The young man with the skinny arms wearing a sleeveless shirt sits at a weathered workstation on a wooden chair. Before him are piles of wrinkled leaves, some of them as dark as a polished shoe, others the light brown of a camel hair coat, still others a shade in between. Nothing on the table looks like a cigar. Not yet.
He reaches for a leaf, turning it with his strong hands into a tube of sorts with practiced ease. Holding the transformed leaf, he reaches for another, and repeats the process, placing them together. Then he takes a third, and repeats the move yet again. Looking at this bunch of tobacco leaves in his hands, he grips down hard, then begins to make adjustments based solely upon what his fingers have told him. A tear here, a move of some leaves there, then another twist before he places the collection on yet another leaf that has been laid down on the wooden board before him. He stretches and rolls, wrapping that outer binder leaf around the filler leaves, then places his creation in a wooden mold, where it will take the shape of a cigar. Later, he will remove the leaves once again, then carefully roll the outer wrapper leaf around it, before making some final cuts and adjustments. Voila: a Cuban cigar, made entirely by hand.
Cuba makes in the neighborhood of 100 million cigars in this same way in more than 40 factories around the island. Most are off limits to visitors, but four open their doors on a regular basis. A cigar aficionado travelling to Cuba needs to make the time to pay at least one of these mighty fabricas a visit, for only by watching how premium, handmade cigars are created can one gain a true perspective on the magic of cigars. Any visitor seeing how cigars are made for the first time will have the same question—how can something requiring so much skilled labor, so many steps, retail for so little?
Cigar production is somewhat different in Havana than in other major cigar-producing countries. Non-Cuban producers typically split the rolling and bunching duties, but in Cuba one worker makes the entire cigar. Cuban-seed leaves being relatively small, you often see two binder leaves used in the production of a cigar, rather than one. And hand-operated cigar-bunching devices (known as Temscos or Liebermans) aren't found here, leaving only hands to do the work to shape them.
Still, while the handmade cigar was born in this country, some changes from outside of Cuba have made their way here. The draw-testing machine, an invention first employed in the Dominican Republic, has cut down dramatically on the number of plugged cigars.
Other changes have taken place as well. Some of the oldest factories date back to the 1800s, and many are being repaired.
H. Upmann, where the Montecristo brand was born 80 years ago, moved in 2011 to the old Romeo y Julieta factory, where it remains today. The majestic, multistory Partagás Cigar Factory, Havana's most famous fabrica, has been relocated. It still has its very popular cigar shop at its base but cigars are no longer made inside. The factory has been moved to what once was the El Rey del Mundo building, which lacks the glorious exterior of its forefather. Plans have called for a much-needed refurbishing of Partagás, but when cigar production might come back to those hallowed halls is anybody's guess.
All tours cost 10 cuc each. Ask at your hotel for assistance and guidance. Factories may have short, unscheduled shutdowns, so have someone local check before you head out.
Calle San Carlos No. 816, entre Sitio y Peñalver, Centro Habana
In the shifting game of Cuban cigar factories, Partagás has been moved to the former El Rey del Mundo factory, a white building with ionic columns. The building is far more plain and harder to find—if you get into a taxi, be explicit with directions, for if you tell a driver to take you to the Partagás Factory you will likely end up at the former factory, now a cigar shop, instead of at the present production location. Inside you'll see cigars being made just as they were at the original Partagás. Each Cuban brand has a so-called "mother" factory responsible for overseeing the consistency and style of a brand, even while that brand may also be produced in other factories. In addition to its namesake, the Partagás factory is responsible for Bolivar, La Gloria Cubana, Ramon Allones and Quai d'Orsay.
H. Upmann Factory
Belascoaín 852 entre Peñalver y Desagüe, Centro Habana
Just as Partagás moved, so did H. Upmann. The factory now operates out of the old Romeo y Julieta Factory in Centro Habana. The factory was scheduled to return to its original 1800s home more than three years ago, but delays are part of life in Cuba, so H. Upmann remains in the old RyJ facility. The site is a popular spot for tourists disembarking from cruise ships, so it can get crowded. The factory rolls all of Cuba's H. Upmanns, some Montecristos (the biggest brand by volume produced in Cuba) as well as many Romeos and Cohibas.
La Corona Factory
Avenida 20 de Mayo y Línea de Ferrocarril, Cerro
You won't find cigars with the name La Corona in Cuba anymore. While the brand dates back to the 1800s, handmade La Coronas have been gone for decades and machine-made La Coronas haven't been sold for more than 10 years. This factory, a former production site for cigarettes, was transformed into a cigar factory in 2000 and today it serves as the mother factory for such big brands as Hoyo de Monterrey, Cuaba and Punch. It's far from the most picturesque of cigar factories, but the end product is lovely indeed.
Francisco Donatién Factory
Calle Antonio Maceo No. 157, Pinar del Río
Should you be so inspired to take the two-hour (or so) drive west from Havana for a trip to Cuba's famed tobacco fields, plan a short stop at the Francisco Donatién Factory. The original home of the old Vegueros brand sits on the site of a former prison. It's a small factory, known for making fine lanceros such as Trinidad Fundadores. There's a decent cigar shop attached to the factory, and a better one across the street with a pleasant sitting area.