CIGAR WORLD

I - Origin

1 - Introduction

There are in the world just a few things that are known without question to be the best of their kind.

A Habano – or Havana cigar – is one of them.

In Cuba in 1492 the Spanish expedition commanded by Christopher Columbus saw tobacco for the first time in the New World. The Taino Indians rolled and burnt some mysterious leaves, which they called “Cohiba”, in an unknown ceremony for the explorers. From that starting point more than five hundred years ago, tobacco has been traded and planted throughout the world.  Since its discovery, Tabaco Negro Cubano or Cuban Black Tobacco has been considered the best in the world because of the unique growing conditions in some areas of the Island. This distinction remains incontestably valid after more than five centuries.

The heart of the distinction is the tobacco and its taste born of a combination of four factors that exist only in Cuba: the soil, the climate, the varieties of Cuban black tobacco seed and the know-how of the tobacco growers and cigar makers. Other places may have acquired some Cuban skills, even some Cuban seeds, but never the natural gifts of the Cuban soil and the Cuban climate. These you will find nowhere else.


Nor will you find anything that matches the centuries-old culture of cultivating Cuban tobacco: the extraordinary labour that the tobacco farmer invests in his crop; the months and years of patient waiting before his leaf is deemed fit for a Habano.

A further distinction lies in the definition of the term "Habanos". All Habanos are Cuban, but by no means all Cuban cigars are Habanos.

The title is the Denominación de Origen Protegida (D.O.P), or Protected Denomination of Origin reserved for a selection of the most outstanding brands whose cigars are manufactured to the most exacting standards from tobaccos grown only in particular areas, which are also protected as denominations of origin.

All Habanos are crafted Totalmente a Mano – totally by hand – using methods that were pioneered in Havana two centuries ago and remain virtually unchanged to this day.

More than 500 manual tasks are performed in both the agricultural and manufacturing processes from the planting of the seeds to the Habano's final resting place in its box.

Every cigar must pass through the most stringent quality control processes established by the Regulatory Council for the Protected Denomination of Origin (D.O.P.) Habanos before they can earn the precious title of Habano.

A benchmark for excellence.

Read on, and you will learn how.

2 - Paradise

VUELTA ABAJO*

San Juan y Martínez*

San Luis*

The soil and climate conditions in the western part of Cuba, especially in the Vuelta Abajo tobacco zone, are unique in the world.

Nowhere in the world grows tobacco better than Cuba. But even here, only a few selected Vegas – plantations – are judged good enough to grow the tobacco for Habanos.

As a great wine is defined by its vineyard, so the character of a Habano is intimately connected with the land where the tobacco grows.

‘Selection’ is a principle that runs through every stage in the production of a Habano leaf, and this is where it starts.

The locations where tobacco for Habanos can be grown are strictly limited to certain defined regions, zones and districts of Cuba and within those regions to just a small number of plantations with their own special style of cultivation.

These are the elite Vegas de Primera – first class fields – ranked above all others for the exceptional quality of their soil and microclimate, and the uncommon degree of skill that goes to produce their crop.

So important are many of these regions, zones and districts to the production of a Habano that they enjoy a special status as Protected Denominations of Origin (D.O.P). You will find each one marked with an asterisk in the text.

Havana city, capital of Cuba. Although no tobacco is cultivated in Havana, the city gave its name to Cuba’s most famous export because its natural harbour provided the port from which Habanos were originally shipped. Also it remains the location of the most famous Habano factories. It is a Denomination of Origin because of its historical relationship with the production and export of Habanos.

* DENOMINATIONS OF ORIGIN RECOGNISED BY THE REGULATORY COUNCIL FOR THE PROTECTED DENOMINATION OF ORIGIN (D.O.P.) HABANOS AND OTHER CUBAN TOBACCO DENOMINATIONS.

Name of the province that embraces all of the important growing zones in the west of Cuba, and the name of the provincial capital. It also gives its name to a tobacco region that is protected as a Denomination of Origin, and in which there are several tobacco zones such as Vuelta Abajo* and Semi Vuelta, and districts like San Juan y Martínez* and San Luis*.

