Last week I went to Partagas cigar factory, on a tour, being shown how cigars are rolled, as well as smoked. I am happy to share this information with my readers.
I walked to the Saratoga Hotel, where I was told to buy my ticket for the Partagas cigar factory tour at 10CUCs.. I had to walk and walk to get up the cigar factory, in a less than savoury neighborhood, asking twice along the way.
Partagas is one of the five leading cigar factories in Havana, it even making the cigars of some of the other cigar brands. It moved to the building ten years ago. It looks very run down there, and is very hot, without any fans or aircons, on five floors.
Tamara was our English-speaking tour guide, introducing us to each other, being from Australia, Japan, Czech Republic, and I. She had a big fat Cuban cigar in her mouth, all the way throughout the tour. She fired stats and info at us: they employ 460 staff, mainly female from what we saw, all cigars are hand rolled, six brands in addition to Partagas are made there, they work 8 hours a day, with a one hour lunch break, they make 20000 cigars per day, and source tobacco leaves from five areas in Cuba.
They use two types of tobacco leaves, the inner leaves, and another type outside, the latter making up 30% of the cigar. Each staff member works on a specific brand.
We started off with the department that selects the outer leaves. We were handed to one to feel, and it felt like a soft plastic. Each person working in this department handles 1200 outer leaves per day. Tamara told us more than once : ‘they do the same job, every day’. Pop music played while we were there. I had read that they get read to, in the mornings from the newspaper, and from books too.
Then we were shown the Blending department. Different leaves of the outer plant give the aroma, the combustion, and flavour. The blending recipe is a secret, and is different per brand. Like a wine, they blend leaves from different areas, to make the perfect cigars. A ‘Professor’ in the quality control department checks the cigars, the size of the cigars, the smell, flavour, colour, and that the mix of leaves is correct.
In the building is a cigar-making school, a nine month course, and they get paid the equivalent of 200 CUPs per month (about 10CUCs/Euro). Once they get their certificate they can work at any cigar factory. The students make about 60-160 cigars per day.
Tamara has worked at Partagas for 28 years, and proudly told me that she is 47 years old.
The completed cigar goes into a humidor for 3 – 12 days, keeping the humidity at 65%. Then a department classifies the cigars by colour (eight different shades of brown), by size, and cigars of the same colour shade are packed in a box, made from cedar wood sourced from Mexico but made in Cuba. A brand label goes onto the box, as well as box sealing labels, pasted on with flour and water. 2000 labeled boxes are produced per day. 236 different size and shape cigars are made in the factory. The cigars of the same size differ in design by brand.
It takes around 12 days to make a cigar. Tamara made it clear to us that we could buy five cigars at 40 CUCs, but without label rings on them. I asked her about cigar controls at the airport, and she said that one may not take out more than 50 cigars. She then demonstrated how to cut, light, and smoke a cigar. On my Facebook and Insta Stories you can see a video of the hand-rolling of the cigars, and then the demo of how to smoke a cigar.
As we left, we were encouraged to enter the room in which backpacks and bigger bags had to be left. There Tamara had rolls of five big fat unbranded cigars, that she was selling out of the room at 40CUCs. I didn’t want to risk it, so went to the government shop nearby. The Czech man negotiated her down to 30CUCs, especially as she told us proudly that each worker gets 5 cigars as ‘a present’ to take home each day! I bought five smaller Guantanamera cigars, each individually wrapped in cellophane, at 3CUCs each, being more feminine.
Our Partagas tour guide Tamara spoke very quickly, and I was lucky to find a booklet in my BnB, describing the making and rolling of a cigar. Three leaves are selected as the filler, one each light, medium, and full flavoured, each playing a specific role, of combustibility, aroma, and strength of flavour, respectively. A fourth leaf is a binder, that wraps around the filler leaves, and determines its shape and smoking quality. The final fifth leaf is the wrapper, a very thin supple leaf that goes on the outside to complete the cigar, its role being to make the cigar look attractive and adding to its final perfection.
