Tobacco & Cigar Production

Location
Growing Areas
The Tobacco Plant
The Growing Cycle
Cigar Production
Factories

Location

The island of Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean Sea, located south of the USA and east of Mexico. It has an area of 109,884 square kilometres, and a population of 11.33 million. The main language spoken there is Spanish. The tobacco industry is Cuba's third largest export sector.

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The island is divided into providences:

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The Pinar del Rio province is the most important for tobacco cultivation in Cuba. It is located at the western end of the island and contains the Vuelta Abajo and the Semi Vuelta regions.

Growing Areas

Arguably nowhere in the world grows tobacco better than Cuba. But even here, only a few selected farms are judged good enough to grow the tobacco for Habanos.

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Vuelta Abajo

Vuelta Abajo is the main region of tobacco for Habanos, and the only region that grows all types of leaf, but less than a quarter of the tobacco-growing land enjoys the Vegas Finas de Primera status that is required for the growing of tobacco for Habanos. San Luis: Small town at the epicentre of Cuban tobacco culture, known above all for the cultivation of wrapper leaves.

Semi Vuelta

Second most important region in the western heartland of Cuban tobacco cultivation, and another location for the cultivation of Habano wrapper leaves. The area employed is very small, however, barely one per cent of Semi Vuelta's total tobacco-producing land. Most of Semi Vuelta's tobacco is grown for other purposes.

Vuelta Arriba

The Vuelta Arriba region contains the Remedios tobacco-growing areas, which is the source of all types of leaf for José L Piedra. The soil and climate have their own distinctive character, but methods of cultivation used here are the same as in other regions.

Partido

Another area specialising in the cultivation of wrapper leaves.

The Tobacco Plant

tobacco plant

The tobacco plant is indigenous to Cuba, and was cultivated there by the native peoples prior to European contact. The crop was commercialised and exported from the 16th century onwards, and gradually, the indigenous Cuban black tobacco (Tabaco Negro Cubano) was hybridised with non-native varieties, and lost much of its distinctive character. In 1907, Cuban botanists developed the Habanensis varietal, which recaptured the characteristic Cuban taste but was more disease resistant. This strain is the forerunner of the Cuban tobacco that we know today.

Around 1940, an improved seed variety Criollo was developed, and later a sub-variety Corojo was developed for wrappers. In 1992, Habana 2000 was introduced. This was followed in 1998 by Criollo 98. The Habano 2006 variety (from Habana 2000 and Criollo 1998) was first used for the 2006/07 crop. Criollo 2010 and Corojo 2012 were subsequently developed, beginning widespread use in planting in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

With each new variety, The Tobacco Research Institute attempts to evolve the pest and disease resistance of the plants, while increasing yield. Tobacco flavour and combustion are secondary priorities, which are usually refined in the years after a major variety is introduced. Most of the modern varietals do not flower.

Cuban tobacco plants are either sun grown or shade grown.

Shade-Grown Tobacco

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Shade grown tobacco is grown beneath muslin covers which filter the sunlight and trap the heat, causing leaves grow larger and finer. This tobacco will be used for cigar wrapper leaf.

Only the largest and finest leaves are selected to make wrappers for Habanos. Wrappers are the most expensive leaf to produce.

The colour of the leaf progressively varies over the height of the plant, with the lower leaves being lighter and the upper leaves darker. Upper leaves are used in the Limited Editions and maduro line cigars.

Sun Grown Tobacco

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Plants grown in open fields in the full sun are used for the inner filler leaves of a cigar. They are thicker and more flavoursome than shade grown leaves.

Sun grown leaves are grouped into different categories, which determine their use within a cigar.

Volado Leaf

The lowest leaves on the plant are known as Volado. They are harvested first and are used for lighter flavoured fillers and for binders. Volado is especially valued for its combustibility, and is classified as Fortaleza 1 (Strength 1).

Seco Leaf

The middle leaf is known as Seco, and are used for medium flavoured fillers. This is the most important leaf for aroma, and is classified as Fortaleza 2 (Strength 2).

Ligero Leaf

The upper leaf is Ligero, and is used for full flavoured fillers. This is a slower burning leaf and is used to add strength to the cigar. It is classified as Fortaleza 3 (Strength 3). While all cigars will have some Volado and Seco, only heavier ring gauge, stronger flavoured cigars will use Ligero leaf.

Medio Tiempo Leaf

In some cases, the very small top leaves of a plant are left on the plant for an additional period after the other leaves are harvested, creating Medio Tiempo leaves. This is the strongest category of leaf, and is used in limited quantity in some special cigars. Medio Tiempo requires special fermentation methods and has a unique taste. It is classified as Fortaleza 4 (Strength 4).

