Any time reporters head home after a productive trip, there is a final assessment of what made it into a story and what didn't. You've gotten pretty much everything that Dave Savona and I tapped into on our last trip to Cuba, but there are a few things that haven't seen the light of the day ... some never will, but that's another story.
There is also a story slated for the March/April issue of Cigar Aficionado that came from a great morning spent with the top officials of Habanos S.A., Cuba's global marketing company for its cigars. But here are a couple of items that work better at this point as stand-alone items.
Cigar Roller Ratings
Cuba evaluates the cigar rollers at every factory in the country on a monthly basis. As a roller becomes more experienced and qualified to roll unusual shapes or the country's best cigars, those ratings can rise up a scale that used to top out at nine. So, a roller charged with making a Cohiba Esplendido might be touted as a "9." There's been talk in Cuba that the ratings have been changed so that the top rank is now an "8." Sources say a roller doesn't necessarily stay permanently at the top level, because if their performance rating isn't good enough, they can be moved back down to a lower rating. Some rollers also like to specialize in certain cigar sizes that earn them a particular rating, such as a level 7, and they prefer to remain at that level, instead of being moved up to a higher rating where they might be asked to roll a different size cigar.
"We want to make one thing very clear, we only use natural hybrids for our cigar tobacco. Nothing is genetically engineered," said Buenaventura Jiménez Sánchez-Canete, the co-president of Habanos S.A. He said that any new tobacco hybrids that are being used are the result of a natural cross-pollination between plants that have been selected by the experts. He said it can 10 years to produce a new hybrid using this method, but it is only way they believe in producing the new seeds. He declined to specify which hybrids are currently being used in the fields, but in conversations with several local growers, they said they were planting for the 2010-11 crop both Criollo ‘98, and some Corojo '92, which has been known to have some susceptibility to blue mold infestations. Jiménez Sánchez-Canete of Habanos did say that all the current hybrids are directly derived from traditional Cuban black tobaccos.
There was still a fair amount of subtle anxiety about the consequences of a government plan to lay off up to one million government workers in 2011. The move is coupled with a new law allowing private businesses, in everything from restaurants to shoeshine stands to beauty salons. The problem is that no one is quite sure how the transition from a predominately government work force to at least some private sector labor is going to work; the new businesses are allowed to hire non-relatives for the first time, but there are a series of licenses that have to be obtained—for a cost—and then there will still be heavy taxes to be paid once the business in up and running. So, it is a topic of conversation among almost everyone living in Cuba. The only consensus at this point is that a new era is coming to the island nation. But no one is willing to predict the outcome.
The Cuban government is moving to renovate nearly all of the main Havana factories. On the list for 2011 is the Partagás factory, one of the oldest and by far the one where most tourists seeking a glimpse of the cigarmaking process are allowed inside. The factory will be shut down during the renovation, which executives at Habanos say will take at least six months. The move is scheduled to begin after the Habanos Festival later this month. Production at Partagás will be moved to the El Rey del Mundo factory. Surprisingly, the new H. Upmann factory has already been shut down to correct some structural deficiencies that have cropped up since it was opened in 2003 in Vedado. Production from that factory has been moved to Romeo y Julieta.
Check out our Cuba section for more news on the island nation.