Whisky & Culture

From seed to smoke - the making of hand-rolled Havanas

James Leavey takes us through the production of a cigar – from tobacco seed to cedar wood box
By James Leavey
A unique blend of sun, soil, skill and painstaking attention to detail goes into the making of fine Havana cigars. There are five main tobacco growing areas in Cuba: Vuelta Abajo in Pinar del Rio province, western Cuba, which produces the excellent Rubio variety; Semi Vuelta, also in Pinar del Rio; Partidos, just south of Havana; Remedios, in the centre of the island, mainly in Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos provinces; and Oriente, in Holguin and Granma provinces, in the far east of the island. Just two, Partidos and Vuelta Abajo – Cuba’s Burgundy and Bordeaux – grow tobacco fine enough for Havana’s world famous Grandes Marques. Cuba’s finest tobacco, widely acknowledged as the best in the world, comes from Vuelta Abaj – particularly from the San Juan y Martinez and San Luis areas. No mechanical process is used in the farming or final production of Cuban hand-rolled cigars. The Vegueros, or tobacco farmers, use only oxen, horse or donkey power to plough the fields with a primitive wooden or metal plough. To ensure the best start for the crop, seeds are provided free by Cuba’s Tobacco Research Stations to the Vegueros, many of whom own their land. The seed is then sorted and carefully graded before planting out in specially prepared seedbeds, around mid-September, during which each Veguero might typically plant out around half a million seedlings. There are two seed varieties, each of which produces different tobacco plants. The Corojo plant, named after the famous El Corojo Vega, or plantation, where its seed was developed, produces just one leaf – the Capa, or wrapper. It costs more to produce than all the other tobaccos in an Havana. The Criollo plant produces four of the five different leaves which will be blended to create the harmony of flavours found in many different Havana brands. After 45 days, the seedlings reach a height of around 10 - 12 inches (15 - 20 centimentres) and are then ready to be planted out in well-watered, weeded and carefully fertilised ground, usually from October onwards. The delicate Corojo plants require special treatment and are protected by cheesecloth, gauze or muslin netting, known as tapado, stretched over the Corojo tobacco plantations to diffuse the rays of the hot tropical sun. Criollo plants are left exposed to the elements to produce a variety of strengths.Newly planted tobacco plants must be constantly guarded against disease and pests, and each plant is visited at least 150 times during its short life for weeding and especially for the removal of flower buds and side shoots in order to redirect each plant’s energy into bearing larger leaves. Some 50 days after planting out, the harvest begins. By now, each plant has fully matured up to a height of about four feet but only two or three leaves can be taken from each plant at a time. The plant is then left for six or seven days before the leaves are picked again, as they mature. The leaves are then taken to large Casas de Tabaco, or curing barns, where they are hung to dry over wooden racks. Air curing takes around 50 days to complete and the leaves are then packed in bundles and taken to the Fermentation House, for the first fermentation, which lasts for up to 30 days. To prepare them for the handling, the leaves are sprinkled with pure water to avoid any staining. The thickest parts of the stems of filler and binder leaves are then stripped out and each leaf is then classified according to size, colour, texture or type. Once classified, the leaves are re-bundled and stacked in much larger bulks triggering off a more powerful fermentation, which lasts up to 60 days, enhancing the flavour and aroma while eliminating any remaining impurities. When this second period is complete, the leaves rest on airing racks for a few days, before travelling to Havana to be transformed into fine cigars.On arrival, each of the five types of leaf is treated differently before it is ready to go to the roller’s workshop. The four leaves that constitute the fillers and binders age at different times – between one and two years, or more. Only when they reach perfection are they admitted to the blending department. Intense security surrounds the blending, it is here that the jealously guarded secret recipes for each Havana brand are held. Meanwhile, the stems of the wrapper leaves are stripped out, and the leaves are sorted according to their size, colour and texture, before they move on to the Galera, or rolling room, the heart of each Cuban cigar factory.Five types of leaves go to make a Havana cigar: the Tripa, or filler, contains a blend of three – Ligero, Seco and Volado. These are secured by the Capote (binder) while the Capa, or wrapper, dictates its final appearance. The actual rolling is done by Havana’s skilled Torcedores, graded according to their ability, who sit in rows at long, narrow work benches. Despite the myth that all Havanas are rolled on the thighs of beautiful Cuban women, up till the early 1960s all Cuban cigar rollers were men. Today the task is split about 60/40 in favour of women of all ages. The only tools of the Torcedor are a flat board, a sharp knife (known as a Chaveta), a guillotine, a pot of vegetable gum, and, above all, their fingers. The cut filler is laid on the binder, which usually consists of two pieces of leaf of the appropriate size, and then rolled into a bunch of the approximate length, thickness and shape for the particular type of cigar.The final addition of the half-leaf used as wrapper, which is carefully selected for its appearance, flavour and burning qualities, begins at the foot (the end we light) and is arranged in a spiral fashion so that the small veins of the wrapper run lengthwise – veins that run across the cigar are a sign of poor workmanship. The wrapper is then tapered off at the head (the end we smoke from), and retained by a smidgen of tasteless gum.Samples of each Torcedor’s work are regularly checked by the quality control team, who reject any cigars that don’t meet the strictest tolerances of length, shape, girth, appearance and weight. Finished cigars are shelved in a conditioning room for at least three weeks, enabling them to lose some of the moisture gained during rolling. After this period, the cigars are sorted by a colour grader into 65 different shades. A second grader places them in a temporary cigar box, so that the finest tones range from dark to light, left to right. He also selects the best face (what you see when you open a box of Havanas) of each cigar. Each cigar is removed, banded, and carefully placed in their final resting place – a cedar wood box, which is embellished with the Governmental Warranty Seal, and sealed.