A cigar has a head (the part you draw), and a foot, I learnt.
Tobacco leaves have been growing in Cuba for more than 500 years, when Christopher Columbus first discovered the country. Wrapper leaves are grown with irrigation, under muslin shade cloth, filtering the sunlight, and trapping the heat, so that the leaves grow bigger and finer, making it the most expensive leaf to produce. Sun-grown tobacco plants have leaves that are used as fillers and binders, each of them playing a specific role in the cigar, as described above.
Like a wine, shade-grown outer tobacco leaves are fermented and aged, the latter for a minimum of six months. The longer it is aged, the better it becomes. The three filler leaf types undergo a first (about 25 days) and a second (between 45 – 90 days) fermentation, before being aged between 9 – 24 months, depending on the type of leaf. The fermentation is a natural process, triggered by the moisture in the leaves, and sweats out impurities, and reduces the acidity, tar, and nicotine content of the leaf.
Something we were not shown on the factory tour was the application of the cigar brand bands, introduced to Cuba by Don Gustavo Bock, a foreigner, who felt it a good way to not stain the white gloves of the cigar-smoking gentlemen. The positioning of the bands must be perfectly aligned in a box of cigars. Cigar boxes are pre-labeled before being filled, and then finally quality control checked for colour consistency, band positioning, and the appearance of each cigar. A seal is then affixed over the nail that secures the lid on some cigar brand boxes, coloured strips with the size name are affixed to the sides of the cigar box, a rectangular seal is affixed on the short side of the box, with a decorative strip seals the joints and edges of the boxes. Last but not least is the Cuban Government warranty seal, with a serial number. Underneath the box the words ‘Hecho en Cuba’ (Made in Cuba) are hotstamped. Hand-made cigars and boxes with short-filler cigars have additional descriptive words underneath the box, missing in boxes of machine-made cigars. But that is not it. Two ink stamps appear underneath the box: one with a code to identify the factory that produced the cigars, and the month and year in which it was made. I was sad to learn that my five Guantanamerra cigars that I bought at a government cigar shop, cellophane wrapped which I thought to be a benefit to endure my further travels, means that they are machine made.
And the final crowning glory is the smoking of this hand-crafted exquisite product. The start lies in the selection of the cigar, based on the brand band; the colour (even if there are colour blemishes which are described as the ‘beauty spots’ of the cigar); the feel when rolling it between the thumb and index finger, needing to be firm but ‘springy’; and the aroma from the cigar box. A novice cigar smoker is advised to start with a smaller and lighter flavoured cigar. The tip of the cigar should be cut with a cigar cutter, about 3 mm from the top. This allows a good draw of the cigar. The brand band should not be removed.
The cigar should be lit with a gas lighter or matches. Any other device will hinder the aroma of the cigar. One should take one’s time to light it properly, to give a good draw. One does this by holding the foot of the cigar at 90 degrees to the flame, rotating it slowly so that the surface is evenly charred. Then one should hold the flame a centimetre away, and draw on the cigar until the flame jumps onto the foot of the cigar. Blow gently on the foot of the cigar, to check that it is evenly lit.
Advice provided is to smoke a cigar slowly. It should be ‘Sipped rather than gulped’, to prevent it from overheating, which will affect the flavour negatively. One does not inhale the smoke. One draws the smoke into one’s mouth, allowing it to interact ‘gloriously’ with one’s tastebuds. Relax and savour the flavours and aromas. It can be relit, but loose ash should be removed, to make it easier to light it again. One should smoke it for three quarters of its length, and NOT tip off the ash as one does with a cigarette. The ash should fall off on its own time, preferably into an ashtray!
I loved this last concluding piece of advice: ‘When the sad moment comes to part with your Habano, don’t crush it to a pulp. Lay it to rest in the ashtray and it will go out by itself. Allow it to die with dignity’.
A fascinating topic, and impressive that Cuba, so lacking in many things, has created such a professional and quality cigar industry, with 240 different cigars of 33 brands.
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Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein