The exact origin of tobacco is unknown and a subject that scientists can’t agree on, but it’s been narrowed down to the Americas, all the way up to Canada. What is certain is that the first European to discover tobacco and Cuba in 1492 were the same ones who brought it back to Spain.
Today we know that it was in use for centuries prior to their discovery. Christopher Columbus and his expedition observed the Taino Indians smoking tobacco through a pipe at ceremonies and it’s been documented that they saw the natives smoking something that’s described as a primitive modern day cigar.
It took a while to catch on in Spain and Europe, but tobacco would eventually become the catalyst for colonisation in this part of the world. The first tobacco plantations were established in the late 1500s and early 1600s in Cuba, and tobacco production would surpass sugar before the end of the 17th century and support a good part of the population. By the 1800s there would be 5,500 plantations on the island.
Tobacco leaf would be sent to the Spanish port of Cadiz and Cartagena as well as to the cities of Moguer and Seville in Spain and Lisbon in Portugal. Eventually, it spread to the rest of Europe, Russia and Asia although in some cases decades later.
For approximately the first century, tobacco leaf sent from the new world would be rolled into cigars in Spain. It would take this long for them to discover that rolled cigars travelled better than loose-leaf.
The rolling of cigars in Cuba ( Havana) for export began slowly and on a small scale in the late 18th century but would become the norm in the next century, making the tobacco industry a dominant feature on the business landscape.
Although Cuban cigars continued to gain notoriety through the 20th century, there were many cops and downs in the cigar industry in Cuba during the 1900s. The century started off on a dour note with the end of the second War of independence in 1898. The land and industry, including tobacco, had been decimated almost to the point of no return.
Tobacco seed from the original strain had to be imported from Mexico. There was a shift in ownership and direction but the industry persevered and production once again began to climb until the Great Depression of 1929-1939.
The effects of the depression on the United States are well documented but it didn’t end there. Due to the enormous economic connection between the United States and Cuba during this time, cigar sales once again took a hit in Cuba. After all, cigars are not a necessity when you are having difficulty putting food on the table.
Prior to the mid 1950s, half of all cigars produced in Cuba went to the United States, as well as two thirds of tobacco leaf that would mostly be rolled in factories in Florida and New Jersey.
After the Fidel Castro revolution, the industry took another hit, with many people fleeing the country. Women had always been involved in the cigar industry in Cuba but it wasn’t until this time in the late 1960s that they were welcomed into the galera or rolling room.
Before that, the job of rolling cigars was a man’s domain. With the shortage of rollers, Celia Sanchez opened the doors to women working on the rolling floor by opening the El Laguito factory and officially creating the Cohiba brand. Cohibas would be rolled only in this factory and only by women working in the rolling rooms. Today El languido still rolls only Cohiba, but you will find both men and women rolling them.
Once again, adjustments were made and tobacco and cigar production returned to previous levels until 1979-1980 when the blue monad destroyed almost all of that year’s harvest and most of the next year’s harvest.
Production levels and the quality of the cigars improved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, coinciding with a resurgence of popularity in cigar smoking. Wanting to take advantage of the new market, there was an over-production of cigars with a decline in quality by the year 2000. With the multinational company Altadis buying a controlling share of Habanos S.A in 2002 , things began to take a turn for the better.
After the revolution in 1962, the tobacco industry was nationalised and the Cuban State created Cubatabaco to handle all things related to tobacco. In 1994, Habanos S.A was created to handle the sales and in 2001 Tabacuba was created to handle manufacturing. As with the beginning of the 20th century and after the revolution of 1959, the cigar industry in Cuba is at a crossbar once again.
The industry is rebounding back from two horrible years due to weather conditions at the beginning of the decade and experiencing warming relations with the United States, making the prospects of that market a possibility. Will the Cubans be able to handle the increase in production and what will the quality of the cigars be when the possibility becomes a reality?
Most people that light up a cigar don’t give much thought beyond the rolling table when it comes to the manufacturing of a cigar but there is a lot more to it than that and it’s confusingly different at times in the case of Cuba. There are a few steps before it touches someone’s lips. You have the growing, harvesting, and curing of the tobacco leaf on the farm in Pinar del Rio and then the processing of the leaf at the factory.
Tobacco growing season in Cuba starts around mid-October and ends around the end of December. However, this isn’t where it all begins. The land is prepared through the summer between June and August, with the growing of seedlings starting in September (taking at least 45 days) until the beginning of November.
There are two types of tobacco grown, shad-grown (taped) used for wrapper and sun-grown used for filler and binder. The plant is made up of three parts; the sun-grown top of the plant is called the Ligero (strong and full bodied) the middle is the Seco (medium body for aroma) and the bottom part of the plant is the Volvo (lighter bodied for combustion).
The wrapper leaf is the most difficult to produce and garners the most money. Harvesting tobacco begins sometime in December and finishes in March. From the time you plant to the time you finish picking, it’s 16 weeks for sun-grown and 17 weeks for shade-grown.
The tobacco plant is not harvested all in one day. Starting from the bottom of the plant, two to three leaves are picked at one time every few days. After the leaves are picked, they are taken to the curing barn, sown in pairs, hung on poles, and placed on racks starting from the bottom, and moving them towards the top as the leaves begin to change colour from green to golden brown.
The farmer, or tobacco grower, manually controls the temperature and humidity in the barn by constantly monitoring and adjusting the levels by opening and closing windows and doors so the air can flow freely through the barn. The process takes about 50 days.
Once the farmer has cured his leaf, he sells it to the state at fixed prices. A farmer can only sell his leaf to the government but only after taking out his allotted amount for personal consumption. Once the state buys the leaf from the farmer it assumes responsibility after that. The leaf is priced according to quality and this is when the leaf is classified and put into designed groups.
Wrappers are sorted by size, texture and colour into more than 50 categories. The leaf will have received its first fermentation in the farmer’s barn but here at the warehouse, after being classified, the leaf will be out through another one.
After this final fermentation, the leaves are put on racks for airing a few days before being packed in bales for raging for up to two years, depending on the leaf. The bales are marked with information about the leaf within; date of harvest and packaging as well as size and strength of the leaf and specific characteristics for blending. Once all this is done, up to two years later, the carefully marked bales make their way to the various factories across the country, but mostly Havana.
After calling this work, we still don’t have a finished product. The leaf is now at the factory; of course there is a steady supply every year to replace the leaf that is being used throughout the year; providing all goes well in the fields. Once the leaf is at the factory it will go through another series of steps before being turned into a cigar and a few more enters a box.