From Strength to Strength

Cubans continue their quest to improve Habanos
| By James Suckling | From David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007
From Strength to Strength

Everyone was looking a little light-headed. Jemma Freeman, the managing director of Hunters & Frankau, U.K. importers for Cuban cigars, was giggly. Edward Sahakian, the well-known owner of London's Davidoff shop, was sitting back looking blankly at the ceiling and fellow journalist Nick Faulkes was slightly pale and sweaty. I kept thinking that something had gone wrong with my eyeglasses, as everything seemed foggy and unfocused.

"Esta tobacco es muy fuerte, verdad!" I said in my poor Spanish to the new head of the H. Upmann factory in Havana during a meeting there last fall. "It's really strong!" I turned and repeated my observation in English to the others.

Miguel Brown had a big smile on his face. I wasn't sure if he was happy that we were all half stoned on his new cigar—the Petit Edmundo—or he was getting a kick out of watching some foreigners trying to hold it together while testing a very young smoke. The Petit Edmundo, a 52 ring gauge by 4 1/3 inch cigar, is expected to hit the streets this year, perhaps during the annual cigar festival in Havana in late February.

I am a big fan of the regular Edmundo, a 52 ring gauge by 5 1/3 inch cigar in the Montecristo line that debuted about three years ago. The fat smoke is a spicy mouthful with lots of creamy, coffee character. It seems to be getting better all the time. It was originally made in the former H. Upmann factory in Old Havana behind the Partagas factory, but was switched to a new factory about a year and a half ago. It has gone from being a good, slightly bland smoke to a flavorful, must-have for Havana lovers.

Brown was certainly pleased to hear my views on how the Edmundo had improved, but he also seemed surprised, even annoyed. "We haven't changed anything in particular in making the cigar," he said, when I insisted that the enhanced quality was all because the cigars were now made in the new H. Upmann location.

It didn't matter. A tour through his factory only reinforced my thoughts. H. Upmann seems to be getting better and better as a factory, from well-managed workers to superior tobacco. One of the biggest eye-openers was the improvement in raw material, particularly the ligero, or strong tobacco, used in the blends. As I walked through the blending room, I noticed a number of bales with the dates 1999-2000 printed on them, and they were filled with powerful and flavorful ligero leaves. The workers sorting the blends for the next day's rolling also confirmed that the tobacco quality had greatly improved. I hadn't seen such great filler tobacco in Cuban factories since the mid-1990s, and it confirms why rich and flavorful cigars are coming out of Havana again. The improved tobacco is part of the reason that our Cigar of the Year is a Cuban smoke—the Bolivar robusto called the Royal Corona (See page 59).

Another exciting development is the new security system at the H. Upmann factory. Brown suggested that they had virtually cut out all thieving on the premises, which could include everything from loose leftover tobacco on the floors to boxes and cigars in storage. Brown showed me a closed-circuit television system in his office that scans the various departments in the factory. The cameras can zoom in on the workbench of a single roller, or any other worker.

In Cuba, it has been a given that some factory workers steal things. The bands, boxes, stickers, seals and everything else for authentic-looking but fake cigars sold on the street have to come from somewhere because counterfeiters in Cuba can't produce all the stuff themselves. Cigars also leave "mysteriously" from factories, although I am told that many counterfeits are produced in small clandestine factories on the island. Over my years visiting Havana's main factories, I have even seen rollers selling cigars to visitors as they walked by the rolling tables. If you pass by the Partagas factory, you will be mobbed by dudes claiming to have a brother or uncle working inside.

Brown explained that such a free-for-all environment in a factory creates a bad atmosphere and workers are distracted from their work and even demoralized. No one can make good cigars when the ambience is rotten. "The problem is that nobody wants to tell on another person for such wrongdoing," Brown said. "So we need our own proof."

I have no idea why I said this to him in his office before visiting the factory floor, but I joked, "I am sure I will be offered a cigar or two when I am in the rolling room." His eyes opened wide, with an excited sort of look. "If you are offered a cigar while you are in the factory, I will give you a few boxes of cigars. No workers will offer you anything," he said defiantly.

