You walk through the wide doorway with the tropical heat following you inside, and step onto a cracked marble floor, wondering just how many shoes have walked this weathered path before you.
The clamor of workers going about their business reaches your ears and grows in volume with every step: A shout in rapid-fire Cuban Spanish, a call to an amigo, a friendly laugh, the hearty baritone of a golden-throated lector reading the daily news.
Busts of José Martí stand atop pedestals and photographs of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara cover the walls. This is a Cuban cigar factory, a living, breathing thing that comes to life each workday.
Then it hits you—the smell of unlit cigar tobacco, earthy and pungent and remarkably intoxicating. It pulls you closer to the factory’s heart, a siren song that can’t be ignored, and you walk into the massive galera, the main rolling room of the fabrica. There before you are scores of workers, each making cigars entirely by hand. It’s an unrushed, antique and artisinal process, one that has not changed in any major way for hundreds of years.
Havana is the birthplace of premium cigars, and the city is dotted with cigar factories of all shapes and sizes. Most tourists believe only the Partágas Factory is open to visitors, but three in Havana welcome tourists: the Romeo y Julieta Factory (which has been transformed into the temporary home of H. Upmann), La Corona and Partagás.
Production here is unlike almost every place else. Cuban cigarmakers, unlike their counterparts in most of the non-Cuban cigar world, make the entire cigar themselves. Most cigar factories in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua split the process between roller and buncher. (And many have males doing the bunching and females rolling.)
Cuban cigar factories also eschew Temsco, or Lieberman bunching devices, leather and steel pads that help the buncher craft the filler and binder together. Also in Cuba you typically see a cigarmaker, or torcedore, use two binder leaves rather than one large one.
While Cuba was the first to make cigars, Havana cigar factories have learned some new tricks from their counterparts in the Caribbean and Central America. Draw testing machines are now in every Cuban cigar factory, which makes for better cigars, and has greatly reduced the draw problems that plagued Cuban cigars in the late 1990s. Cigar production has also slowed considerably, and is far from the crazy days that came as a reaction to the cigar boom.
Here is a look at the factories you can tour, and what makes each one special. The government fixes the tour prices, and visiting any one costs 10 cuc (about $11.50). Note that Cuba is in the midst of refurbishing some of its factories. The iconic Partágas Factory was supposed to be closed in the spring, but as this issue went to press it was still open.
Check with your hotel about any changes before heading out for a tour. For those willing to spend a day out in Pinar del Río, there’s another factory you can see.
Romeo y Julieta/H. Upmann Factory
Belascoaín 852 entre Peñalver y Desagüe, Centro Habana
For the first time in years you can go inside Havana’s Romeo y Julieta Factory, which is the new (and temporary) home of the H. Upmann cigar brand.
This is a somewhat confusing situation. The original 1800s H. Upmann Factory was closed in the early 2000s when H. Upmann moved to what was touted as one of Cuba’s most modern cigar factories. That new home didn’t handle Havana’s punishing summer climate nor its ocean air very well. After a mere 10 years, Cuban officials ordered it closed for renovations, and decided to move H. Upmann into Romeo y Julieta.
So Romeo y Julieta is now operating as H. Upmann. In February 2011, H. Upmann factory manager José Miguel Barzaga Maceo and his workers had moved into Romeo, and began making cigars. By May, the transformation was almost complete. The Romeo factory had been decorated with umpteen banners and posters featuring the H. Upmann brand, while items were still being moved around and painters worked on small touchups.
As well as the entire production of Cuba’s H. Upmanns, the factory also rolls some Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas and several sizes of Cohiba. While the factory is also in charge of the diminutive Diplomaticos brand, none were
being rolled in May. The rest of Romeo y Julieta production (it’s a large brand, with many sizes) is spread out among other Cuban cigar factories.
The factory is very clean, and very efficient. There’s a beautiful old marble staircase to the left when you enter, and a huge black and gold banner reading H. Upmann Havana. The rolling gallery is one of Havana’s largest, with huge windows along either side providing light for the workers. There are 204 torcedores working here. The gallery buzzes like a hive, and is quite colorful, as some of the cigar molds are painted bright blue or crisp yellow, along with the more standard plain wood or black.
