Cuban tobacco: New interest in an old tradition
With more visitors in Cuba, cigar sales on the island are brisk. One
Cuban family has been producing tobacco the same way for well over 150
years and there's a cigar, Vegas Robaina, named after them that honors
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
SAN LUIS, CUBA
In Cuba, there's only one tobacco grower whose face has been deemed
worthy to grace a box of Cuban cigars. It's the late Alejandro Robaina,
and premium Vegas Robaina cigars have spread his fame to cigar
aficionados around the globe.
Now his descendants work the same tobacco lands in Cuba's famed Vuelta
Abajo, where the creme de la creme of Cuban tobacco and the finest capas
— wrappers — are produced using the same methods of Don Alejandro.
Before he died in 2010, the man who rose from humble roots on the leaves
of tobacco had traveled the world as an ambassador for Cuban cigars.
So popular were Vegas Robaina cigars during the XVIII Festival Habano,
which celebrated the Cuban cigar from Feb. 29 to March 4 this year, that
there was scarcely a box to be found in Havana weeks after the event ended.
The rapprochement between the United States and Cuba and the influx of
American visitors eager to sample one of Cuba's most famous products
also has spiked demand for Habanos.
"The demand for cigars by tourists is probably higher than it's ever
been. Many people think it's not a complete trip unless they buy and
smoke a Cuban cigar," said David Savona, executive editor of Cigar
Aficionado magazine. "But generally speaking, there are enough cigars."
Cuban cigars also have growing cachet in emerging markets like China and
Russia, Savona said, but other than some super premium brands, Cuban
cigars aren't currently in short supply because the weak global economy
is cutting into sales in some of Cuba's traditional European markets.
Prices have edged up slightly, he said, and Cuba is adding more premium,
high-priced cigars to its offerings.
Despite Cuban tobacco's fame, it isn't a big contributor to Cuba's
bottom line. Production is limited. It did pick up in 2015, however,
with 24,500 metric tons produced, compared to 19,800 metric tons the
previous year, according to Cuba's National Office of Statistics and
Information. Land planted in tobacco also was up significantly in 2015
compared to the previous four years.
"When the embargo is lifted, the Cubans will need to up production even
more," Savona said. "But production and sales aren't always at an equal
pace. Cigars do get better with age."
The weather wasn't cooperating in Cuba's Vuelta Abajo tobacco-growing
region during the 2015-16 tobacco season. Heavy rains this past winter
meant some farmers in western Pinar del Río province lost their crops in
soaked fields and had to hastily replant.
But because the Robaina plantation is on higher ground, it was largely
spared the effects of the soggy weather.
For the Robainas, tobacco is a way of life that began when their
maternal ancestors, the Peredas, came from the Canary Islands in 1845
and settled in the area of western Cuba known as Cuchillas de Barbacoa.
It turned out that Cuchillas de Barbacoa with its cool nights, fertile
soil and abundant water is the best place in all of Cuba — and perhaps
the world — to grow quality tobacco.
Alejandro Robaina, who was born in 1919, began working the family
tobacco lands when he was 10 — also the age when he sampled his first
cigar — and later took over from his father Maruto. Along the way, he
became a master tobacco grower and his wrapper tobacco became legendary.
When the Cuban government first wanted a poster boy for Cuban cigars, it
asked Macho Robaina, his brother. "He refused and said, 'Get my younger
brother Alejandro to represent the work of the family and the zone
here,'" said Frank Robaina, Alejandro's nephew and Macho's son.
So Alejandro became the face of Cuban cigars — a role he relished.
In 1997, Habanos S.A., the Cuban joint venture that markets the island's
tobacco products, named a new cigar line, Vegas Robaina, in his honor
and launched the new brand in Spain. Ever since, Alejandro, cigar in
hand, with tobacco fields and a drying barn in the distance, can be seen
on the top of Vegas Robaina boxes.
But not all the leaves used in a Vegas Robaina cigars necessarily come
from land farmed by Robainas, and the family also produces tobacco that
finds its way into Cohibas and other premium brands.