Needless to say, I received no cigar offers while walking though H. Upmann. However, Brown did invite me to join in a cigar tasting in the factory tasting room. I got a chance to evaluate the Cohiba Pyramide Edición Limitada 2006, the dark-wrapper, 52 ring gauge torpedo. It is one of the three Edición Limitadas for this year, which also includes the Montecristo Robusto (50 ring gauge by 4 7/8 inches) and the Partagas Serie D No. 3 (46 by 5 2/3 inches). These three shapes have been made before but were reproduced to mark the fifth anniversary of the Edición Limitada range. All come in boxes of 25 cigars, with the Cohiba also presented in dark varnished boxes of 10. The Montecristo Robusto was No. 18 in the magazine's Top 25 cigars of 2006.

The Cohiba torpedo was a wonderful smoke with lots of coffee, spicy, chocolate character. It had the typical refined yet flavorful character of Cohiba, but the darker wrapper gave the smoke a little more punch. The tasting criteria the Cubans use in the factory is not that much different from what we use for Cigar Aficionado, except they do not numerically score their cigars. They smoke a cigar about a quarter of the way down and then record their impressions on a scorecard. They drink warm tea in between puffs.

You are going to see more Cohibas with dark wrappers in the near future. I came across a document on someone's desk (I was looking at it upside down!) with information regarding a new line under the brand—the Cohiba maduros. Three new sizes with aged, dark wrappers are coming out very soon, and they promise to be some hefty smokes. These are not the black type of maduros from other countries but more like what comes out now with the limitada range. The sizes are: Genios, 52 ring by 5 inches; Mágicos, 52 by 4 inches; and Secretos, 40 by 4 1/3 inches. They are all straight-sided smokes with rat-tail ends. I can't wait to try them.

The only problem will be price. Cohibas are still the top-of-the-line Habanos and they don't come cheap, even on the island. Prices continue to increase in Havana cigar shops for many of the best names, particularly Cohiba. Prices for Cohiba and a number of other brands went up at least 5 percent last September. Cigar shop managers in Havana were complaining that many of their customers prefer to buy their cigars in Europe, or even Mexico, rather than deal with the hassle and expense of buying them in Cuba. Exchange rates and commissions on the island only exacerbate the situation.

I think the shops are just frustrated with the decline in sales. Still, I don't know any cigar lover who doesn't salivate at the thought of buying cigars in Havana, even though prices are less attractive than a few years ago. In Havana cigar shops, the selection is great and the knowledge and service is excellent.

Could it be that some of the decrease in sales in Havana is due to fakes? I am still surprised by the prevalence of cigar hawkers in Old Havana, and none are selling authentic cigars. Tourists obviously buy lots of fake Habanos, which I suspect they do knowingly because they don't want to pay the price for the real thing. It's like people who buy Rolexes for $100.

I have heard rumors about a new seal coming out on boxes of Habanos, which will not only reduce the number of counterfeit smokes but will also help the Cubans better control the market. Not only will the seals be difficult to duplicate, they will contain codes that indicate which markets the cigars are sold to and to whom.

This, the Cubans hope, will help them better track the sales of their cigars. A lot of cigars are traded on the gray market, especially in countries with strong currencies like Great Britain. Unofficial merchants can buy cigars in Havana, or even Andorra and other countries, at full retail and then ship them to their markets and sell them for a profit, circumventing the official distributors. The black-market trade in Cuban cigars in the United States is very similar, with most of the product coming out of Mexico.

Another thing the Cubans hope to reduce is the incidence of tobacco beetles. After the visit to H. Upmann, I visited a massive warehouse where tobacco officials claimed to have eradicated the pesky insect by freezing boxes of cigars before they are shipped to customers. They say that all 150 million of each year's export-quality cigars will be treated in this way.

The cigars are frozen in their shipping boxes, which usually hold about 40 boxes of 25 cigars each. The boxes are frozen to minus-5 Fahrenheit for about five days and then slowly brought back to room temperature of about 65 degrees. Four huge freezers are used, and altogether they can process about 4 million cigars at a time.

Freezing of cigars has been a time-honored process for many cigar lovers, who have been afraid of the ravages of the tobacco weevil. Throw a box in your freezer for a couple days and you virtually eliminate the chance of the bugs ruining your smokes. In fact, some cigar merchants have been freezing cigars themselves in recent years.

Honestly, tobacco beetles have rarely been an issue for me over the couple of decades I have been smoking Cuban cigars. Most of the problems I have seen have resulted from bad cigars being stored with good ones. However, recent improvements on the island seem to indicate that we will be seeing fewer and fewer bad smokes—real or fake ones!

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