The Growing Cycle

Tobacco for premium Habanos cigars is a single yearly crop. From soil preparation to the end of harvesting is around nine months. The soil and plants require extensive irrigation and care.

In good years, farmers may be able to produce a second (or even third crop), however this will be used for cigarettes or domestic market cigars, not premium export-grade Habanos.

Selection of the Seed

Production of the tobacco seed is the responsibility of Cuba's Tobacco Research Institute. They distribute the seed (or more normally, seedlings) free-of-charge to the growers (Vegueros). Every year the Institute will decide on a strategy of how much tobacco to plant, and what percentages of the different seed varieties should make up the crop. Farmers can choose what they grow only to the extent that it falls within the Institute's strategy.

Growing the Seed

The tradition method of germinating the tobacco seeds was in externally located open seed beds.

This has now been largely replaced by a system comprising soil-filled plastic trays, floating on a "hydroponic like" water and fertiliser system. These growing areas are located externally but are enclosed with a plastic tent-like structure.

After 45 to 50 days, the seedlings are ready to plant-out.

Preparation of the Soil

Preparation of the soil traditionally starts on the 15th September each year.

The premium tobacco areas continue to use the tradition method of oxen and plough. Agricultural machinery is available to some extent, but frequent fuel shortages limit its use. The soil is fertilised with organic matter.

Planting the Seedlings

The seedlings are planted into the prepared soil by hand. Around 30,000 seedlings are planted per hectare.

Tending the Crop

Tending the tobacco crop is an extremely intensive process. Around three to four weeks after planting out, the soil is banked up around the base of the plant to promote a strong root system.

As each plant reaches its desired height, the top bud is manually removed to promote leaf growth. This de-budding also causes undesirable side root growth, which must be manually removed from the plants every few days. During this time, careful and constant irrigation must be carried out.

For the areas destined for wrapper leaf, the fields must be enclosed under canopies of muslin cloth with 10 to 20 days after planting out. The filler leaves are grown fully in the open.

Harvesting

Around 40 days after planting out, the 30 day harvesting cycle begins.

The bottom leaves of the plant are picked first, removing the 2 or 3 lowest small leaves. This first picking leaf is normally destine to small machine-made cigars.

After seven days the main harvest begins.

The leaves are removed from the plants in stages from the bottom up. There is a wait of around three days between each stage.

Shade grown wrapper leaves are harvested in eight stages. The first picked leaves will be the lightest, and the leaf will get progressively darker higher up the plant.

Sun-grown filler leaves are harvested in five stages. The first leaves picked will likely be classified as Volado and used for lighter-flavoured filler and for binders. Leaf from the middle of the plant will be classified as Seco and used for medium-flavoured filler leaf. The topmost leaves are classified as Ligero, the full-flavoured filler leaf. On some plants, the top two leaves will be left for an additional two weeks after the rest of the plant is harvested. This becomes the Medio Tiempo filler leaf, used only in some super premium or special release cigars.

Curing

Curing is another labour intensive and complex process. The leaf is sorted into bundles, and hung up to dry.

Wrapper leaf is air-dried in special curing barns for around 50 days.

Filler leaf is also air-dried but is exposed to a 5 to 7 day external sun-drying period both before and after the barn curing.

Sorting, Stripping, and Fermentation

Wrapper leaves are moistened before being sorted by size and colour, and classified by quality. The wrappers are then wrapped in jute cloth and allowed to rest for for 10 to 15 days before they are grouped, bundled, and finally bailed, ready to ship to the factories.

The initial sorting process of filler and binder leaf is similar to the wrapper leaf. The leaf is then stacked into piles to undergo a 30 to 50 day fermentation process. During this period the pile temperatures are carefully monitored and controlled.

After fermentation, the filler leaf is stripped of its centre vain, packed and bailed and sent to storage rooms for aging. The fermentation process reduces acidity, tar, and nicotine and smooths the flavour of the filler leaf and evens out the colour of the wrapper leaf.

Storage and Aging

In the warehouse, the leaf is stored to age. From 2006, Habanos increased the minimum aging time as follows:

Cigar Production

Production methods and processes are as follows:

Unpacking

Unpacking involves carefully unpacking and moistening of the leaf to avoid damage, especially to the wrapper leaf. This is done in special airing rooms.

Blending

Master Blenders in each factory order tobacco from the central warehouses according to their production schedule. They select tobacco based not only on its basic classifications (volado, seco, ligero etc), but also on the specific areas that it originated from and on other qualities that will make up the unique characteristics of a cigar. The details of what specifically goes into these blends are only known to the Master Blenders.

On the day that the cigars are to be rolled, the Master Blender will prepare the tobacco into bundles with the correct amount of each leaf to make a batch of cigars. The rollers will be given a bundle of leaves, along with a basic recipe of percentages of volado, seco and ligero.

