Goodbye Emilia, Hello Edmundo

Probably the saddest news of the Habanos Cigar Festival was the retirement of Emilia Tamayo, the woman who had run the Cohiba factory since 1995. Many people simply couldn't understand why she was leaving after her apparently highly successful tenure as the head of the beautiful factory located in the posh neighborhood of El Laguito.

The 55-year-old was the first woman to be a cigar factory manager, and I am sure she had to fight her way to the top. Cuba, like other Latin American countries, is extremely chauvinistic, and the idea of a woman running something as macho as a cigar factory probably didn't sit well with many on the island. But, of course, El Laguito, the home of Cohibas, was originally established in the 1960s as a school to bring women into the cigar industry. Before the revolution, very few women were involved with cigars on the island.

I still remember the first time I met Tamayo. It was 1995, only a few months after she had taken the helm of the factory, and her presence there was already being felt. Everything was much better organized and cleaner than when her predecessor, Avelino Lara, was there. "I have initiated lots of new things here," she said with a slightly triumphant smile. "But if you mean this office and the new paint in the factory, well, don't forget that I am a woman and I like my surroundings to be beautiful."

She was always incredibly proud of what she was doing. I visited her at the factory a few weeks before her retirement and she was a bit melancholy. "I have achieved all that I can here," she said in her office as I smoked a Trinidad. "I will not realize all my dreams for this place, but I think I have done well."

Tamayo had hoped that El Laguito would one day be large enough to make all Cohiba cigars, as well as Trinidad. It meant that a new annex would have had to have been constructed to house a few hundred more rollers, but it never happened. In fact, the production of Trinidad has been recently moved to Pinar del Río. I am tempted to stock up on old stock of Trinidads before the new smokes begin coming in from Pinar. The factory in Pinar del Río is small and well organized, but it has only produced brands such as Vegueros and Montecristo in the past. It also recently began making some of the Vegas Robaina cigars. I doubt it can produce the same quality as El Laguito. Let's wait and see.

It would have been nice if Cohibas were all produced under one roof. I am sure that the quality could be better controlled. But Cohiba is still very consistent in quality even though it's produced in various factories, including El Laguito, Partagas, La Corona and H. Upmann. This said, however, the Siglo VI continues to be the best cigar made in the range, and it's not made in El Laguito. I just bought a box in Havana and they are stupendous in quality,

Visiting various cigar shops during the festival, I found the overall quality of the cigars on sale rather mixed. The quality of the wrapper leaves left much to be desired. I had to go through five or six boxes to find one good one with dark brown (colorado), oily wrappers. In addition, many appeared to be stretched, because too small leaves had been used for the size of the cigar.

Rumors are that many of the key cigar factories have been working at a greatly reduced capacity due to a shortage in wrappers. Some were closed for the first few weeks in January, but sources at Habanos S.A., the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, say that the closures are normal. "There is no shortage of wrapper," commented Fernando Domínquez Valdés-Hevia, the joint managing president of Habanos. He is the jefe, or big boss of the whole thing, and seems to be a straight shooter.

Alejandro Robaina and James Suckling in Pinar del Río.
Nevertheless, wrappers should be a lot better with the most recent crop of tobacco, which was recently harvested. I was recently in Pinar del Río for a few days and the crop looked really good. Alejandro Robaina and his grandson, Hiroshi, say that the 2003/2004 crop is one of their best ever. I have heard this many times in my 13 years of visiting Cuba, but I must admit that the tobacco looked wonderful in the Robainas' curing barns in late January. "It's the earliest harvest we have had in memory," said the 85-year-old Alejandro Robaina, a legendary figure here in Cuba who grows some of the silkiest wrapper tobacco in the world. "The crop was clean and perfect in quality and we had very high yields."

Hiroshi, who now is a head of the Robaina plantation, said that they had planted mostly Habana 2000, a tobacco variety that was in fashion a few years back. They began using it again following the susceptibility of other varieties called Criollo 98 and Corojo 99 to such diseases as black shank -- a nasty disease that affects the lower part of the plant.

Alejandro and his grandson, Hiroshi, show off a wrapper leaf from the latest crop.
"If you plant 2000 a little earlier, it is less susceptible to blue mold, and we now know how to better cure and process the tobacco," said Alejandro Robaina. Years past, Habana 2000 wrappers were slightly too thick and rough in texture due to problems with the processing. In addition, it had a tendency to be attacked by blue mold. "We are really happy with this year's results," he said. El Viejo -- what many call Alejandro since he is a frisky 85-year-old -- was telling me how good the mechanical curing barns were this year, which I found slightly hard to believe. "The calfresas [I'm not sure why they call them that] are really good this year," said the elder Robaina, who added that 60 percent of his crop went into temperature-and-humidity controlled curing barns. "I didn't like them before but they are much better today. And the results seem to be very good."

He said that putting tobacco in calfresas lets the curing process finish a week or two earlier compared to the traditional curing barns that rely on Mother Nature to dry the leaves. I guess it gives them more insurance, but I still like the idea of drying the leaves naturally. Besides, what's a week or two going to make when you are talking about one of the best handmade products in the world?

I think Tamayo would have understood my concerns. We spoke about the changes in cigar manufacturing on one of her last days at El Laguito, and she voiced her concern that it all was becoming a bit too industrialized. She said that we might lose some of the artisan quality of cigar making as the factories become more modern. I guess the proof will be in the pudding, as they say in England. Let's smoke some cigars from the new H. Upmann factory in a few months and judge for ourselves. I smoked the new Edmundo Montecristo twice last week -- please see my column from a few weeks ago, entitled More Good Smokes from the Island, for details of the size -- and it was a terrific smoke.

# # #

Previous Havana Corner