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.
· Centro fino
· Centro Gordo
· Lower leaves supply the lighter colours.
· Upper leaves produce the darker coloured wrappers
· Libre de pie
· Uno y medio
· Primer centro ligero
· Segundo centro ligero
· Primer centro fino
· Segundo centro fino
· Centro gordo
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.