Every February during the Habanos Festival, Havana becomes the meeting point for all the cigar lovers from around the world. It is a great opportunity to meet cigar lovers and retailers from around the world, as well as a chance tos ee from first hand the whole process of transforming a bunch of leaves into a fine cigar. This year we decided to go back to Havanna, along with a group of Irish cigar lovers. My last visit in Havana was in 2004, but the days leading to our trip I felt as excited as on my very first visit. From a series of small posts, photos and videos, I will try to bring you the atmosphere we found on the island during the faboulous week we were there.
Although we arrived the night before, it wasn't before Monday morning that I started feeling human again! The 5am start from Dublin, the 12 hours flying time with a stopover in Paris, did not leave me much choice than retiring early on Sunday night, after a couple of cigars in the patio of the Nacional Hotel.
We started the day with a visit to an old friend, Jaime "Hamlet" Paredes. Hamlet is based in the shop of the old Romeo y Julieta factory, which is now housing the H.Upmann factory. We spent a couple of hours there, drinking rum and smoking some Romeo Churchills, with Hamlet coming up with the most amazing stories you will ever hear!
A while later, we headed back to old Havana, this time towards the Partagas factory. The shop beside the factory was packed with tourists and festival attendees. We manages to find a sit in the VIP area, where we spent an hour drinking Cuban coffee and smoking some fresh Partagas D No.4.
After a walk in Calle Obispo, we found our way in the Conde de Villanueva, a beautiful mansion that was built in the start of the 18th century. Conde de Villanueva is the home of one of the most reputable La Casa del Habanos in Cuba, the place where someone can get the infamous Reynaldo custom rolled cigars.
Monday night was the opening night of the Habanos festival, with the launch of the two new Partagas vitolas; the Serie E no.2 and the D no.5. The evening started in the Gran Teatro, with the usual presentation from the Habanos SA executives, talking us through the festival program and the new releases, which included an impressive 3d presentation.
Maestro Leo Brower took the stage and kept us entertained for about an hour, before we headed to the lounge upstairs, for the official launch. That is when we got the chance to smoke the two new Partagas. I smoked the E no.2 on the night and found it very impressive; sweet and complex, with a peppery finish and not a sign of ammonia, which is impressive for a fresh cigar.
We headed back to the Nacional after midnight, for another cigar in the terrace, with a view of the Malecon by night.
After a successful opening night, Tuesday was the official plantation tour. Knowing from previous experience that it was going to be a very long day, we decided to stay back in Havana, as we had plans for our own private tour later in the week.
We started the day again in the old Romeo y Julieta factory. The factory had been closed for a number of months, but was reopened recently, with the H.Upmann factory moving in the premises. After a breakfast rum with Hamlet in the factory’s Casa del Habano, we were offered a private tour of the factory. It was possibly the best day to do this, as the crowds were in Pinar del Rio, and altough there was an obvious rush to prepare the factory for the official tour of Thursday, the workers seemed to be on their regular day to day routine.
We started our tour in the sorting and stripping room, where the factory workers were the first to get the leaves out of the bails, to remove the center vein and sort them according to size. This seemed to be a new procedure, as in my last visit I remember that stripping and sorting were done in different departments.
Then we headed into the main room, where more than 100 rollers were rolling all sizes of cigars, with piramides, robustos, petit coronas and maduros being the most popular. In a tradition that remains unchanged, the lector was reading the days newspapers, only taking a short break to introduce our group to the rollers as the “Irish National Baseball Team”. This certainly raised some eyebrows, as an Irish baseball team would be as rare as a Cuban Ice Hockey squad!
We continued our tour in the sorting room, where the cigars were classified according to their shade, and then put in boxes of 10 or 25, for the finishing touches to be applied further down the line. I was amazed on the amount of Cohiba Maduros that were rolled in the H. Upmann factory, as well as Cohiba Siglo VI. It seems that El Laguito cannot cope anymore with the demand for Fidel’s favourite Marca.
On a corner of the sorting room, an elderly worker was closely inspecting a beautiful Montecristo humidor. The huge Montecristo cigars in it caught my eye and with my almost non existing Spanish I asked what they were. With the help of Hamlet, I was informed that it was part of the Montecristo Humidor, that was going to be auctioned on Friday night’s Gala dinner, and contained 20 Maravella No.1′s.
The most impressive room of the factory was the Escaparate, where all the cigars rolled in the factory were kept. The room was full with crates full of bundles of freshly rolled cigars, that released a heavenly scent. Unfortunately, we could only have a glance inside, although we would have all loved to stay in there for hours…
The afternoon was pretty much another chance to wander around the streets of old Havana. After a quick lunch on the roof bar of the Parque Central, we headed back to the Nacional for another smoking session in the hotel’s terrace.
