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 tiempo, ligero, seco and volado. Volado 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 tiempo, ligero, seco, volado 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 tiempo, ligero 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 tiempo, ligero 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 aging
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.