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The Pilgrimage

Cigar Factory Tours Can Be the Holy Grail for Aficionados Touring Havana. But Be Prepared to Do Some Penance
| By James Suckling | From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

The small man at the front of the expansive room speaks over the antiquated intercom, reading a story from Granma, the official party newspaper of Cuba. His voice crackles through dusty speakers mounted on yellowing walls. Dozens of men and women intently listen to his words as they roll cigars of various sizes and shapes on the wooden workbenches that line the main room of the first floor of the building. The rollers bang their small metal knives on slabs of wood as they shape and finish cigars. The noise from their chavetas accentuates the tinny sound of the reader's voice and blends with the pungent aroma of rich tobacco leaf. * This has been the scene of cigar making in the Partagas factory for decades. It is here that some of the greatest cigars of Cuba are produced, from the majestic Partagas Lusitania Double Corona to the powerfully rich Cohiba Robusto. As one of the oldest cigar manufacturers on the island, Partagas represents the splendor and the tradition of the industry better than any other factory. Its large colonial-style facade in cream and brick-red paint

is a landmark in downtown Havana. Large, bold block letters state at the top of the building--"1845 Partagas Real Fabrica de Tabacos"--which proudly testifies that the factory has been making great cigars for 154 years.

Judging from the crowds that regularly swarm the rolling rooms of the Partagas and La Corona factories (the only two in Havana that are regularly open to visitors), factory tours are a strong lure for visitors to the city. Of the 42 factories producing Cuban cigars for export, it is the handful located in Havana that are considered the very best. Partagas (also known as Francisco Perez German) and La Corona (Fernandez Roig) are among the cream, and with their scheduled tours of 30 to 45 minutes, costing between $5 and $10 a person, they deliver a memorable visit.

That said, cigar enthusiasts should not expect an all-absorbing experience touring a Cuban factory. In this nascent area of tourism, explanations of tobacco processes or manufacturing procedures are sparse or nonexistent.

Tours of the Partagas and La Corona factories usually begin in the rolling rooms, or galeras, as the Cubans call them, bypassing all of the tobacco preparations. This is unfortunate, because seeing the casing, stripping, selecting and other processes affords a better understanding of the hundreds of steps it takes to produce a handmade cigar.

Nonetheless, the galeras are the heart and soul of any factory, the place where visitors will glean a sense of the history of a craft that has been handed down for generations. Rollers, or torcedores, sit in rows, quietly and methodically rolling cigars as they work to the sound of salsa or son music on the radio or the reading of a newspaper. Most rollers can produce from 100 to 150 cigars a day, using only a wooden board, metal knife and small guillotine as well as a bit of glue. The cigars are definitely hecho a mano--or handmade.

After watching the rollers, visitors are shown the quality-control methods whereby large bundles of cigars, about 50 each depending on the size and shape, are periodically checked and weighed according to standards set by the Ministry of Agriculture. (The cigars are also randomly tasted in a room that is not part of the tour.) Recently, the number of rejected cigars has been greater than normal due to the influx of new rollers and pressure to make more cigars. Apparently, however, the proportion of rejects is returning to normal (usually about 2 to 3 percent of the total). Once through the quality-control process, the bundles are placed in a conditioning room at about 70 percent humidity for three to five days to harmonize the moisture in the cigars.

The next stop on the tour takes place in the color-grading rooms where the escogedor, or sorter, groups the finished cigars according to the shade of their wrappers, or outside leaves. Factory officials say they sort using about 65 grades, with color a primary determinant. The sorted cigars are placed in unfinished cedar boxes in order of darkest to lightest, left to right in the box. The cigars are then moved next door to another section of the factory where they are banded and placed in semifinished boxes. In the final step, the green-and-white government seal as well as the red, gold and white "Habanos" label of the government-run cigar exporting organization is added to the box. This helps to confirm the authenticity of the cigars.

Those who want more than to simply witness production will not be disappointed. At the La Corona and Partagas factories, shops offer some of the best selections of cigars in the country (see related story, page 173) as well as a cup of coffee or a drink of rum.

The downside of these tours comes in their lack of organization and their being overcrowded with occasionally ill-mannered guests.

Last year, I signed up for a tour through the Partagas cigar shop and found myself packed into the galera with 150 Frenchmen who left little room to walk down the aisles between rolling tables. It must have been difficult for the rollers to do their work, as many of the visitors shoved video cameras with bright lights in their faces. The guide, to her credit, was trying to explain the process in French, but the few visitors who were interested in what she had to say were hard-pressed to hear it over the din of the louts.

After being herded into the color-grading room, I decided that I had had enough and left. Too bad for the color grader, who didn't have the same option. He may have been blinded by all the camera flashes and video lights being stuck in his face.

In view of such incidents, the government has considered limiting or banning cigar factory visits. In fact, they were banned for a time late last fall at Partagas and La Corona.

The unions are strong, however, and although they realize that such visits may inhibit workers' efficiency and quality, they also see the tours as a revenue source. A part of the entrance fee is given to the factories and the Ministry of Agriculture, which use the money to improve the workers' lives, including providing better food, medicines and child care.

An interesting alternative to the Havana tours is visiting Francisco Donatien, the factory in the town of Pinar del Río, about two hours west of Havana. Visits are free but very limited. You only see workers rolling cigars and none of the other processes. However, it is a much more relaxed tour than the ones in Havana. In addition, Francisco Donatien has an excellent cigar shop with a knowledgeable and helpful staff, and you can visit the nearby tobacco fields. (See related story, page 194.)

Whichever option you select, the next time you light up a cigar you'll have a better appreciation for it, especially the labor and workmanship that went into its production. The views, sounds and smells of the factories will always be with you, not only in mind but in smoke.

Most tours are booked through travel agencies and Havana hotels, although the cigar shops in the Partagas and La Corona factories may also organize visits for VIP customers. To contact the factories directly, call or write:

Fabrica La Corona (Fernandez Roig)
Agramonte No. 106 entre Refugio y Colon
La Habana Vieja
Phone and fax: (53 7) 62 61 73

Fabrica Partagas (Francisco Perez German)
Industria No. 520 entre Dragones y Barcelona
Centro Habana
Phone: (53 7) 62 46 04, 62 00 86/89
Fax: (53 7) 62 51 23

Fabrica Francisco Donatien
Maceo No. 159
Pinar del Río
Phone: (53 8) 2 34 24