On that evening we had one of the best meals while in Havana, in El Templete; a large Palladar with a beautiful large and enticing menu and a great atmosphere. One thing that has changed in Havana since my last visit in 2004 is the amount of good restaurants someone can eat in. And El Templete is definately one of the best places to be!
The third day of our festival week was another much anticipated day, as we would get the chance to see and sample some of 2011′s new cigars.
We started the day in the Palacio de Conveciones in Miramar, for the traditional trade show. There was a lot going on in the complex; lectures on the history of the aluminium tubes, cigar rolling lessons and cigar and rum pairings. We decided to stay in the main hall and wander around the kiosk, meeting friends and smoking some cigars.
The most impressive kiosk was the one of Habanos, where one could have a first look on all the new releases. We saw three of the 2011 limitadas, the Ramon Allones Extra, the Hoyo Petit Piramides and the Cohiba 1966, the two new H.Upmann, the half Corona and the Royal Robusto, and the Montecristo Gran Reserva. All the new cigars were freshly rolled and sitting in their brand new boxes.
There was kiosks with custom made humidors and wine coolers, cigar cases. paintings, accessories, antique boxes and bands, everything one could imagine! After a few espressos and some cigars, we headed over to Club Havana’s Casa del Habano.
The La Casa in Club Havana is ran by cigar master Enrique Mons, the man that opened the very first Casa del Habano. Enrique is a gentleman and always enjoys a cigar and a chat in the lounge of his shop. Chatting to him with my non existing Spanish was a little difficult; he told us about his visit in London’s JJ Fox 7 years ago and how impressed he was from the stock he saw in the shop; i told him that he will be more impressed if he sees what we have hidden in Dublin! We smoked some cigars with Enrique, his signature custom made lonsdales which are known as “Mons-dales”! A great cigar, easily one of my favourite custom rolled cigars on the island. As the evening was approaching fast, we headed back to the Nacional hotel, to get ready for the H.Upmann Evening in the El Laguito.
Three cigars were due to be launched in the H.Upmann evening. The H.Upmann Half Corona, the H.Upmann Royal Robusto and the Cohiba 1966. Although the food was better than average and the entertainment was good, the cigars were the center of attention.
I smoked all three cigars offered on the evening. First of all, I tried the new H.Upmann Half Corona straight after our arrival. I found this small cigar to be stronger than I expected, but also very acidic. This cigar is still too young and felt as if it hadn’t got the chance to dry out yet. In theory, the H. Upmann Half Corona would be a success, as it is aimed towards the smoker that wants a quick cigar, not lasting longer than 20 minutes. In countries like Ireland, where there is a lack of indoor smoking venues, most cigar smokers would be able to spend 20 minutes on an outdoor smoking area, before the cold can take the take over the enjoyment. However, the Half Corona has to compete against a large range of tres petit coronas and small panatelas. And there are some remarkable cigars in this range, like the Cohiba Siglo I, the Montecristo No.5, the Partagas Shorts and the Ramon Allones Small Club Coronas. The Half Corona will have to offer something different compared to the said cigars, but at the moment it is still to young to judge.
After our dinner I got to smoke the H.Upmann Royal Robusto, a newly released edmundo which is aimed to the La Casa del Habanos stores worldwide. I have to admin that I really enjoyed it. Although it was fresh, it was really smooth and leathery, with only slight hints of ammonia. I found their flavours similar to the Magnum 46, but a little stronger, but not as strong as the Magnum 50. A very nice cigar indeed, that everyone seemed to have enjoyed.
I took my last cigar with me to smoke in the terrace of the Nacional Hotel; the Cohiba 1966. Initially I was surprised that the Cohiba was included in our gift pack and it seemed so did everyone else! I lit up the Canonazo Especial and from the first draw I was hit by flavours of ammonia! The cigar was so acidic that it was not enjoyable at all and it felt as if it was rolled not more than a week beforehand. I could identify some earthy and spicy flavours, but the ammonia was simply overpowering. I dont know if this will be the same blend as the cigars we will see sometime during the summer, but these were, by no means, ready to be smoked. And for a cigar that is expected to cost as much as a BHK 56, I would expect it to be a lot better when it is rolled out.
After Cohiba’s disappointment, I went to bed in order to get some rest for next day’s visit to the factory that the 1966 is made; the El Laguito.
The fourth day of the official Habanos program included a visit to two factories; the Partagas and the H.Upmann. However, after a slight change of plans and since we had already been to H.Upmann, myself Yiorgos and Dara decided to head over to El Laguito, the home of Cohiba.
Most Cuban taxi drivers don’t know where El Laguito is, and our driver was one of them. After driving around the busy streets of Marianao for about 45 minutes, we eventually got there. El Laguito is situated in the quieter part of Mariano. The factory itself is housed in a building that before the revolution used to be the home of Marqués de Pinar del Rio, a wealthy sugar producer. After the revolution El Laguito operated as a school for female rollers and in 1966, when Cohiba was created, it was changed into a cigar factory.
