Cuban Cigars – History, Heritage, Production & Smoking on the Island
Cuban cigars are world-renowned for their quality and taste. They play an integral role in Cuba’s history and development. Cuba has been shaped by cigars. And cigars have been shaped by Cuba.
The history of the Cuban cigar and the impact on the social, political, and economic landscape is a fascinating story. It allows you to understand how Cuban cigars came to earn their prestige, as well as how tobacco was essential to Cuba’s past.
A Brief History of the Cigar
Most historians agree that the ancient Mayans invented the cigar. The Mayans took dried tobacco and rolled it in plantain leaves. These early cigars were used for medicinal purposes and were an important part of religious ceremonies, often given as offerings to the gods.
In the late 15th century, Native Americans showed Christopher Columbus and his lieutenants how to smoke the leaves. The habit soon became popular among Spanish colonials, who then exported knowledge and the tobacco plants back to Europe.
With the popularity of tobacco products rising throughout Europe and the American colonies, the demand for fertile agricultural land also grew to cultivate this prized plant. Cuba was discovered to have the ideal growing conditions with nutrient-rich soil and a year-round warm climate. However, most of the early cigar factories were built in Spain rather than Cuba, to capitalize on the roaring European cigar trade.
For over 100 years, most of the tobacco leaves were shipped from Cuba to Europe to be rolled. However, Spanish cigar producers gradually appreciated that completed cigars survived the treacherous transatlantic sea voyage far better than leaves. They stood to make more profit by setting up cigar factories in Cuba, where the tobacco was produced.
How the Cigar Shaped the History of Cuba
Cuba’s history is fraught with conflict, and the cigar played a significant role in shaping that history.
After the first cigar rolling factories were set up on the island, several bans were put in place. The most important was the Tobacco Monopoly declared by King Phillip V of Spain in 1717, which aimed to fuel the substantial profits gained through tobacco production direct to the crown. This ban meant that Cubans could only grow tobacco for Spain. Anyone caught distributing tobacco seeds to non-Spanish colonies was put to death.
However, the tradition of growing, curing, and rolling tobacco into cigars was already deeply rooted in the Cuban culture. Cuban growers openly revolted against the measures until they were lifted in 1817 by King Ferdinand VII. He allowed the free trade of tobacco and cigars from Cuba through Spanish ports, leading to the birth of the modern Cuban cigar industry.
Cuban tobacco production was the country’s biggest agricultural export for most of the 1700s, and cigar rolling remained relatively unchanged over the next century. However, cigars continued to play a role in the social and political history of the country, including the Spanish-American War, civil labor disputes, and culminating with the 1962 trade embargo on all Cuban imports into the USA. The embargo was aimed at weakening Castro’s communist regime during the Cuban revolution.
The Cuban Cigar Industry in Castro’s Early Years
With Fidel Castro seizing control of tobacco farms and nationalizing the cigar industry during the 1960s, it meant significant changes to how cigars were farmed, processed, rolled, and sold. Unfortunately, for cigar lovers, this meant that many of the wealthy farm owners and cigar barons were left penniless and with no choice but to immigrate to the US or neighboring Dominican Republic, taking their knowledge and expertise with them.
There was a dip in the cigar industry after the implementation of the trade embargo, as the US was the primary export destination for bales of Cuban premium tobacco. However, there was also a silver lining to the export ban, as it meant that the best quality Cuban tobacco was staying in Cuba. The Cuban cigar industry was able to recover the same high-quality product, despite losing its best cigar makers.
The loss of the US market was minimized by exporting to European socialist bloc countries, as well as Spain and Holland. During this time, the Cubatabaco company also made a big marketing push to promote Cuban cigars overseas to boost the industry.
Cuban Cigars Since 1979
The industry was steadily producing around 120 million cigars for export per year until 1979 ,when blue mold decimated the crops, and a wet harvest in the prime tobacco-growing regions in 1981 led to millions of dollars in losses. The industry slowly recovered over the 1990s and continued to produce and export between 100-160 million cigars until the early 2000s.
In 2016, US President Obama lifted the ban on Cuban tobacco exports, and the industry saw a huge boom. Cuba has also seen an enormous recent demand for its nationalized brands in China. This has led to an increase in production and a 12% rise in global revenue, with total cigar exports reaching $500 million.
How Are Cuban Cigars Made?
Tobacco plants are planted late in the year to make the most of the lush Cuban climate. The leaves are then harvested three months later and taken to curing rooms where they are hung for up to three months.
After the tobacco leaves are cured, they are fermented to remove traces of ammonia, which naturally occurs in the plant, but can give a sour taste to the final cigar. The leaves are collected into bunches of five or more called gavillas and laid on a heated platform that reaches temperatures of up to 95°F. This 30-day process is carefully monitored, and the gavillas are periodically disassembled, and the moisture removed.
Fermentation and Aging
The gavillas are then sorted into the components that make the cigar: Wrapper, binder, and filler. Each type of leaf is placed in a large pile called a burro around 4-6 ft tall and put through a second fermentation process at temperatures between 108-140°F that lasts up to 60 days. This second fermentation is where the taste and aroma of the cigar develops.
The length of the fermentation depends on the types of leaves to be processed. Top-leaves, or ligero, are the most robust and require longer fermentation, while the middle seco leaves and bottom volado leaves take less time.
Cohiba cigar tobacco leaves go through a third fermentation process in barrels at low temperatures to give the cigars the brand’s characteristic depth and nuance.
After fermentation, the leaves are packed into bales and left to age. This allows the sugars and tannins in the leaves to develop to give each brand of Cuban cigar its distinctive flavor.
The best Cuban cigars are hand-rolled, rather than machine-made. The technique used to roll the cigars can have a significant impact on the flavor and smoking experience and takes years to master.
The cigar roller, called a torcedor, begins by creating the filler from two to four leaves, which are bunched using different methods and rolled into a tube shape using binder leaf and then pressed in a specialized mold. The torcedor then selects a wrapper leaf and trims it to size using a rounded knife.
The filler and binder are laid across the wrapper at an angle and then rolled, so the wrapper overlaps at each turn. Finally, the cap is made from a cut piece of wrapper leaf and adhered using a plant-based gum.
The completed cigars are sent to be fumigated in a vacuum chamber and quality tested by professional cigar smokers, before being packed in a humidor to remove any traces of moisture. The signature of a high-quality Cuban cigar is a shiny, smooth wrapper, and tobacco leaves that are wrapped in the same direction.
Experience Cuban Cigars
Cuba is an unforgettable travel destination and a country full of culture and history. Nothing epitomizes Cuban culture more than the cigar. You can literally smoke the country’s heritage, amid the vibrant colors and street life of the Caribbean island.
Even if you are not planning to visit Cuba in the near future, pick up a box of genuine Cuban cigars to experience the country’s aroma and history.