The factory was rolling several new cigars in the spring, including the H. Upmann Half Corona and the H. Upmann Royal Robusto (a size that will be exclusive to Casa del Habano stores throughout the world). Each of these new sizes were introduced at the Habanos Festival in February 2011.
The factory is quite popular with tourists disembarking cruise ships. There’s a good, but not great, cigar store around the corner due to be upgraded to a Casa del Habano. The renovation of H. Upmann is scheduled to last until around spring of 2012, but could be delayed.
(aka Francisco Pérez Germán)
Calle Industria No. 520, Centro Habana
The 166-year-old Partagás Factory, arguably Cuba’s best known cigar factory and certainly the one most frequented by tourists, was expected to be closed by now for extensive renovations. As this issue went to press, cigars were still being rolled there, but only special tours were being allowed. If you visit Havana and find it still open, try to wrangle a visit.
Partagás is a grand facility. Stand outside for a moment and take a full look, taking in the four stories with its signature balconies, shuttered windows and the oversized red and white Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagás sign. (Standing outside admittedly requires a bit of patience. You are all but certain to be approached by locals selling cigars, even by the front door. Resist the urge—what they sell is almost assuredly counterfeit.)
Walking inside, past the metal gates, take another moment to look up from the open center to watch as workers move about the floors above. Also take in the grand skylight far overhead. The walls are stone and wood, and the entire place teems with history.
Built in 1845, Partagás certainly shows its age, with crumbling steps, creaky floors and all manner of things needing fixing. One doesn’t question the need for a ‘This Old House’ style makeover.
The rolling gallery has style, with large windows that open in the middle and a grand stage at the front of the room, where a lector sits, carefully reading the news aloud to the cigarmakers as they work. All wear bright red shirts sporting the Partagás logo as they roll cigars, sort tobacco, or weigh blends to be made into smokes. They make the Partagás brand, of course, along with Bolivar, La Gloria Cubana, Ramón Allones and Quai D’Orsay cigars, as the factory is the mother factory for those brands. A group of older workers, former cigar rollers, look over cigars for quality control, spot-checking the work of their younger comrades.
When this factory closes, its production will be moved to the El Rey del Mundo Factory, a gorgeous white building decorated with Ionic columns. That factory was closed in May, in the midst of its own renovation, preparing it for the workers from Partagás. The equally iconic Partagás Factory Casa del Habano store is scheduled to remain open throughout the renovation of the Partagás Factory. This is a wonderful cigar store that should not be missed.
La Corona Factory
(aka Miguel Fernández Roig)
Av. 20 de Mayo y Línea de Ferrocarril, Cerro
Just around the corner from the busiest baseball stadium in Cuba is the La Corona Factory. This building served as a cigarette factory until 2000, when it was converted into a cigar factory.
The factory lacks the style of Romeo or the charm of Partagás, and has quite the Eastern Bloc feel. The entrance is small and simple, and inside the paint scheme is heavy on mustard yellow and dark brown. The very center of the building, which all can see from inside, is dominated by a five-story industrial elevator, with an open shaft and steel I-beams. It’s far from the most attractive cigar factory in the world.
Still, the factory makes some very good smokes. This is the mother factory for Cuaba, Hoyo de Monterrey, Punch, San Cristóbal de la Habana, Flor de Cano and Por Larrañaga. There are workers here who can make amazing cigars, such as the multifaceted Cuaba Salomon. On a recent visit, a slim man in a green tank top carefully crafted a Salomone while puffing on a panetela.
The crowded rolling gallery has an intriguing system of lights fashioned on curved poles at every roller station. There’s a tasting room at La Corona with cubicles, each one designed for a cigar taster. They work early in the morning (to ensure a fresh palate) and rate cigars to ensure quality.
While the factory definitely merits a visit, you should skip the lackluster cigar shop next door. It’s plagued by cigar hustlers hawking fake smokes, and is a better place to buy rum than fine cigars. It’s not meant for the sophisticated cigar aficionado.