VUELTA ABAJO*

The finest cigar tobacco-growing land in the world. Vuelta Abajo* is the main source of tobacco for Habanos, and the only zone that grows all types of leaf: wrappers, filler and binders. Indeed all tobacco for fillers and binders for Long Filler Habanos (see Totalmente a Mano Tripa Larga) comes from this privileged zone. Not surprisingly Vuelta Abajo is also protected as a Denomination of Origin. But even here less than a quarter of the tobacco-growing land enjoys the Vegas de Primera status that is required for the growing of tobacco for Habanos

b>San Luis*: Small town at the epicentre of Cuban tobacco culture, known above all for the cultivation of wrapper leaves. As a district located in the Vuelta Abajo* zone, its name is protected as a Denomination of Origin. Here you find the world-famous El Corojo Vega as well as the Cuchillas de Barbacoa farm. It is one of the two districts from which the leaves grown on its finest vegas are selected for the Cohiba brand.

San Juan y Martinez*: The other famous small town in Vuelta Abajo* which gives its name to a district that is protected as a Denomination of Origin.  It has a particular reputation for the cultivation of fillers and binders, and the famous Hoyo de Monterrey plantation is located here. It is the other district where the finest vegas supply leaves for Cohiba.

SEMI VUELTA
The other tobacco zone situated in the Pinar del Río region known mainly for its cultivation of binder and filler leaves for Tripa Corta -Short Filler- Habanos. Traditionally the part of the Pinar del Rio* tobacco region not included in Vuelta Abajo* has been called “Semi Vuelta”. However the area of this zone employed for Habanos is very small, barely one percent of its tobacco growing land. Nevertheless it has good soil for producing seeds which are later sown in Vuelta Abajo*. Most Semi Vuelta tobacco is grown for other purposes.

* DENOMINATIONS OF ORIGIN RECOGNISED BY THE REGULATORY COUNCIL FOR THE PROTECTED DENOMINATION OF ORIGIN (D.O.P.) HABANOS AND OTHER CUBAN TOBACCO DENOMINATIONS.

Founded during the early 17th Century, Partido* is a historic tobacco region incorporating a number of tobacco-growing zones traditionally located to the south west and more recently to the south east of Havana City. Partido*, which is protected as a Denomination of Origin, specialises in the cultivation of wrapper leaves for long and short filler Habanos.

* DENOMINATIONS OF ORIGIN RECOGNISED BY THE REGULATORY COUNCIL FOR THE PROTECTED DENOMINATION OF ORIGIN (D.O.P.) HABANOS AND OTHER CUBAN TOBACCO DENOMINATIONS.

Cuba’s oldest tobacco producing region and a protected Denomination of Origin. It is the source of the leaf for one particular Habano brand: José L Piedra. The soil and climate have their own distinctive character.

* DENOMINATIONS OF ORIGIN RECOGNISED BY THE REGULATORY COUNCIL FOR THE PROTECTED DENOMINATION OF ORIGIN (D.O.P.) HABANOS AND OTHER CUBAN TOBACCO DENOMINATIONS.

It was at Bariay in the extreme eastern part of this region that Columbus landed in 1492 and discovered Cuban tobacco. Consequently it is protected as a Denomination of Origin. Tobacco is still grown here, but not for Habanos.

* DENOMINATIONS OF ORIGIN RECOGNISED BY THE REGULATORY COUNCIL FOR THE PROTECTED DENOMINATION OF ORIGIN (D.O.P.) HABANOS AND OTHER CUBAN TOBACCO DENOMINATIONS.

3 - Anatomy

It takes up to six types of tobacco leaf to make a Habano, each type specially grown and prepared for its purpose.

Every leaf is grown in Cuba, especially for the making of Habanos.

You will not find such tobacco in cigars that are not Habanos.

Two, three or four types of leaf are blended to form the tripa, or filler, source of the rich flavours and aromas that immediately distinguish a Habano from the rest.

  • Volado: a light-flavoured leaf, especially valued for its combustibility – also known as Fortaleza 1 (Strength 1).
  • Seco: medium-flavoured, the most important leaf for aroma - Fortaleza 2 (Strength 2).
  • Ligero: a full-flavoured and slow-burning leaf that adds strength to the blend – Fortaleza 3 (Strength 3).
  • Medio Tiempo: a rare leaf used very occasionally to bring extra intensity to the taste – Fortaleza 4 (Strength 4).

The capote, or binder, is the special leaf that wraps around the leaves of the filler, defining the shape of the Habano and perfecting its smoking quality.

The capa, or wrapper, is the exquisitely thin and supple leaf that forms the outer surface of the cigar.

 The wrapper contributes little to the flavour of a Habano, but it stands as the ultimate symbol of the cigar’s perfection.