We started our tour in the VIP room, with a complimentary espresso and a cigar. In the VIP area you could see all the different packs that cohiba cigars come in, as well as unusual and diplomatic boxes, such as boxes of 50 Cohiba Maduros and the Lancero humidors with the “Palma”. We were not the only ones on tour of the factory; a couple of more small groups with some familiar faces were also there.
We headed towards a smaller building at the back of the courtyard, where the bales of tobacco were taken once they arrived to the factory. The bales are opened, the leaves are taken out and handed over to the workers, who strip their central vein and classify them according to their size, shape and shade. The leaves there make their way to the blending room, where they are separated and mixed with other leaves in order to create the blend for each vitola. Before they are moved to the main building and handing them to the torcedors, the leaves go to the moistening room for 24 hours, where they are sprayed with clear water and they are kept in high humidity, in order to gain elasticity so they can be rolled with no further damage.
We then proceeded into the main building, where the sorted leaves were turned into cigars. The layout of El Laguito is very different to any other cigar factory I have been to, and that is to be expected as the building used to be a mansion. On the larger rooms of the ground floor, more than 50 rollers, mainly women, were rolling away… It was evident that El Laguito was geared towards the huge demand of Behikes, as 2 out of 3 rollers were rolling BHK’s, mostly the BHK 56. The procedure was similar to every factory; a torcedor rolls about 20 cigars and before applying the wrapper he/she hands it over for pressure test in the mighty Drawmaster. We got a chance to see first hand how the drawmaster works, as the lady operating it had a little difficulty explaining in English how it works, so she invited us to stick our finger in it and see for ourselves! When the cigars are draw tested, they are handed back to the torcedor, who then applies the wrapper leaf. The finished bundles are handed back at the end of the day and the cigars are moved to the top floor.
The top floor is where the quality control and packaging is taking place. The ladies in quality control have to make sure that every cigar meets the strict Cohiba standards before it is put into a box and leaves the factory. Each cigar is checked for blemishes in the wrapper and if it meets the size standards of the vitola. All the cigars then make their way onto the colour sorting table, where they are graded according to their colour and shade. The expert eye of the colour sorter can see 16 colours and 32 shades in each colour; mine can barely see 3! The cigars are arranged then in bundles of 10 or 25 and head towards the factory’s most impressive room; the Escaparate.
The Escaparate is a sealed room, where temperature and humidity are controlled. All cigars have to stay in the Escaparate for 6 to 8 weeks, in order to lose their excessive moistness. Once they do, they are moved to the packaging department so they can now be placed into the cigar boxes.
In the packaging department, another expert eye again chooses the best cigars for the top of the box (the box’es face is the row that is visible when you open the box) and sorts their cigars according to their shade in the box. Then the boxes are handed over for the bands to be applied. The workers carefully remove the cigars one by one from the box, they apply the labels and put them back in the box, on the exact same way they were when the box came to them. Warranty seals, Habanos stickers, cedar strips are all in and the boxes are almost ready to go. Another quick examination from the quality control and the boxes are ready to leave the factory for the Habanos warehouses.
We finished our tour with another coffee and another cigar in the VIP area, before heading back to Havana to catch up with the rest of the group. The trip to El Laguito was definitely one of the highlights of the week!
He joined the rest of the group from Hunters & Frankau for lunch in La Barca restaurant. A lovely restaurant in the Malecon, facing El Morro castle, and a very large menu to suit all tastes. The best part of our lunch was the desert; a 1999 vintage Punch Double Corona with a glass of the new and rare Habana Club Seleccion de Maestros. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking in central Habana, tasting Mojitos in the bars of Calle Obispo, before an early night’s sleep to recharge the batteries for next morning’s trip to Pinar del Rio.
Friday was the last day of the official festival programme. As usual, we drifted away from the official events and headed towards San Luis and Pinar del Rio, in the tobacco growing heart of Cuba.
We arrived in Pinar del Rio just before midday and headed towards the Vegueros Factory. The Vegueros factory is housed in a building that was formerly a prison and a hospital, and is clearly geared towards tourists, unlike Havana’s main cigar factories. Our tour guide met us in the front door and after queuing amongst other groups, we got in the factory.
Although the factory is called Vegueros, the only brand produced in this factory is Trinidad. 100 workers in the factory produce in excess of 5000 cigars every day, trying to concentrate working behind a glass, with oodles of tourists walking by, taking pictures despite the tour guides asking them not to every 20 seconds… Comparing that to the atmosphere we found the day before in El Laguito, I do have to say they did not look as happy! The tour took about 20 minutes and the part I enjoyed the most was a quick Reyes in the La Casa del Habano across the road. Back in the van for another half an hour drive, heading towards San Luis and the famous Vegas Robaina farm.
