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When it comes to Cuban cigars, we don’t know if we should praise them or criticize them. There is plenty of things to complain about, but on the other hand, Habanos has shown some sheer brilliance.

Quality control

Let’s start with the criticism. First of all, there’s a lack of quality control. Some factories in other countries test hundred percent of their production with a drawmaster machine to ensure each and every single cigar has a perfect draw. Yet on Cuba, an average of four percent of the total production is being tested. And on the whole island, there are less Drawmaster machines than in a factory like Joya de Nicaragua.

draw master machine

Now some people claim that it’s part of the charm of a Cuban cigar. But we think that’s a weird charm, and ridiculous for a premium product. Habanos considers them to be the Rolls Royce of the cigar industry, and who would accept it when you buy a Rolls Royce, put the car in the ignition and it won’t start. Would you call that “the charm of a Rolls Royce”? We at Ministry of Cigars don’t. And we don’t call it the charm of Cuban cigars either. Rocky Patel once said to us, that he thinks about the occasional cigar smoker when it comes to quality control, not the cigar geeks with plenty of cigars in stock. The last group will toss a cigar with a bad draw, get another one and no harm done. He said “Imagine, you only smoke once in a while, you go out golfing with your friends and on the way to the golf course you stop at a cigar shop and buy a cigar. On the 9th hole, you decide to light the cigar, and it has no draw. As a manufacturer, you just ruined that guy’s day. My name is on my cigars, I want them all to be perfect.”

Aging of the finished product

Another thing is aging. Where most non-Cuban manufacturers take the time to age the cigars in huge aging rooms after they are rolled, sometimes up to a few years but a minimum of six months, Habanos is throwing them on the market as soon as possible. After rolling, cigars enter a sick period where they sweat out ammonia. And cigars in their sick period are not very tasty. And yeah, you can defend that by saying that there is a high demand, but putting an unfinished product on the market? That’s disrespecting your customers, your hard-working employees, and your own brand. Let’s go back to the Rolls Royce, if you buy one, you want to ride it right? Not store it in your garage for a few years before you can enjoy the open roads.

aging room at the Fuente factory (photo credit: robustojoe.com)

Fermentation and aging of the raw tobacco

When we go deeper into the matter, there’s more to criticize. The tobacco is rushed through the fermentation process and that’s something that can’t be fixed afterward. Not even with aging the cigars in your personal humidor for decades. Underfermented tobacco will never taste as good as properly fermented tobacco. That’s because the process from turning raw, fresh leaf to good tasting tobacco hasn’t been completed and can’t be completed afterward. There is just no way.

fermeting tobacco in pilones (photo: Joya de Nicaragua)

After fermentation, tobacco should be aged to reach its full potential. And Cuba doesn’t age the tobacco. Five-year-old tobacco is already special in Cuba and used for Gran Reserva cigars, three-year-old tobacco is rare and used for Reserva cigars. While in other countries, five-year-old, or even older, tobacco is used in your regular, day to day, cigar. But we will get back to this point later.

wrapped up tobacco aging

Monoculture and fertilizing

The issue that will be hardest to tackle, however, is the depleted soil. For years, the Cuban farmers, have practiced monoculture. That means, growing tobacco on the same plots of land, year after year after year after year. And everybody with a little bit of agricultural knowledge knows that its bad practice. Every few years, the soil should get the chance to replenish by leaving it unused or by planting other crops on it, which uses other nutrients. And there’s also a lack of fertilizer. By the time the fertilizer gets to the farmers, it has been diluted already due to corruption. And then the farmers dilute it even more, as they want to use part of the fertilizer to grow produce which they can feed their family. Those practices led to depleted soil, and depleted soil can never grow the best product.

worker on Cuban tobacco farm (photo credit: US slave)

Now after reading this, you might think we wrote this to trash Cuban cigars. But actually, we wish we didn’t have to write this and we didn’t have to come to this conclusion. Cuba has a unique soil, and if you taste old Cuban cigars, from the time when the soil was still rich, the tobacco was still fermented and aged properly and before the quality control went down the drain, then you realize what we are talking about. We are sad about the current state of the Cuban cigars, as they have so much potential, they can be so much better as they are now and it hurts to see that they are underachieving on every single level, from crop to finished product and everything in between.

The only thing that is top level at Habanos is marketing. Which of course is ironic, since Cuba is a socialist country and marketing is a capitalist instrument. But the marketing people of Habanos are geniuses.

Reserva & Gran Reserva

Now we are coming back to the lack of aged tobacco. You have to be a genius, and have a crowd of followers that eat every word you say without thinking critically if you can spin using young tobacco in your regular production into a high-profit opportunity. Yet Habanos did that. Grab three-year-old tobacco, which is considered young tobacco anywhere in the world, create a limited edition, put them in beautiful glossy black boxes, slap an extra ring around it and call it a Reserva. Don’t even change the vitola and charge three to four times the regular price. And heck, why not top that with a Gran Reserva with five-year-old tobacco, which is still not vintage or rare, but pretty common in other countries. If you can get away with that, then we can only take off our hats.

Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill Gran Reserva Cosecha 2009

Limited and Regional editions

Creating a limited edition, just for the sake of a limited edition, not because of a lack of tobacco and in that way drive the demand is was a mastermind set of Habanos. It worked brilliantly in every single way. People went, and are still, going crazy. And the Cuban limited editions aren’t even unique blends, they are just the same regular blends, just in a different vitola. And not even a crazy vitola, just a vitola from the Habanos portfolio but not used for the specific brand that is chosen as a limited edition. Marketing level genius.

Cohiba Talisman Edicion Limitada 2017

And if you can even expand that whole limited edition scheme tenfold, then you deserve your weight in marketing gold. That’s what Habanos did with regional editions. Same story as the limited editions. Not even unique tobacco or a different blend, just the same blend, different size, limited amount of boxes and released in just one specific region. Sit back, relax and watch the Cuban cigar aficionados go on a crazy hunt to collect them. And those hunts put the Pokemon Go hype from a few years back to shame. We have to admit, in the first few years of the Habanos Edicion Regional craze, we joined the hunts too, so we fell for the marketing too.

Quai D’Orsay Exclusivo Francia Belicoso Royal

Medio Tiempo and the effect on Cohiba

But the one that we like best at Ministry of Cigars is the marketing behind the Behike. Partly based on truth, part marketing, and nobody realizes the consequence of the story. Medio Tiempo leaves exist, that part is true. And that leaf is rare, that part is also true. But it’s not a new leaf, it has always existed. And it has always been used, used in the regular production Cohiba. Suddenly, a marketing executive comes up with a brilliant idea to make that medio tiempo leaf something super special, and create a new line of cigars with it for an ultra-premium price. That is brilliance, and when the cigars are successful, create a shortage, add to the hype and drive the price up even more. Sheer brilliance from a marketing point of view. And Habanos gets away with it, nobody even thinks about the consequence of removing the medio tiempo leaf from the regular production Cohiba. Think of it this way, if the medio tiempo leaf is that special, and it was always used in the regular Cohiba, then the Cohiba blend has gone down in quality after the introduction of the Behike right? Because that super special tobacco is no longer used in the Cohiba. Yet, have you heard anybody talking about this? No, and that’s because the Habanos marketing is so strong and brilliant it outsmarts every other cigar producer in the world.

Final thoughts

We have lots to complain about the quality of Cuban cigars, for a number of reasons. And then we didn’t even tackle all of them. But those are all issues that can be resolved if the right people stand up. If Cubatobacco secures enough fertilizer and cultivates more land in the Vuelta Abajo so that current farms can replenish the soil, then the problem of the depleted soil can be solved.

When it comes to fermenting and aging the tobacco and the finished product, that is possible but will have an effect on the numbers of cigars produced. Of course, if Habanos thinks long term, then it’s worth taking a hit for a couple of years (although the hit will only be in numbers, not in turnover, with high demand and low supply, the price will go up, making up for the lower volume). But in the long run, they will have a better product to satisfy customers.

As for quality control, that’s easily solved. Stop paying torcedors per cigar, start paying them per quality control passed cigar and test all cigars. Get a few draw master machines in every factory, hire a few people to test cigars all day and you’re done.

If Cuba tobacco and Habanos tackle these problems, then the cigars will be on par with their marketing again. The potential of the Cuban cigar is enormous, with a unique soil, the perfect climate and a tremendous history, it’s a damn shame that the current quality is so low. We can only hope that the problems will be solved, it would be good for everyone. Good for Habanos, good for the industry as a whole but most of all good for us, the cigar aficionados all around the globe.