 II - Growing

1 - The perfect leaf


Every leaf in a Habano is Tabaco Negro Cubano – native Cuban Black Tobacco – directly descended from the plants that Columbus first discovered here more than five hundred years ago.
Two distinct forms of cultivation produce the different types of leaf required.
Wrapper leaves are grown in tapado (shade-grown) fields covered from end to end by muslin cloth.
Filler and binder leaves are grown in the open, enjoying the full benefit of the Cuban sun.
In each case the leaves have different characteristics at different levels of the plant, and each leaf is classified accordingly.
Each leaf has its own destiny.

  • Volado: lower leaves that supply the lighter flavoured filler and binders with good combustibility.
  • Seco: the medium-flavoured filler leaf from the middle. Essential for aroma .
  • Ligero: the full-flavoured filler leaf from the top of the plant.
  • Medio Tiempo: the strongest and richest tasting filler leaf. Very rare. Found only in the top 2 leaves of the plant.

·         Centro fino

·         Centro Gordo

·         Lower leaves supply the lighter colours.

·         Upper leaves produce the darker coloured wrappers

·         Mañanita

·         Libre de pie

·         Uno y medio

·         Primer centro ligero

·         Segundo centro ligero

·         Primer centro fino

·         Segundo centro fino

·         Centro gordo

·         Corona

The full force of Cuban sunlight develops the glorious variety of flavours that are blended to form the rich and complex taste of a Habano.

The muslin cover filters the sunlight and traps the heat so the leaves grow larger and finer – perfect conditions for growing the perfect wrapper leaf. Only the largest and finest leaves are selected to make wrappers for Habanos. No surprise that the wrapper is the most expensive leaf to produce.

2 - The True cuban seed

From the 16th Century onwards, the tobacco that grew naturally in Cuba proved good enough to establish an unrivalled reputation throughout the world.
Then, at the start of the 20th Century as a new age of botanical research dawned, science was brought to bear on the many different seed varieties in use at the time for the growing of Tabaco Negro Cubano.
The botanists had two goals; first to identify the original seed’s characteristics that delivered the classic Cuban taste; and second, to find varieties resistant to the many diseases that plagued the farmers.
And so in 1907, the variety known as Habanensis was born.

Independent research continued until in 1937 the industry established the first Experimental Research Station at San Juan y Martinez.
Four years later an improved seed variety named Criollo was introduced and this remains the basis of all the seeds permitted for the growing of Habano tobacco.
Soon afterwards Criollo itself was developed to create a variety called Corojo, bred especially for the growing of wrapper leaves and named after the famous plantation where it was tested.
Further new varieties have since been introduced to combat pests and diseases as well as such problems as the effects of global climate change.
Today Cuba’s tobacco regions are served by the Instituto de Investigaciones del Tabaco (Tobacco Research Institute) with its four experimental research stations, which together control all of the seed that the farmers sow.
One of the Research Institute's recent achievements has been to improve further the ecological growth of the plants, which is unique in the world of tobacco.
The quest continues to preserve and perfect the essence of the only true Cuban seed – Tabaco Negro Cubano.

3 - The Vegueros’ magic touch (1)

 

The Vegas de Primera have their own special style of cultivation, and the work that this entails is extraordinarily hard.
The Veguero – farmer – may have charge of half a million plants or more, and each must be visited more than 150 times in the course of the growing season.

Work starts in the burning heat of June and July, and continues without respite for nine months.
Different fields are planted at different times so as to spread the burden of work in each season. The time from planting the seed to completion of harvest is around 17 weeks for shade-grown (tapado) plants for wrapper leaves, and 16 weeks for sun-grown plants for filler and binder leaves.

1. Tobacco plants flourish in the loosest possible soil, so fields must be ploughed very carefully in a certain pattern to a certain depth several times before planting. Animal traction is still used, so as not to compact the soil.

2. Seedlings are grown in special seedbeds, with a covering of straw for protection. Some are now grown by a new method, in floating polystyrene seed containers sheltered inside plastic-clad ‘tunnels’.

3. After 45 days when the seedlings reach a height of 13-15cm, they are ready to be planted out.

4. Some 18-20 days after planting out, the soil is banked up around the base of the plant to promote the development of the roots, a process called aporque.

5. As each plant reaches the desired height, the top bud is removed (desbotonado) to concentrate growth on the development of larger leaves.

6. Removing the top bud causes an explosion of side shoots.The farmer must make repeated visits to each plant to remove them. This is called deshije.