Small gauge cigars with a ring size of less than 36, do not contain any Ligero leaf.

Handmade Cigars - Totalmente a Mano Tripa Larga (long filler)

For fully handmade cigars, the roller (Torcedora) first lays out a binder leaf. This will be a light-to-no flavoured leaf - often a rejected wrapper leaf, or volado leaf.

The roller then gathers a bunch of full size (Tripa Larga) filler leaves, folds and rolls them into a tube. The leaves are arranged with the lighter flavoured tips at the foot of the cigar. The stronger flavoured slower burning Ligero leaf is placed along the centre of the cigar. The bunch is then formed by rolling the filler onto the laid-out binder leaf, starting at the foot. The head of the bunch is guillotined and the bunch is pressed into a timber mould to form the shape of the cigar.

After this stage, the bunches are subject to a suction draw test. This testing commenced circa 2002; initially only random cigars were suction tested for minimum draw pressure. Now every cigar undergoes a suction test to satisfy both minimum and maximum draw pressures.

The wrapper is then prepared, smooth side out. After trimming the exposed edge, the formed bunch is laid on the wrapper and rolled, starting at the cigar's foot. A small piece is cut from leftover wrapper to form a cap, which is glued over the head of the cigar. The finished cigar is then guillotined to length.

Handmade Short-Filler Cigars - Totalmente a Mano Tripa Corta

Handmade Short Filler cigars have a filler composed of leaf trimmings from the bunches of long filler cigars combined with other selected chopped tobacco, but full-size binders and wrappers are used. Some short-filler cigars are still produced by Habanos S.A.

Machine-made Cigars - Mecanizado

Machine-made cigars were produced from the 1950s and were made with either long or short filler tobacco. They could be produced in large quantities and were significantly cheaper than hand-made cigars.

Almost all machine-made cigars were once produced in both fully machine-made and hand-finished versions.

There was a significant phasing out of machine-made cigars between 2002 and 2005. By 2006, no machine-made cigars remained in the Habanos S.A. range. They are still produced in Cuba by Internacional Cubana de Tabacos S.A., but are no longer classified as Habanos.

Hand-Finished Cigars

Machine-bunched hand-finished cigar had the filler and binder bunched by machine but the wrapper was applied by hand.

Hand finishing of machine bunched cigars (by the hand application of the wrapper) was reduced in the 1990s and was fully phased out by circa 2002.

Small Cigars

Small cigars are machine-made cigars that weigh less than 3 grams and use short filler tobacco. They are available in some Cuban cigar brand names. This range includes the Mini, Club, Puritos, and Shorts.

Before circa 2001, they were produced outside Cuba using 100% Cuban Tobacco. Since then they have been produced in Cuba and therefore can be legally called Cuban cigars, however, they do not meet the D.O.P. standard to be classified as Habanos.

In circa 2005 mini cigars were taken out of the Habanos range, and are now produced by Internacional Cubana de Tabacos, S.A..

Cigarettes

Cigarettes made from Cuban tobacco are available in some Cuban cigar brand names.

Cigarettes are not listed in this website.

Fumigation and Conditioning

Before packing, the cigars are fumigated with Phosphine (Phosphorus Hydride) to control the tobacco beetle Serricorne, and then conditioned in bundles in cedar lined cabinets, to reduce and stabilise their moisture. These cabinets are maintained between 16°C - 18°C and 65% - 70% RH.

Quality Control

Quality control is provided by testing and supervision during the rolling, and later by both non-destructive and destructive testing.

The supervisors are expert rollers, who are mainly involved in checking technique, construction and physical cigar sizes at the rolling tables. Each cigar must pass a suction draw test before the wrapper is applied.

After leaving the roller, the cigars go to the quality control section, where each cigar is checked for weight, length, ring size, consistency, construction and appearance.

Samples are also opened up to check internal filler construction, arrangement, and blending of the leaf.

Finally, a sample of the cigars are test-smoked to ensure that they are consistent with the required character of the vitola. They are graded for draw, burn, aroma, flavour, strength, and overall quality.

Freezing

In addition to fumigation, freezing of the finished cigars is used to kill the tobacco beetle Lasioderma serricorne.

Freezing of cigars commenced around early 2005. It is carried out in the Habanos main temperature and humidity controlled storage and distribution facility in Guanabacoa.

This, combined with fumigation, is intended to kill all eggs, insects, and lava within the tobacco.

Some regional distributors had their own freezing facilities, predating the Habanos plant.

Details of the Tobacco Beetle and other Pests

Wrapper Shades

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Wrappers have a basic colour classification as shown.

There are many shades within each basis colour. As far as possible, cigars of the same shade are allocated to a single box.

