The Havana cigar factory today is much as it was when the art of cigar making was standardized in the mid-19th century and the production of cigars became industrialized. There are only eight factories making handmade cigars in Cuba today (compared with 120 at the beginning of the century). The names of the factories were all officially changed after the revolution to what were considered more ideologically sound titles, but most of them are still commonly referred to by their pre-Revolutionary names, and still display their old signs outside. The best known are H. Upmann (now called Jose Marti), Partagas (Francisco Perez German), Romeo Y Julieta (Briones Montoto), La Corona (Fernando Roig), and the elite El Laguito, which originally opened in the mid-1960s as a training school. Each factory specializes in a number of brands of a particular flavor. The Partagas factory, for instance, specializes in full-bodied cigars, producing six brands including Bolivar, Ramon Allones, Gloria Cubana and, of course, Partagas. Factories also often specialize in making a particular range of sizes.
The procedures in the various factories are essentially the same, though the size and atmosphere of each factory differs. The grand El Laguito, for instance, is an Italianate mansion (built in 1910) and former home of the Marquez de Pinar del Rio. It is located in three buildings in a swanky residential suburb. The rather gloomy three-story Partagas factory, on the other hand, which was built in downtown Havana in 1845, is rather more down to earth. Laguito was the first factory to use female rollers, and even today the majority of the 94 rollers there are women. The 200 rollers at the Partagas factory, the biggest for export production, turn out 5 million cigars a year. No matter which factory you go to, the walls of all of them display revolutionary slogans and portraits of Castro, Che Guevara, and others. Other slogans announced "La calidades el respeto al pueblo" (Quality is respect for people) or "Tu tambien haces calidad" (You have to care about quality).
It has been estimated that a handmade Havana cigar goes through no fewer than 222 different stages from seedling to the finished product, before being ready for distribution. And the care and expertise shown at the factory is not only crucial to the final appearance of the cigar, but also affects how well it burns and what it actually tastes like. Not surprisingly, apprenticeship for the task of roller is a lengthy and competitive process, taking nine months. Even then, many fail, and those who succeed are confined to making small-sized cigars before being allowed to graduate to the larger, generally fuller-flavored, sizes.
The cigar rollers, or torcedores, work in large rooms where the old custom, dating from 1864, of reading aloud from books and newspapers continues to this day. The radio is also switched on, from time to time, to bring the news and important announcements. The worker who acts as reader (lector), selected by his peers for his expressive voice and literacy, is compensated by a small payment from each of the rollers, all of whom are paid piece work, according to the number of cigars they produce. Each roller is responsible for seeing a cigar through from the bunching stage until it is finally trimmed to size. The ready-blended combination of filler leaves and binder are prepared in advance by each roller and pressed in wooden molds of the appropriate size. The use of molds started in around 1958, before the Cuban revolution. As a result, the cigar rollers, sitting at benches rather like old-fashioned school desks, each start with a quota of filler appropriate to the size and brand of cigar being made that day. Everything is concentration: errors are costly. But the atmosphere is cheerful, the torcedores taking great pride in their work. If a visitor enters the room, the rollers greet him by tapping their chavetas in unison on their tables.
There are as many as 42 handmade cigar sizes made today, and a good cigar maker can usually roll around 120 medium-sized cigars (though exceptionally skilled rollers can make as many as 150) a day, an average of four to five minutes for a cigar. But the average for the Montecristo A size is only 56 cigars a day. Some star rollers, such as Jesus Ortiz at the H. Upmann factory, can do much better: he can produce a staggering 200 Montecristo As a day.
The torcedores work an eight-hour day, usually six days a week, for around 350-400 pesos ($350-400 at the official exchange rate) a month. They are allowed to take home five cigars a day and can smoke as many as they wish while they work.
There are seven grades of worker in the Havana factory, the least experienced rollers (in grade 4) making only cigars up to and including the petit corona size; those in grade 5 making corona size and above, and those in grades 6 and 7 (the latter consists of a handful of star rollers) making the difficult specialist sizes such as pyramides. The skill of the roller is reflected in the eventual cost per inch of the cigar. The smaller sizes are, in other words, cheaper than the larger ones.
Using colored ribbon, each roller ties his or her cigars into bundles (all of the same size and brand) of 50. Most of these bundles (media ruedas, or "half wheels") go into a vacuum fumigation chamber, where the cigars are treated against potential pests. A proportion of each roller's output is also taken to be checked for quality.
The man in charge of quality control at El Laguito, Fernando Valdez, tests a fifth of each roller's daily output (though only 10 percent of cigars are checked at the Partagas factory) according to no fewer than eight different criteria such as length, weight, firmness, smoothness of the wrappers, and whether or not the ends are well cut. Later, cigars from different batches are actually blind tasted by a team of six catadores, or professional smokers, themselves rigorously examined every six months, who must assess qualities such as a cigar's aroma, how well it burns, and how easily it draws. The importance of each category varies according to the type of cigar. When testing a fat robusto, for instance, the flavor is paramount, but in the slim panatela size, draw is more important. There is a standard for each type of cigar. The catadores do their tasting in the morning only, smoking about an inch of each cigar, and refreshing their palates with sugarless tea. By the end of any given week, every roller's work will have been tasted.
After being removed from the vacuum chamber, cigars are held in special cool cabinets (escaparates) for three weeks, in order to shed any excess moisture acquired in the factory and settle down any fermentation that is taking place. A cabinet might hold up to 18,000 cigars, all kept under careful supervision.
When they are ready, batches of 1,000 cigars from a particular brand and size are sent in wooden boxes to be graded according to appearance. The cigars are classified into as many as 65 different shades, and each selector must be familiar with all of them. First the selector takes into account the basic color of the cigar (hues given names such as sangre de toro, encendido, colorado encendido, colorado, colorado pajizo, and clarisimo), and then the shade within that particular color category. The color grader then puts the cigars into transit boxes, making sure that all the cigars in a particular box are the same color. The darkest cigar is placed on the left of the box, and the cigars arranged according to nuances of shade so that the lightest is on the right.
Once the cigars are color-graded, they go to the packing department, where bands are put on. The cigars are then put in the familiar cedar boxes in which they will be sold. The packers also watch out for cigars which have escaped the quality control department. Once the final box is filled, the cigars are checked again, and then a thin leaf of cedar wood is laid on top of them.
The box is then sealed with the essential label guaranteeing that it is a genuine box of Havanas or Habanos. The word "Habanos" in red on a chevron has been added to boxes since 1994.
The practice of making handmade cigars is essentially the same wherever they're made, but in the Dominican Republic, for instance, the arrangement between bunchers and rollers is sometimes different (the jobs usually being separated). The large, modern American-owned factories of the Dominican Republic have state-of-the-art quality-control methods, using machines (at the bunch stage, as well as later) to check suction, and thus how well a cigar will draw. Despite this, other manufacturers still prefer to do everything by hand, particularly checking for gaps in the bunch, which will make a cigar overheat. In the Philippines, there is a method of rolling in which leaves are spiraled around two thin wooden sticks, which are removed when the cigar is wrapped.