Monthly Archives: November 2013

Cuban Cigars: From Farm to Factory

Cuban tobacco is harvested and then aged using a process that combines the use of heat and shade to reduce both sugar and water content, while being very careful to not cause the tobacco leaves to rot or crumble.  The first step in the harvesting process is called CURING and takes anywhere from 20-50 days, depending upon the climate and the condition of the sheds, barns, and/or warehouses where the harvested tobacco is stored.

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The second step in the harvesting process involves FERMENTATION, and is carried out under reasonably careful climatic conditions so that the tobacco leaves dry out slowly, but continue to ferment as they dry.  Humidity and temperature are carefully controlled so that the tobacco leaves continue to ferment, but do NOT rot, disintegrate, or crack during the fermentation process.  The tobacco leaves “sweat” and leach out ammonia, and become less harsh and more sociable.  It is during this careful fermentation process that important characteristics are given to the tobacco leaf, including aroma, flavor, burning and smoking qualities.   A visit to the fermentation room revealed a very strong smell of ammonia, which is released from the tobacco leaf as a result of a biochemical reaction caused by the heat and humidity in the fermentation room accelerating natural enzymatic degradation processes in the tobacco that is part of the fermentation.  In short, the enzyme glutamate (Glu) dehydrogenase (GDH) catalyses the reversible amination of 2-oxoglutarate for the synthesis of Glu using ammonium as a substrate, releasing free ammonia into the air (just wanted to determine if you were still reading!):

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Once the tobacco leaves have completed the CURING and FERMENTATION processes, they are then sorted based upon quality, color, overall appearance, and shape to determine in which part of the cigar the leaves will be used.  Generally, the sorting process results in three types of leaves; (1) outer wrapper–   ; (2) binder–       ; and (3) filler–            .   During the sorting process, the leaves are continually moistened, baled, inspected, un-baled, reinspected, and generally handled carefully to make sure that each leaf continues to age properly and is best used as a wrapper, binder, or filler depending on its quality and state of maturation.

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Quality cigars and almost all Cuban cigars are still made by hand.  An experienced roller can assemble 200-300 nearly identical, high quality cigars per day.

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Photo Credit: Joelle Rokovich

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There are many cigar factories in Cuba, both in the countryside and in downtown Habana.  The Partagas factory is just behind Capitolio in a beautiful building that dates to 1845.

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“And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.” –Rudyard Kipling in “The Betrothed”

After his voyage to the New World in 1492, which included extended visits to the Dominican Republic and Cuba, Christopher Columbus is widely credited with introducing tobacco to Europe.  The Taino, a seafaring people indigenous to Cuba, the Bahamas, and the Greater and Lesser Antilles, smoked a relatively primitive form of cigar, consisting of dried and twisted tobacco leaves rolled in either plaintain, palm or tobacco leaves.  With the help of Columbus, the Conquistadors, Sir Walter Raleigh, and other explorers, cigar smoking spread across the globe.

Around the turn of the 20th century, there were over 80,000 cigar-making operations in the U.S., most small, family businesses where cigars were sold almost immediately after they were rolled.  Cigars are yet one more area of common interest between the American and the Cuban people.  While I do NOT know how many cigar-making operations there are in Cuba today, there are probably more than anyone thinks, for sure, given how industrious are the Cuban people and how plentiful is the very fine tobacco crop.  Please see my first post, dated November 21, 2013, on the Gonzales Family in Vinales as evidence that the “field to table” tradition of cigar-making still exists in Cuba today.

In the early days, many believed that cigars and other forms of tobacco had important medicinal qualities.  While this belief has been largely debunked and replaced with some health warnings (even Fidel Castro may have given up smoking in the 1980s as part of a campaign to encourage the Cuban population to smoke less for health reasons), many Cubans, Americans, and Europeans continue to share a passion for the cigar.  And, most agree that Cuban cigars from Cuban tobacco leaf from the Terroir of the Pinar del Rio Province are the world’s finest cigars–be they Cohiba,  Montecristo, Partagas, Punch, Romeo y Julieta, San Cristobal, or H. Upmann.

