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La Habana is Full of Smoke

La Habana is Full of Smoke

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on March 02, 2014

The XVI Festival of the Cigar brought together more than 1500 business men, producers, collectors, artists, journalists and tasters from 80 different countries. Between so many differences in these men such as age, culture, professions, there is one common element that explains the gathering of all of these people in La Habana: Their interest in the Premium handmade cigars, considered to be among the best cigars in the world.

The meeting was organized again by the Corporation Habanos S.A, a mixed society founded two decades ago between the cuban state and the franco-spanish company Altadis, that was bought in 2008, by the british group Imperial Tobacco.

Although some countries have implemented laws against tobacco, and the economic crisis is still hitting Europe, the main market of cuban cigars, Habanos S.A confirmed that their business was in “good health”. “Last year Habanos S.A had a business balance of 447 million USD, against the 416 million in 2012, which is an increase of 8%” said the director of operating marketing of the company, Ana López.

The corporation considered this growth to be very positive, specially taking into account that the world market for luxurious items (the Premium cigar is among those items), grew only about 2% in 2013. “With more restrictions every time about where people can smoke, logically the trend now is to taste a stronger, more intense flavour in less time”, said one of the presidents of the company, Luis Sánchez-Harguindey, a spanish business man that joined the cigars business in 2001.

According to Antonio Luís Carricarte, the minister of Exterior commerce and Foreign Investment in Cuba, the Festival of Cigars gets the attention of very diverse areas; “this is why this fair has the participation of not only fabricants and suppliers of the world, but also artisans, collectors, suppliers of smokers’ accessories, luxurious items fabricants, printers and carriers”, said the functionary.

In the meantime, Jorge Luis Fernández maique, commercial vicepresident of the company, explained that the three commercialized brands represented the 62% of the sales in units and 48% in its worth. Cohíba is the leader, followed by Montecristo, and Romeo y Julieta. In the case of cigar bands galley, in 2013 the three most important brands were Robustos, las Marebas, and Petit Coronas. “Speaking about detailed sales,  The houses of cigars still play an important role as important shops. 2013 ended with more than 160 places  of this type, with sales higher than 16 thousand squared meters. The number of specialists in cigars reached 640 around the world, last year” he said.

In the world there are two big events of cigars, the Big Smoke, in Las Vegas, and the Festival of the Cigar. Among them it is possible to establish a huge difference: Habanos S.A, can’t assist the event celebrated in the “world’s capital of entertainment”, because the US distressed Cuba, that’s been going on for more than half a century. This state also forbids the commercialization of the 27 brands of cuban cigars. The executives of Habanos S.A acknowledge that their main markets are in ascending order, Spain, France, China, Germany, Switzerland, Cuba, Libano, and United Arab Emirates.

As in its previous editions, the XVI edition of the festival proposed to its participants- who paid an enrolment quota higher than 1400 CUC(1 USD = 0,87 CUC)- a wide program that included a visits to tobacco crops in Pinar del Río, and tobacco fabrics in La Habana, a master class in the cigar twisting, the usual international contest Habanosommelier, and as a novelty, the first competition in obtaining the biggest piece of ash. There was also a tribute to the brands Hoyo de Monterey, Partagás, Trinidad, and H.Upmann, and there was an alliance between the cigars and the international beers Duvel, Leffe, chi may, Malheur, and the cuban Bucanero.

Trip to the Seed

145 kilometers west, from La Habana, is Pinar del Río, “The world’s best tobacco producing massif”, according to Francisco José Prieto, president of a tobacco growing cooperative in the “Valle” farm. The participants of the Festival had the possibility of going through long vegas where the tobacco growers, grow the leaves of the plant, that are after summoned to complicated drying, classifying and fermentation processes, before making it to the hands of a twister, who turns them into a Premium.

Growing tobacco takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice, as the visitors confirmed when visiting the “pinareñian” farms. After planting the seeds in november, it is imperative to wait two months before harvesting the leafs so that they are completely grown. After that, the leafs are taken to a “Tobacco House”, and put in the shadow where they are left to dry for 45 days. The last step of the process is classifying the leafs, a process which is generally done by women. 

Tobacco is classified by quality (first, second, third, forth, fifth, and sixth). Once the leafs have been classified they go into another treatment: specialized workers soak the leafs, and ferment them for 21 days. Even then only the tobacco leafs are ready to be folded, rolled and cut by the skillful hands of twisters.

“What makes cuban tobacco so good? I think God decided that that’s the way it had to be, but it basically depends on the whether” said Prieto. The trip around Pinar del Río ended in the famous “Valle de Viñales”, on of the most visited touristic spots in Cuba, because of it’s natural and historic values.

In the fabrics

Another interesting moment in the Festival of Tobacco was the visit to the fabrics where the brands La Corona and H.Upmann are made. To many of the visitors it was like travelling in time. The speakers, distributed along the factory, are never silent. Perhaps the most curious thing will be that in those factories, everyday there is a “tobacco reader”, a profession that is being maintained since the XIX century, is someone that reads to all the workers the daily paper, they also listen to radio novels and some music. The main point is to entertain those who have to be focused 8 hours a day, at their work station, in the confection of cigars, without making any mistakes. An experienced twister, for example is able to roll up to 100 tobaccos a day.