The Vegas Robaina "is a fine brand but it is not one of Cuba's big
global brands. It's a more boutiquey brand," Savona said.
Now the Robaina tobacco operation is largely run by Alejandro's grandson
Hiroshi and other family members. After Alejandro retired from his world
travels, tobacco connoisseurs still managed to find the farm, El Pinar
Alejandro Robaina, which sits about a mile down a red dirt track off the
main road. Hard-core cigar lovers still beat a path to El Pinar,
especially in December when the lush emerald-green tobacco leaves begin
poking through the soil.
"It's a great farm and a beautiful spot," said Savona, who has visited.
"The Robaina family has a wonderful reputation for growing beautiful
tobacco for many, many years, and Alejandro passed on the tricks and
techniques to his grandson."
Frank and Hiroshi Robaina farm adjacent parcels of land. Frank said the
family tobacco lands were cut up into 13 pieces by his father in 1960 to
avoid agrarian reform. Family members were allowed to keep their land
and now farm it as part of a cooperative that has a contract with the state.
Oxen that carefully pick their way among the rows of plants are still
used for plowing and various field tasks just as they were when
Alejandro worked the lands in Cuchillas de Barbacoa. The behemoths
fastidiously manage to avoid trampling the tender plants even though the
rows are only six inches apart, and workers are also scrupulous about
clearing the rows of grass and weeds so oxidation levels in the soil
aren't adversely affected.
"There are many elements in the cultivation of tobacco," Frank said. "A
lot of it is manual labor and every leaf of tobacco passes through many
hands. There isn't any bad soil here, but some lands are better than others.
"And in terms of the cigars made from our tobacco, no one can equal them
in aroma and flavor," he added.
Although Frank's son José Carlos studied computing for three years, he
ultimately decided that his heart was in tobacco and he is back working
the oxen on Robaina land.
Beyond selling cigars, Cuba also has turned its famed tobacco region in
Pinar del Río into a tourist attraction.
Infotur, the National Office of Tourist Information, for example, has
put out a map and guide called "The Tobacco Route" that includes Pinar
del Río tobacco farms that are open to the public, information on the
Francisco Donatién tobacco factory and other places to buy cigars, where
to stay and eat in the tobacco region and how to get there.
Visitors can learn about the curing process, which takes 45-50 days in
Vuelta Abajo; why some tobacco is shaded with gauzy cheese cloth, the
parts of the tobacco plant that yield the filler, the binder and the
wrapper (hint: the part of the plant lowest to the ground is used for
cigarettes and lower-quality cigars); and see rollers making Cohiba and
Trinidad cigars at the Donatién factory just off the Plaza de la
Independencia in the city of Pinar del Río.
Infotur calls the 62-mile tobacco trail "a world of sensations and
aromas within reach." Along the route, it promises visitors can explore
"the way of life and the secrets that families have passed from
generation to generation" as well as the process of selecting the best
leaves and curing them before they arrive in the hands of cigar rollers
"who make each puro Cubano (Cuban cigar) a work of art."
El Pinar Robaina is among the farms listed on the tobacco route, but
even some farms that aren't in the listing are happy to show visitors
In late March as tobacco was being harvested at the Finca Ramírez in
Puerta del Golpe, Caridad Piloto Morejon, 63, deftly and swiftly strung
the fan-like tobacco leaves on a thin wire and pulled a thread through
them to hang them for drying. If her movements seem practiced, it's
because she first began working in tobacco as a young girl.
After her retirement from a politechnical school nine years ago, she
returned to the tobacco barns. She makes two Cuban pesos per cuje, which
is about 150 leaves strung on a pole for drying. During the harvest,
Piloto works from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. and by lunch time, she can fill
14 cujes, earning 28 pesos.
The tobacco route is a natural progression, Savona said. After visitors
check out a cigar factory in Havana, he said, "if they have time, they
want to get out to Pinar del Río and visit the fields and talk to farmers."
Source: An old Cuban tobacco tradition experiences renewed interest | In
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