When I think of Cuba I think of the country`s famous president Fidel Castro, the patriarch of the Cuban revolution Che Guevara, the much talked about US-Cuban relationship; I think of a culture that is rich, a beautiful island in the Caribbean that is a top destination for travellers around the globe and a country that has lands filled with sugar canes, great rum and famous tobacco plantations that produce world-class Cuban cigars.
Cigar production started in Cuba around mid-18th century and has continued on to this day. Cigars have become the country`s number one export, surpassing the former number one export of sugar. With all this being said, surprisingly, the country known for its rich soil and perfect climate for harvesting tobacco leaves was not where these famous cigars, that are known worldwide, originated from.
Dating back to the 10th century a ceramic pot was discovered in Guatemala that portrayed a Mayan smoking a bunch of tobacco leaves that were bound together with string. The Mayans used the term “sikar” when referencing smoking. This can very easily be interpreted as how the term Cigar came into use today based off the Spanish term “cigarro”.
In 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, he witnessed the land’s Cuban Natives smoke cylindrical bundles of tobacco leaves, wrapped in dried palm or plantain. Columbus took the liberty of making a claim on the island on behalf of Spain. Soon ships would frequent the island regularly and would partake in the distribution of this fine tobacco from Europe all the way to Asia. In the 17th century all Cuban cigars had to be registered in the Spanish city of Seville. Further after, a monopoly formed which did not allow the Cuban farmers to sell any tobacco to any other country besides Spain. The monopoly was enforced until 1817.
By Mid-19th century, cigars became so popular and were highly consumed in the US that Cuban cigar makers started to migrate to Tampa, Florida. They worked in “cigar city” well until the 20th century.
These days you can go anywhere in the world and you will find Smoke Shops boasting their grand collections of the finest Cuban cigars. The best cigars in Cuba come from the Pinar del Rio province. This province is made up of the regions, Vuelta Abajao, Vuelta Arriba, Semi Vuelta and Partido. These areas within Pinar del Rio produce the best tobacco. In 1907, a seed that was created, by Cuban botanists, called habanensis was used because of its disease-resistant qualities. In 1940, the much-improved criollo seed was created, followed by the creation of the Habanos 2000 in the year of 1992 and criollo 98, in 1998. The latter two are used for most cigars today.
The harvesting of the tobacco leaves can be quite a lengthy process with the leaves of the wrapper being the most expensive to produce. It will take 9 months to complete the process from soil preparation to the end of harvesting. First the seeds are selected and then placed into these soil-filled plastic trays that will float on a hydroponic water and fertilizer system. This area will be enclosed within a plastic tent for about 45 to 50 days. This is how long it takes to grow the seeds. Now the soil needs to be prepared in order to plant the seeds. This will happen every September. The soil is fertilized with organic matter and then each seed is planted by hand. Approximately 30,000 seeds are planted per hectare!
Farmers will start tending to the crop 3-4 weeks after planting the seeds. They will de-bud the top of the plant to enable the plant to continue growth. If the tobacco leaves are being grown for wrappers, a fine muslin cloth will be placed over the leaves for an additional 10-20 days. If the leaves are going to be used for the binder or filler they can be left out in the open air.
Approximately 40 days after the planting of the seeds some of the leaves can be picked. Usually the leaves from the bottom of the plant can be plucked. These leaves will be used for machine made cigars. This is a 30-day process called harvesting. The main picking will occur 7 days after the harvesting 30-day cycle ends. Once the leaves have been picked they must be cured. Wrapper leaves are air cured in a special barn for 50 days while the filler leaves will undergo the same process but will be sun dried for 7 days before and after being in the barn.
We’re still not done here! After the curing process the leaves then must go through the sorting, stripping and fermentation process. The wrapper leaves are moistened and then sorted by size. They will be wrapped in jute cloth and will rest for 10-15 days before they are grouped, bundled and finally bailed. They are now ready to be shipped to the factories. The filler and binder leaves will follow the same steps as above, however will need to undergo an additional 30-50 day fermentation process. After the fermentation process the leaves are then stripped of their center vein and are grouped and bailed. They will be placed in storage and begin their next cycle of ageing. The storing and aging process can last anywhere from 1 to 5 years, depending on the leaf. Once the leaves are ready to be used they must be unpacked very carefully in special airing rooms. The leaves are moistened and handled delicately so as to not tear the leaves.
The art of cigar making will start from this point. The cigars will be hand-rolled by masters of their trade. Once the cigars are rolled they will go through the factories quality control division. There the cigars will be checked for weight, ring size, length, consistency and the general appearance overall. The cigars will be bundled and stored in special cedar-lined c
abinets to reduce their moisture. They will also go through a freezing process after. Both of these processes help kill off any tobacco beetles. The last step in all of this of course, is the packing of the cigars in boxes. Now they can be shipped out to the rest of the world to be consumed.
For a better understanding I would suggest going to Cuba, if you ever have the opportunity, and touring one of the Famous Cigar factories. The most popular factory is the Partagas Cigar Factory. This will help you get an even better understanding of this process.
So you see there are many steps involved before that fine Cuban will reach your lips! My advice to you all is to enjoy your cigars and indulge in every aspect while puffing away on your favourite Cuban…. I know I will!