4 - The Vegueros’ magic touch (2)


Wrapper leaves are exceptional in every respect. Some 10-20 days into the growing season, the fields are entirely enclosed under canopies of muslin cloth – a remarkable sight. Each plant is then individually strung to the frame.
Irrigation is critical. The plants must get just the right quantity of water at the moment they need it.

Cuban sunlight works its magic to bring on the rich variety of flavours in the sun-grown plants that supply the filler and binder leaves.

5 - Harvesting leaf by leaf


Around 40 days after planting out, the harvest can begin – a laborious task because each leaf must be picked by hand. Only two or three leaves can be taken at a time, with days to wait between each picking. The harvesting of a single plant takes close to 30 days to complete.

Leaves are picked at intervals from the bottom up, allowing time between pickings for the plant to develop its remaining leaves.
Shade-grown (tapado) plants are taller with more leaves, and so they require more pickings.
The Mañanita leaves that are picked first are too small for Habanos, but they are the perfect size for Cuban mini cigars (Minis Cubanos).

The harvested leaves are taken to the farmer’s barn for air curing – just the first of many stages that the leaf has yet to pass through.

A sun-grown plant is illustrated here.

III - Improvement

1 - A long way yet to go

 

Growing the leaf is just the start of the story, with many patient stages of processing yet to come. Nothing can be hurried.

Many months and in some cases years will pass before the leaf is ready to make a Habano.

The diagrams show the path that each type of leaf must take, from the farmer’s curing barn to its final resting place in the warehouse where it will be aged.

The following pages visit each step in turn.

The variation in the time taken to ferment and age the different types of leaf means that the crops from several different harvests are needed to make a Habano.

 

2 - Tabaco tapado (shade grown)

The processing of the tobacco leaves used to make a Habano differs according to their method of cultivation and their final function in the cigar. Below is a brief description of the processes used for the leaves that are destined to become wrappers.

The first process for the newly harvested wrapper leaf, on which the success of the whole crop depends, is a slow and careful period of air curing which removes moisture and turns the leaf by stages from bright green to golden brown.

Some wrappers are cured in the farmers’ traditional Curing Barns (Casas de Tabaco) that depend entirely on the natural effects of the climate. The leaves are sewn in pairs and hung astride poles which are placed on racks in the barn. As the leaves cure, so the pole is raised progressively higher in the racks. Ventilation and light must be constantly adjusted to allow for natural variations in temperature and humidity. This process lasts for around 50 days.

The 1990's saw a major investment in temperature and humidity control for the curing of wrapper leaves, to overcome the unpredictable conditions in a conventional barn. This is air curing at its most refined, with optimum conditions replicated around the clock. The time it takes is naturally less, around 25 days. But there is still the need for constant vigilance and adjustment as the condition of the leaf develops – the more so, because the process now runs at full pace day and night.

Once the wrapper leaves are fully cured, they are removed from the poles and tied in sheaves called gavillas. This concludes the work of the farmer and the task passes into the hands of the Empresa de Acopio y Beneficio del Tabaco – the ‘organisation for the gathering and improvement of tobacco’ – which buys the leaf from the farmer. The leaves are then taken to the Escogida, or Sorting House, where they will be fermented.

As shade-grown leaves are so thin and delicate, wrappers only undergo a single process of fermentation. It lasts for a minimum of 20 days and takes place in chambers at the Sorting House that have been specially designed for this purpose. During the fermentation the leaf’s impurities are eliminated and its acidity, tar and nicotine contents are reduced whilst its taste characteristics are accentuated. The fermentation also evens out the colour of the wrapper.

Following the fermentation, the wrappers stay in the Sorting House and pass to the process of sorting into classes or classification.

Size, colour and texture are the three criteria that guide the sorters. Precious wrappers, as you might expect, are the subject of very close attention. First they are moistened and aired to prepare them for handling. Then they are classified into a bewildering array of some 50 different categories designed to ensure that only the most perfect will ever dress a Habano. Any leaf below a certain standard is rejected and set aside for other purposes.

 

3 - Tabaco de sol (sun grown)

 

All filler and binder leaves are cured in the farmers’ traditional Curing Barns. As with wrappers, the leaves are sewn together and hung over poles and, throughout the curing process as the leaves lose humidity, the poles are raised progressively to the upper part of the barn. Again the ventilation and light are adjusted constantly to allow for natural variations in temperature and humidity.

This process lasts for a minimum of 50 days, with longer periods for the leaves taken from the higher levels of the plant.

Filler and binder leaves on the other hand are subjected to a much more complex and extensive process than wrappers, including several fermentations as is revealed below.