Driving through San Luis, you could get an idea on rural life in Cuba. The roads were full of bicycles, oxcarts and even carriages used as the towns public transport! The locals are very friendly and kind. When we asked a young man for directions to the farm, he asked us to follow his lead, cycling through 2 miles of dirtroads!
The farm is located not far away from San Luis and is surrounded by small buildings, homes of the farm workers. We were greeted in the front gate from Ivan, one of the head workers in the farm, who spoke perfect English and was our guide for the day. We took a short tour in the nearest barn, where the last leaves of the crop were hanging from the high ceilings, still green. Ivan explained all the process to us, from the planting of the seed, to the 50 day drying period. Then we moved over to a little hut, where an elderly worker rolled some “farmies” for us, cigars that have a traditional lancero size, which was the favourite of the Don Alejandro.
We made our way to the family home, where Don Alejandro spent all his life in the farm. His rocking chair is still there on the patio, where he used to spend his afternoons, overlooking the 17 acre farm. Memorabilia of famous visitors are on the walls; the reputation of Don Alejandro was enough to attract people from every corner of the world into this farm in rural San Luis. The Robaina farm has now even got a Paladar, where the guests can sit and enjoy a drink or a freshly made drink. Since the sun was gettting a little too hot for us, we decided to stay in the Paladar and enjoy, what else, Havana Club and Bucaneros!
Hiroshi arrived a while later and after a short demonstration of his vocal talents for some of his other guests, he joined our company. It is the first crop since the sad departure of Alejandro Robaina last April, but the plantation is as lively and busy as ever. Hiroshi, Alejandro’s grandson is now the man in charge of the farm. “The season was one of the best ever”, says Hiroshi. “We planted in October 24st and harvested the last leaves 3 days ago (on February 22nd). We had the highest yield ever and the best quality wrappers in the last 50 years”. “The season was perfect for everyone. We got the exact amount of rain and the exact amount of sunshine and heat, at the exact time we needed it. There will be some great cigars with 2011 tobacco!”, added Ivan.
The farm is 17 acres, but not all of it is used to plant tobacco. “We have to rotate the crops, so we plant the rest of the fields with all the vegetables we need to feed the family and use in the paladar”, said Hiroshi. The second largest crop in the Robaina Farm after Tobacco, is peanuts! Cubans love peanuts and planting them straight after the tobacco plants helps the fields regain their nutrients.
Almost all the tobacco produced in the farm is wrapper leaves, about 90% of the crop. The rest of 10% is “Sun” tobacco, leaves that are grown on direct sunshine and are used for filler and binder. The sun tobacco is not sold to the state, but is kept by the family to satisfy their smoking needs for the year! Growing tobacco plants for wrapper leaves requires a lot more effort, knowledge and attention than normal, filler tobacco. All plants have to be grown under shade, with muslin cloth covering the whole plantation, breaking the direct sunlight from the plants. As many as 60 workers are employed in the farm in times of high workload, with a core staff of 15 workers looking after the plantation on a daily basis. The high amount of work reflects on the prices of the tobacco leaves. While 50 kilos of sun tobacco is bought by the state for 800 Cuban Pesos (around 35 CUC), 50 kilos of wrapper leaves are worth in excess of 40,000 Cuban Pesos (around 1,700 CUC)!
Rob Fox presented Hiroshi with one of the replicas of the Cigar Bowl trophy, a large cigar ashtray. When Rob explained what the cigar bowl was about, it was obvious that one of Hiroshi’s biggest passions is baseball! When we explained that most of us had never played baseball before, Hiroshi stood up and started demonstrating some of the games secrets to us! As the time was flying and we had to get back to Havana for the Gala dinner, we greeted Hiroshi and the rest of our hosts and got in the car for our 2 hour journey back to Havana.
Like every year, the Habanos Festival closes with the traditional Gala Dinner. This years Gala took place in Pabexpo, and was dedicated to Montecristo and the new Montecristo Gran Reserva. Four Montecristo cigars were gifted to all attendees of the event, with the No2 Gran Reserva being the highlight. A beautiful and smooth cigar, with no signs of harshness or whatsoever, would make you feel like you were smoking one of the best Montecristo No.2 from the early 90′s! The Gala dinner is the venue where the traditional humidor auction also takes place. 8 custom made humidors, filled with regular production and specially made cigars went under the hammer, raising a staggering 827,000 Euro for the Cuban health system. Almost half of that amount was rendered from the Cohiba humidor, filled with 4000 Cohiba cigars.
After a fun packed night, we retired back to the Nacional hotel after midnight for our traditional cigar in the terrace, before recharging our batteries for Saturday’s much anticipated, first ever Cigar Bowl!