When there is a slight difference, the shades are arranged to run from darker to lighter, from left to right across the box.

Construction Issues

Poor Draw - Plugged and Underfilled Cigars

Poor draw problems result from underfilled or overfilled cigars, or badly bunched or twisted filler leaf within the cigar. Poor draw can be more pronounced in young, inadequately aged cigars. Allowing a longer time for the cigar to age may help.

Plugged cigars can vary from partial (hard to draw) to fully plugged (totally unsmokable). A tight or badly bunched cigar might be saved by poking a thin skewer down the centre of the cigar. Allowing the cigars to dry (for example by leaving outside a humidor for a few days before smoking, or briefly placing in a refrigerator or freezer) may also help.

Underfilled cigars, while smokable, are very unsatisfying. There is nothing you can do with an underfilled cigar, except that if the cigars were over-dry, restoring them to their proper humidity level may help.

Plugged cigars were virtually unheard of before circa 1996. Construction issues began to appear in 1998, and 2003-2004 was notorious for construction problems, including gross underfilling. The situation improved mid-2004. Since 2005, suction tests are carried out on all cigars before the wrappers are applied. Today, construction is generally very good.

Factories

Historically, Cuban cigar factories only made a single brand or small group of brands depending on the factory ownership. This continued more-or-less unchanged until 1980, when Cubatabaco conducted a general overhaul of the industry, standardising many processes across factories and allowing all factories to manufacture any cigar from any brand.

Under this system, maintaining consistent blends and quality proved inefficient and difficult. In 2002, a new policy was implemented: all cigars can still be made at all factories, but now each brand has a "mother" factory that is responsible for the selection of tobacco and blend no matter where their cigars are rolled. The mother factory will generally handle the bulk of production for their brand.

La Corona

La Corona or Miguel Fernández Roig factory is one of the largest factories in Havana. It was established in 1889, and has occupied numerous grand buildings over the decades. The current building is a fairly non-descript industrial building in the Cerro district of Havana.

La Corona is the mother factory of Hoyo de Monterrey, Punch, San Cristóbal de la Habana, La Flor de Cano, Cuaba, and Por Larrañaga.

Partagás

The Partagás or Francisco Pérez Germán factory was historically located close to the Capitolio building in Havana, and the facade of this famous building is a common feature in many pieces of cigar related artwork and branding. Factory operations ended in this building in 2010, and were moved to a building that had formerly housed the El Rey del Mundo factory, still in central Havana. This new building is generally known as the Modern Partagás Factory. The old Partagás building was earmarked for conversion into a tobacco museum, and later a hotel. The building suffered a partial collapse in 2020. Its future is currently unclear.

In addition to the Partagás brand, the factory is the mother house of Bolivar, La Gloria Cubana, Ramón Allones and Quai D’Orsay.

El Laguito

The El Laguito factory was established in 1966, in a former mansion in Cubanacán in the leafy suburbs of Havana. It is the mother factory for the Cohiba brand, and is generally regarded as having a higher standard of rollers and quality control than other factories.

H. Upmann

The H. Upmann or José Marti factory was founded in 1844, and occupied various facilities over the decades. It moved into a "state-of-the-art" new building in 2004, however construction defects meant this building had issues with flooding, and the Upmann factory moved again, this time into the former Romeo y Julieta Factory building in central Havana in 2011.

In addition to H. Upmann, the factory is the mother factory for the Montecristo and Diplomaticos brands.

Francisco Donatien

The Francisco Donatien factory is located in Pinar del Río. It was formally a domestic cigar factory, but was upgraded in the late-1990s to produce the Vegueros brand. It is also the mother factory of Trinidad (which was transferred there from El Laguito in the early 2000s) and the Vegas Robania brand.

Romeo y Julieta

The traditional Romeo y Julieta factory was in central Havana, although this was ceded to the H. Upmann factory in 2011. The brand was homeless until the late 2010s, which the El Rey del Mundo / Carlos Baliño factory in the Havana suburbs was renamed as Romeo y Julieta.

In addition to Romeo y Julieta, it is the mother factory for El Rey del Mundo and Saint Luis Rey.

Holguín

A provincial factory in the city of Holguín is the mother factory of the José L. Piedra brand.

Cienfuegos

A provincial factory in the city of Cienfuegos was established in around 1925. It is the mother factory of the Quintero brand.

Other Factories

In addition to the factories named above, there are a few dozen other facilities in both Havana city and in the provinces around the island. These factories produce whatever cigars are needed, under the supervision of the mother factories. Primarily, this will consist of high-volume cigars like the Montecristo No.4, Partagás Serie D. No 4, and so on.

Most cigar factories have moved multiple times over the centuries of the tobacco industry, and there are many grand historic buildings that formerly house factories in Havana and across the island.


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