History and Production
The tobacco plant originally came from South America. Even though it is impossible to state exactly when it was brought to Cuba, it can be said that it happened between 3000 and 2000 B.C. The aborigines considered tobacco a miraculous medicine and an essential element in their religious, political and social ceremonies. It was a part of their agriculture and an inseparable part of life.
Europeans were introduced to this plant when they first reached the Americas. They learnt that it was a source of great physical and spiritual pleasure. It didn’t take long for the Old Continent to develop a passion for it. As was only to be expected, Spain was the first country to have the most smokers. The Spanish were also the first to be subjected to terrible punishments for smoking. The habit later spread to Persia, Japan, Turkey and Russia, where the cruelest punishments were established. Curiously, as bans on smoking gained ground, tobacco was increasingly used for medicinal purposes.
On April 11, 1717, King Philip V established a royal monopoly on tobacco-growing in Cuba. This has gone down in history as the Estanco del Tabaco. Tobacco-growers who opposed the onerous law lost their lives. The monopoly remained in effect until June 23, 1817, when a royal decree removed the monopoly, permitting free trade between Cuba and the rest of the known world as long as it was through Spanish ports.
No slaves were used in tobacco-growing. Sugarcane wasn’t such a delicate crop, and slaves could be used in its cultivation and harvesting, but, as José Martí said, tobacco plants had to be handled as carefully as if they were fine ladies. Immigrants from the Canary Islands worked in the tobacco fields, laying the foundations for a very special breed: the Cuban farmers. The 19th century provided the final reaffirmation of Cuba’s tobacco production. In 1859, there were nearly 10,000 tobacco plantations and around 1300 cigar factories in the capital. Cuba entered the 20th century in very precarious conditions, because its devastating wars of independence had just ended.
The Cuban archipelago is very close to the Tropic of Cancer. Its western region—where the best tobacco in the world is grown—has a relative humidity of 79 percent, an average annual temperature of 25¼ C. (77¼ F.) and a particularly favorable amount of rainfall.
In addition to these special climatic features, the chemical composition and agricultural properties of the soil in Cuba’s tobacco-growing areas couldn’t be bettered. Add to all this the experience and care that Cuba’s tobacco workers put into each of the many steps that go into making an Habano. They, too, are absolutely necessary to maintain the product’s top quality.
The cultivation process begins in the seed bed, an area in which the seeds are planted under the best conditions for their germination and later development and where the seedlings remain for 40 days, until they are ready to be transplanted to the fields. The seedlings are planted in stages, beginning in October.
The leaves are picked between 45 and 80 days after planting. Later, the leaves are taken to the curing barns, where they are dried and fermented. In the sorting houses—which are of great economic and social importance—skilled workers (the vast majority of whom are women) gently and delicately select, classify and sort the leaves.
Cuban Cigar Production
In the factory, the leaves that will be used as wrappers are separated and sprinkled with water to restore the humidity they lost during processing and reduce their fragility. Later, sorters classify them by size and color. With damp fingers, they rub, pull, smooth out and examine each leaf. Then they select between 18 and 20 kinds of tobacco leaves, which will become the Habanos’ wrappers. The most demanding job is that of the cigar maker. He places half a leaf of binder on his table, then picks up an assortment of different kinds of leaves and shapes them into a bundle. To cover the cigar, he smoothes the wrapper, trims the edges with his knife and wraps it around the bundle.
The nearly completed Habano is caressed by delicate hands. The flat of the knife is pressed along it to attain perfect finishing, and the end of the cigar that will go in the smoker’s mouth is shaped. Then the cigar is placed in a tiny horizontal guillotine, and the tip is clipped to make the cigar the desired length.
Once their shape and size have been checked and approved, the Habanos are gently tied with a ribbon in groups of 50. Then they are sent to a vacuum fumigating chamber, where they are immunized against plagues. After this, they are placed in special closets, where they remain for three weeks, to remove excess humidity. Then they go to the classification and packing department, also known as the selection department. Lastly, a cigar band is placed around each one. al anillado.
The quality control group takes samples of each cigar maker’s work, to check the cigars’ size, shape, appearance, texture and thickness. If they fail to meet the exacting standards, they are rejected a serious matter for the cigar maker, who is paid by piecework.