Still in the farmer’s Curing Barn, fillers and binders are subjected to their first fermentation. The leaves from each pole are gathered into gavillas then placed in piles and covered in cloth with a view to reducing further the natural humidity still contained in the leaf after its curing.

The fermentation process is precisely the same as takes place in a garden compost heap. Moisture and compression combine to generate heat. Constant supervision is required to ensure that things do not go too far.

Fermentation is essential to the smoking quality of the cigar. It sweats out impurities in the leaf, smoothing the flavour and reducing acidity, tar and nicotine.

This first fermentation takes a maximum of 30 days to complete. The leaves taken from the top levels on the plant need longest periods of time because they are thicker and richer in oils.

It is at this stage that the Empresa de Acopio y Beneficio del Tabaco buys the filler and binder leaves from the farmer and assumes the responsibility for the next phase which takes place in the Escogida or Sorting House, where the leaves are taken after the first fermentation in the curing barn.

The leaves are first moistened and aired to make them easier to handle and less vulnerable to damage during the classification. Then they are sorted and grouped in the four essential categories of flavour or tiempos that will be combined in the blends of filler for Habanos: medio tiempoligeroseco and voladoVolado leaves are collected from the lowest part of the plant and have little strength. They are also referred to as Fortaleza 1 (Strength 1) and the biggest and best of them are classified as binder. The seco leaves are taken from the middle of the plant and are renowned for their aroma. They have medium strength (Fortaleza 2)Ligero and medio tiempo leaves come from the top of the plant and are the strongest in flavour (Fortalezas 3 and 4).

After this strict process of selection that is essential to the Habano, only around half of all the leaves will make the grade and be classified as medio tiempoligerosecovolado and binder that will finally be used to make Habanos.

Following classification into the tiempos or fortalezas that will be used in the preparation of blends in the factories, the leaves continue their long process of refinement.

In a building called the Despalillo or Stripping House where they have been taken from the Sorting House, the medio tiempoligero and seco leaves undergo a second fermentation (sometimes also known as the pre-stripping fermentation) in pilones or piles for a period of 15 days. The volado and binder leaves, which are thinner, are only aired at this stage.

Next all the filler and binder leaves are moistened in preparation for the tasks of stripping and pressing. The sure fingers of the despalilladoras strip out the lower portion of the central vein in each leaf of filler or binder. Then the leaves are stacked in small piles and pressed between boards.

Subsequently, all the leaves undergo another fermentation. This will be the second fermentation for volado and binder leaves, and the third for medio tiempoligero and seco leaves. The amount of time taken depends strictly upon the type of tobacco being 15 to 25 days for volado and binder, 45 to 60 days for seco and around 90 days for medio tiempo and ligero. For these fermentations the tobacco is stacked in piles known as burros covered in cloth, and the process is triggered by the water content retained in the leaf after the moistening that took place before the stripping.

The temperature during fermentation must be watched with great care. When it gets too hot, the pile is broken up, the leaves are allowed to cool down and the stack is rebuilt the other way round (bottom leaves to the top, top leaves to the bottom). This may happen several times in the course of the fermentation.

4 - Baling and ageing

 

After the wrappers have been sorted into classes, they are once again tied into gavillas (sheaves). The gavillas are then packed in bales known as tercios, made from yagua, which is the loose bark of the Royal Palm tree, a material used for many purposes in Cuba. Every bale carries a label rich with information about the leaves within it including their size, the year of harvest and the date of packing. Tercios are also marked with the code of the Escogida where the wrappers were sorted.

Finally the tercios are transported to the warehouse where the wrappers will be left to age for a minimum of six months.

After this last fermentation, the leaves are aired on racks for a few days, then packed and transferred to the warehouse for the final patient process of ageing.

The fullest-flavoured leaf (ligero and medio tiempo) are aged the longest – for a minimum of two years. Meanwhile the lightest-flavoured leaves is aged the least. Like a fine wine, the longer the leaf is left to mature, the better it will be.

Filler and binder leaves are packed in hessian bales called pacas. Each bale carries a label with all the information about the leaf it contains including its size, the year of harvest and the date of packing. In addition the labels on pacas indicate the leaf’s tiempo or fortaleza as well as both the Escogida and the Despalillo where the binders and fillers were processed.

The labels indicate the specific local character of the leaf which is the key to the distinctive blending of each of the sizes in all the Habano brands. It will allow for the creation of the blends that will be put into practice by the Maestro Ligador - Master Blender - in each of the factories in Cuba.