Even though the shops showed in occasions, clear signs of diminishing, visitors where impressed by the tour around the fabrics, mainly because of how cozy and familiar the twisters were, they even shared nice words with the participants, even though probably, mostly asians didn't understand most of what they were saying; however, the smile in those cuban mouths worked as the best way to communicate.

Learning how to roll a cigar

Rolling a cigar is not easy. It is imperative to have a lot of hand skills and practice. The organizers of the Festival, reimplemented the program of a “master class in learning how to rolling cigars”. At the “Palacio de Convenciones” where the most important political and commercial events of the country take place, participants got first hand advice from expert twisters of the factory Partagás.

The materials needed to roll cigars, were first hand quality, harvested in the vegas of Pinar del Río. Some of the visitors got the hang of it really fast, others took longer in learning how to use the key instruments necessary to roll a cigar: the table, the key, the paper-cutter, the vegetable gum, the moods and the press.

The biggest Ash of a Premium

Probably the nicest moment in the XVI Festival was the Contest of the biggest piece of ash, an event that had a formidable debut. More than 200 smokers, cubans and foreigners, came together in one of the rooms of the Palacio de Convenciones to determine who could smoke their cigar without spilling any ashes.

The competitors received a brown, 178 millimetres long H.Upmann Sir Winston. At the tables, next to the tobaccos, were ashtrays, lighters, candies and glasses of rum añejo Havana Club, to make the tournament more pleasant.

The judges where distributed along the room, and when the first piece of ash fell from each participants ashtray, the participant was automatically out. The big sensation of the tournament was the 67 years old cuban journalist, Olivia Terri, who works for a radio station. She, and many other competitors, tried hard to smoke up and hold the cigar in a vertical way with the objective of not letting ash fall. This was the best position, but not all could stay in it, and many contestants withdrew because of the headaches the position brought, after staying like that for more than an hour and not being able to move.

The journalists ability with the cigar were clear, when she managed to get the cigar to burn 169 mm out of the 178 the cigar had. I didn't expect such a result, since I only had the intention of participating and smoking a good cigar, said Terri, surprised.

The awards time

Another of the contests that got the participants and press attention was the “Habanosommelier”, which consisted in testing the participants’ ability to get the best combination of the Premium cigars with food and drinks. The spanish sommelier Miguel Antonio Menéndez got the big prize, leaving the british Edward Sahakian second, and the cuban Andrés Piñón third.

Moreover, the organizers gave several awards. For example in the Stand Modular category, the local company Tecnoazucar won the price, and the companies Comercial Iberoamericana S.A, Adorini from Italy, Sargadelos (Spain), and Botad (Panama) got special mentions. On a side note, in the category of free Stands the company Internacional Cubana de Tabaco S.A, won and the all cuban companies: Empresa de Envases, Servicios al Tabaco, and CubaRon, all got mentions.

The most visited stand was the one of Tridello, italy, and the company mentioned on this category was Humidores Habana del Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales. Lastly, in the category of Stand of Integral Communication, the price went to the comercial company Caribex.

The night of the Humidors

The closing of the Festival was of millionaire luxuriousness. Just as in the past editions, the organizers auctioned expensive humidors, considered masterpieces, that contained over 350 Premium cigars. Between 1999 and 2006 the humidors had as an aggregate value, the signature of Fidel Castro, who frequently assisted the closing ceremonies of the event. Each piece was fabriqued with precious woods and this, combined with artistic decoration, made the value of the tobaccos rise. In 2013, the auction got more than 1.1 million dollars, and this time it wasn't very different 1 102 2010 dollars. All this money will be donated to Cuba’s public health system.

The number one batch was from H.Upmman and was given by a H.Upmann humidor and an stylish lamp, made by the artisan Neury Alberto Santana, had 350 tobaccos of the brand in 9 different trays.

The second one was the humidor Hoyo de Monterrey (350 cigars), and crockery from the very own Sagadelos, a piece created by the Cuban industrial designer Luis Ramírez Jiménez. The last batch had 380 cigars, and it was a Humidor Romeo y Juliet from the artists Marlene Silvera and Moisés González; while the forth was a Humidor Partagás (with 350 cigars), also made by Neury Alberto.

In the fith batch was auctioned the humidor Montecristo (with 360 cigars) of the group Artesanos y Artistas Humidores Habana, and lastly the a Humidor Cohiba, of the same group, with 550 cigars of that brand.

The XVI edition of the Festival of the Cigar, had a glamorous touch to it, with the presence of the veteran 73 year old artist Tom Jones. In the past years, there were movies and music personalities such as Jeremy Irons, Jim Belushi, Boris Becker, Joseph Fiennes and Danny Glover. This time the gentleman of the British Crown since 2006, was the biggest figure of the media. At the closing ceremony, he performed some of his most famous songs, with a group of cuban artists.

The belgian Ben Vinken won the prize The Cigar of the year in the category of communication; while in business, the award went to the swiss Urs Portmann, and in production, the master from the factory Partagás, the cuban Arnaldo Vichot took the prize.

The organizers took advantage of the goodbye ceremony, to throw in the invitation for the XVII Festival, that is set to 2015. In twelve months many of the followers of the best cigars in the world will come together again in the cuban capital to show here, one more time, the “good health” of the cigars.

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