upmann cigarettes. The former will become the H. Upmann factory while the latter will comprise the consolidation of the La Corona and Por Larrañaga factories. Meanwhile, the Heroes del Moncada factory is due to be closed. The four old factories will no longer produce cigars. Apparently, very little from them will be moved to the new plants, other than the workforce. The ancient factories were too decrepit to merit repairing; the Cubans thought it was better to start from scratch.
It won't be the same visiting the new José Martí and other factories when they are finally finished this spring. The old factories have a place in my heart. It always has been like taking a time machine back to the 1950s in Havana. You walked through run-down buildings with their stained walls and floors, crumbling wooden work benches, and dim fluorescent lighting. The air in these factories was so dense with tradition that it was almost hard to breathe; they were saturated in human toil and historic craftsmanship combined with a good dose of mature tobacco.
A visit to José Martí or any other Havana factory for a keen cigar smoker was almost like a trip to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for a devout Jew. There was nothing like it. The history, and the sense of tradition in those old cigar temples, enhanced the visitor's appreciation of a great hand-rolled Cuban cigar. I only hope that other Americans have the chance to visit Havana very soon to catch a glimpse of the old ways.
The fact remains that the working conditions in José Martí and a number of other Havana factories were always less than ideal for making quality cigars. I am no industrial engineer, but it has been pretty obvious that the flow of materials in such factories as José Martí and La Corona was not optimal. A lot of the inefficiency was due to the layout of the buildings. "These factories were not designed for the production of cigars today," says Evis Placer, the vice president of logistics for Habanos S.A., the global distribution company for Cuban cigars. "The rooms are small and there is just not enough room to do things properly."
Moreover, I have to believe that the workers, from the men and women who take the tobacco out of bales to those who roll cigars, are going to be a lot happier. Therefore, the factories should make better cigars. As picturesque as some of these old factories are, the working conditions are difficult, particularly in the hot, humid summer. Cigar rollers must feel more like members of a chain gang rather than talented craftsmen who make one of the greatest handmade products on earth. Whether it has the same image or not, a new, professional environment is bound to give workers more confidence in their work.
Another reason that many of Cuba's best cigar workers will take more pride in their work is that many brands will soon be produced in one unique factory. So, in many cases, several cigar brands will no longer be rolled in various factories.
Obviously, this is not going to be the case for big names such as Montecristo or Partagas, in which tens of millions of cigars a year are sold under their distinctive labels. But small brands are going to be made in specific factories, according to Lopez. He added that Cuba has 34 cigar brands (not all are in wide use) and that the production of about two dozen of them are concentrated, or are being concentrated, into single factories.
Here is a partial list of the factories where most of the brands are or will be made. The brands in boldface are made in more than one factory, but the one where they are listed in bold type simply oversees all the production, even those sizes made at other sites:
Nueva La Corona (Miguel Fernández Roig), Havana: Punch, San Cristóbal de la Habana, Hoyo de Monterrey, Flor de Cano, Por Larrañaga, Belinda and Cabañas
Partagas (Francisco Pérez Germán), Havana: Partagas, Bolivar, La Gloria Cubana and Ramón Allones
Romeo y Julieta (Antonio Briones Montoto), Havana: Romeo y Julieta, Cuaba, Saint Luis Rey, Quai d'Orsay, and Rey del Mundo
Nueva H. Upmann (José Martí), Havana: Montecristo, H. Upmann and Diplomáticos
El Laguito, Havana: Cohiba and Trinidad
La Habana, Havana: Fonseca, Sancho Panza and Juan López
Rey del Mundo (mostly machine-made), Havana: Statos de Luxe, Troya and Gispert.
Pinar del Río (Francisco Donatién): Vegas Robaina and Vegueros
Holguín: José L Piedra
The consolidation of Cuban cigar production is a critical change. I always wondered how quality and consistency could be properly maintained when a large majority of the brands were made in various factories. I had assumed that it was possible to make a consistent blend in a particular cigar and brand in different factories, but seeing the process with my own eyes gave me great doubts. This was especially true a few years back when unrealistically high production goals were set. How could the Cubans ever keep track of everything when cigar factories were making smokes at a feverish pace, often with many unskilled rollers?
Worse, I found many cigars tasted similar from about 1996 to 2000. Or at best, some very strong cigars such as Bolivar tasted rather insipid. I remember one cigar roller who had worked at Partagas. He recalled the floor manager telling him not to worry about what he was making. "It is all the same," the supervisor had said. "We will just change the bands."
Lopez argues that cigars were never made that way, but he admits that the blends may have suffered during the rapid production expansion. He said that the factories are now fine-tuning blends, even going back to old styles and characters of specific brands and sizes. "For a few years we've made some changes in some of the vitolas [sizes], but we're now at a stage where we are evaluating this situation and trying to go back to the original mix in those vitolas that traditionally had a different mix," he says. "The time and the raw materials are available, so now is the time to reevaluate those vitolas and go back to their
Of course, I never wanted to believe such stories of Cuban cigars all being the same except for the band. But many cigar aficionados remained keen on buying their cigars according to where they were produced, believing that some factories were better than others. That's one reason I broke the secret factory code several years ago to give everyone the opportunity to buy cigars from the factory of their choice. Today, factory codes are still printed on the bottom of every box, but they change periodically.
Obviously, some factories still produce better cigars than others. It's inevitable, because making cigars is not a classic industrial endeavor. People make the difference, whether it's a floor manager with a good attitude or a roller with great pride. People with the proper motivation make better cigars. There's no doubt about that. Rollers who can concentrate on one brand, or even one size, also tend to make better cigars.
Of course, all this may very soon be obvious to everyone when the new factories start functioning at full speed and the consolidation of brand production is completed. We should all be smoking much better quality Habanos very soon indeed.