The sub-director of quality at the H. Upmann factory in Havana was not happy. I was walking down the aisle of one of the rolling rooms of his well-lighted factory, where about three dozen student cigar rollers were working. I stopped in front of one, grabbed a petit corona off his bench and declared in bad Spanish that the cigar would not draw.
If I had called his sister a whore, I probably would not have had a more furious reaction. "What are you talking about?" he asked, with a look of shock and disgust. He was holding back his rage. I thought he was going to take a swing at me and I began looking which way I should duck, or how I might block his punch.
"Look at this mareva," I said, pinching the four-inch cigar about midway with my thumb and index finger. It's the usual cigar that trainees make during their first three or four months of rolling. "There's a knot here. It won't draw."
I handed the sub-director the cigar. He held it in his hand and thought for a moment and then gave it back to me. "Smoke it," he said defiantly.
"It won't draw," I said. I took the cigar, bit the end off it and started to draw on it. The sub-director took his disposable lighter and placed it at the end of my defective smoke. It drew perfectly! I was a complete cabrón—or ass as they say in Cuban. I told him that I just said that so I could try a fresh cigar, but we both knew that I had made a complete ass out of myself. And I was sorry.
But my intentions were good. Too many bad Cuban cigars have been made in the recent past. I am not saying that the days of plugged cigars are over for Cuban smokes, but the situation is a hell of a lot better. It wasn't that long ago that you would encounter 10 out of 25 cigars in a box of Cubans that were completely unsmokable.
The working conditions at the new Upmann factory, which was opened in November 2003, illustrate why cigar production is improving so quickly. Workers just seem more conscious and disciplined than in the past.
I remember visiting the old Upmann factory, located behind the Partagas factory in central Havana, a few years back, and thinking that the rolling rooms resembled more of a family block party than the key part of an industrial complex. The music was blaring, people were dancing in the aisles and hardly anyone was paying attention to their work. It was hardly the environment to make serious cigars.
Of course, I didn't begrudge them. Any joy in their lives would obviously be a good thing considering their difficult living conditions. I know some workers in Havana who spend three or four hours each day getting to work on the dilapidated public transportation system. Food, electricity and hot water can be scarce at the best of times. But workers in a factory—even in Cuba—can be happy, content and hard-working if they are given the opportunity.
And that's what I have seen at the Upmann factory on recent occasions as well as in the new La Corona factory that opened last year. Workers looked happy. All the work areas—whether leaf selection, blending or rolling—were well lighted, clean and organized. The plants had good food in their cafeterias and readily available medical care. The employees were better off working in the factory than going home and dealing with all the problems of day-to-day life in Cuba.
If you get the chance to smoke a recently produced Montecristo Edmundo, you'll better understand what I mean. When the large cigar (52 ring gauge by about 5 3/8 inches) was released a couple of years ago, it was a very good quality smoke, but it seemed to lack some character. The Upmann factory makes a large percentage of the Edmundo production, and the smokes coming out of the factory are much, much better than the initial release. Officials at the factory would not admit to any changes in the production, but I think it comes down to better craftsmanship. Everybody is working better in these new factories, from tobacco sorter to roller to box finisher.
"Better conditions for the workers means better conditions for production," explained Manuel Romero, head of production at
H. Upmann. He said that the plant had close to 200 rollers, who made just over four million cigars a year. "It is really important for people to feel better in their work here, so that they can work better and make better cigars."
Perhaps even a better example is the Montecristo Maravilla, the new release of Colección Habanos, which comes in a cedar box that resembles a book and contains 20 cigars. The cigar is a mouthful, to say the least, measuring 7 1/8 inches by 55 ring gauge, and although it sounds like too much for many smokers, it delivers wonderful refined character with honey, cedar and almost nutty flavors that only a great Montecristo delivers. Only 500 boxes were produced.
The Cubans continue to talk about a factory in the future that will produce only specialty cigars, from tiny-production humidors to limited editions, just like the Maravilla. This would not only be a public relations triumph, it would also be a great way to assure the quality of such cigars made in Cuba. I met with Buenaventura Jiménez Sánchez-Cañete, the new Spanish head of Habanos S.A., the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, and he confirmed that specialty cigars were an integral part of the future development of Habanos.
He would not be drawn out on what all of next year's special issues will be, but he hinted at a new size of Cohiba. The annual cigar festival in Havana will be held at the end of February, and among the celebrations will be a special cigar to commemorate the 40th birthday of the Cohiba. Word is that it's a big cigar that has never been produced before, and it will be sold for a short time. It won't be sold in limited-edition humidors, which was done for past Cohiba anniversaries.
Cuban cigar lovers might find it easier to buy boxes of this year's release of the selección limitada—the popular line of smokes with aged dark wrappers. The sizes change each year and are produced in limited quantities, usually about 10,000 sticks of each model. Three sizes, or vitolas, will be available to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the selección limitada concept. They will be a re-release of some of the most popular models: Montecristo Robusto, Cohiba Pyramide and Partagas Serie D No. 3.
At one time, the best place to buy selección limitadas was in Havana, but this is no longer the case. Prices have gone through the roof in cigar shops throughout the island due to increases in 2004 that totaled close to 30 percent as well as exchange rate and commission charges. In addition, tourists now have to pay for everything in what the Cubans call convertible pesos, which adds another 15 to 25 percent on everything from hotel rooms to smokes. For instance, if someone buys a box of 25 Cohiba Lanceros for 355 pesos with dollars, he first has to convert them into pesos at about 95 centavos to the dollar and then pay a 20 percent commission. Using a credit card is slightly less expensive, but there's still an 11 percent commission.
Not surprisingly, the handful of key cigar shops I visited in the capital were not selling many boxes of cigars. Their business is down close to 50 percent. Some say the domestic market has shrunk from 11 million cigars a year to only 5 million or 6 million. "People just aren't buying," said one tobacco shop assistant. "Not only do we have less people coming into the shops, those that do buy a lot less."
The shops' selection of cigars, however, was very good, with just about everything available, and the dozens of boxes I opened of current-production smokes looked very high quality. I wonder, however, why anyone from Europe would purchase large quantities of Cuban cigars on the island, other than having the pleasurable experience of buying there. Prices are not much different in Spain and other parts of Europe, so who wants to bother buying smokes in Cuba and having the hassle of bringing them back—especially with how difficult Cuban customs officers at the airports can be as well as their counterparts in some European countries?
At least visitors can still smoke just about anywhere they please on the island. Antismoking regulations went into effect in Cuba last February and there was lots of talk of no smoking in public places in what is in effect a giant natural humidor for cigars. I was in Havana a few weeks later and noticed nonsmoking signs and nonsmoking areas. I was even asked to put out my cigar a few times in bars and restaurants. On my last trip in November, however, nobody seemed to care. The antismoking signs and attitudes were gone, although a few restaurants continued to have nonsmoking sections.
Just to cheer up the sub-director after my stupidity, I asked him if smoking was allowed in the factory considering the new antismoking regulations. He started laughing very loudly. "If you can't smoke here, then where can you smoke?" he said. With that, I continued to enjoy my perfectly rolled petit corona.