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U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant was reported to have smoked between 10 and 20 cigars per day.  Sigmund Freud smoked 20 cigars per day, and Winston Churchill, who began the practice of dunking his cigars in port wine or brandy, was rarely seen without a cigar in his mouth–except for that wonderful portrait made by Yousef Karsh, where Churchill is at the very least scowling and probably down right hostile after Karsh removed a Cuban cigar from Churchill’s mouth, just before capturing perhaps the most famous image of Churchill.

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No one knows the daily consumption of famed U.S. photographers Jay Maisel and Arthur Meyerson, but both men can be seen regularly with a cigar hanging out of their mouth while their eyes are carefully focusing through their Nikon viewfinders.

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PhotoCredit: Fred Blum

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In Cuba, during the early days of the Revolution, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara could regularly be seen smoking a cigar.  Even their nemesis, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was a fan of Cuban cigars, and is reported to have asked his Press Secretary and fellow cigar smoker Pierre Salinger to obtain “at least 1000 Petit Upmanns,” shortly before he put in place the Embargo on Cuban products in February, 1962.

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There are scores of other famous (and not-so famous) people who are regular cigar smokers, including Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Archie Bunker, George Burns, Bill Clinton, Colombo, Bill Cosby, Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, Groucho Marx, Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Twain, and Bruce Willis.

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Photo Credit: Joelle Rokovich

 

And, while cigar smoking has long had an association of being a male “rite de passage” as well as a sexist practice in the 19th century where men would retire after dinner to a “smoking chamber” to consider and discuss serious issues of the day, the enjoyment of a good cigar is certainly not limited to the male sex:

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Tobacco Growing In Vinales

Vinales is one of the major towns in the tobacco growing Province of Pinar del Rio, the most Western province in Cuba.  Vinales is about about a three hour drive West from Havana on very well maintained roads.   The Vinales valley is just gorgeous and the landscape consists of limestone rich hills, flanked by picturesque mountains which jut up dramatically from the fertile valley floor.  These unique and beautiful hills are the Cordillera de Guaniguanico mountains, consisting of the easterly Sierra del Rosario and the westerly Sierra de los Organos.

 

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Vinales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba – Google Maps

 

Vinales Valley with Sierra de los Organos Mountains in the Background

Vinales Valley with Sierra de los Organos Mountains in the Background

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Town of Vinales as seen from La Ermita

 

The Pinar del Rio Province produces over 75% of the tobacco leaf used in Cuba’s world-famous cigars, whether they are Cohiba, Partagas,  Romeo y Julieta, or H. Upmann.    Similar to the production of fine wine, terroir or “a sense of the land” plays a role in the wonderful tobacco leaf produced in the fertile red clay of the Vinales valley–some of which has travelled with me in my photo bag back to the United States despite my efforts to clean it.  Terroir, which led to the appellation system or legal identity of grapes based on where they are grown, is the impact that a unique climate, geology, and geography of a particular region has on wine, coffee, chocolate or, in the case of Vinales, tobacco leaf when the special characteristics of the terroir interact with the genetics of the plant being grown.  There is something unique and special about the sun, mountains, limestone, red clay, the sweat of the farmer, and the yoke of the ox that all combine with the genetics of the tobacco leaf, to make a cigar that is uniquely Cuban.  And, uniquely from the Vinales Valley!

 

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Gonzales In Vinales

On a trip to Vinales, one of the main tobacco growing regions in the Pinar del Rio province of Cuba, I stumbled onto a tobacco farm inhabited by four generations of the Gonzales family. I first spent some time with the Grandfather who was out tending the tobacco fields. He did not say much but appeared to welcome me and my camera under the hot midday sun. In short order, his granddaughter appeared and invited me inside the pink building for a visit. Little did I know that the visit would include a pink pig and a hand-rolled cigar made of fine Vinales, Cuban leaf…..so smooth and far easier to smoke than a COHIBA….

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