III -  Manufacture

1 - Totally hand made long filler

Time has done its work, and the leaf is ready at last to play its part in the making of a Habano.

The following lines describe an extraordinary craft that has changed little in 200 years.

All but a small number of Habanos are made totally by hand with a filler composed of full length tobacco leaves, a process called in Cuba Totalmente a Mano Tripa larga.

According to the standards laid down by the Regulatory Council for the Protected Denomination of Origin (D.O.P.) Habanos, these are “totally hand-made, long filler” Habanos, made with fillers and binders harvested leaf by leaf only in Vegas de Primera – first class fields – situated in Vuelta Abajo.

The wrapper leaves are now aged and it is time for their final sorting and classification. They must also be stripped of their stems.
A moistening, or moja, brings them to the supple condition required for stripping and sorting, and their final purpose of wrapping a cigar.
The gavillas or bunches of 40 to 50 leaves are held under a fine spray of pure water. Excess droplets are then shaken off with practised flourishes to avoid any staining, and the leaves are hung on racks so the moisture is absorbed evenly. Electronically controlled moistening cubicles, have been installed in some of the leading factories to perform this task.
Next the hands of highly skilled men and women perform the despalillo (stripping) and the rezagado (grading). One movement deftly removes the entire central vein of the leaf leaving its two halves ready to be graded into some 20 finely distinguished sizes and shades.
In the past, these tasks were performed only by women. Working from piles of leaves on their laps thus lent weight to the popular myth that Habanos are rolled on maidens’ thighs.

Filler and binder leaves are carefully removed from their bales for examination.
If necessary they are aired on racks to attain the required moisture level, or alternatively they are taken to the drying room where excess moisture is removed. Then they are placed in wooden containers for between one and three days until they are judged to be ready.

2 - Composing the blend

The task of selecting the blends for each brand according to its own recipe starts well before the bales reach the factory.
The blend for each size within each brand is specified and monitored by the Tobacco Research Institute together with Habanos s.a. as part of the Regulatory Council to ensure that the quality and taste characteristics of each cigar are respected. The task of the Ligador – Master Blender – in each factory is to make certain that the prescribed criteria are followed.
As soon as the factory’s future production schedule for brands and sizes is known, the Ligador draws up a list of all the tobaccos he will need to make them.
At the central warehouse a selection is made from a huge stock of bales containing every type of leaf, each classified by its tiempo (medio tiempoligerosecovolado and capote), its size, its age and, most important of all, by its zone and district of origin.
It is a remarkable feature of Cuban tobacco that such a small acreage of Vegas de Primera can produce such a wide variety of flavours from area to area. Literally the tobacco grown on one side of a road in the Vuelta Abajo can taste completely different from the tobacco grown on the other side.

There is an established link between the factory and the areas that supply the leaf for the brands it manufactures. Nevertheless it is the Master Blender’s responsibility to sample the flavour of the tobaccos in use from day to day. He carries the recipe for each brand and size in his head and is the guardian of their consistency.
In accordance with the Tobacco Research Institute guidelines, the ratio of each type of leaf that the Master Blender specifies for the cigars in production is assembled by the blending department in batches and issued to the cigar rollers for the day’s work.
They call the blending department La Barajita – literally ‘the pack of cards’ – because the process of assembling the leaves for a blend is similar to shuffling cards.
Finally, three years or more since the oldest leaf was picked, it is now about to become a Habano...

3 - The craft of the torcedor

Habanos are made Totalmente a Mano –Totally by hand – as they have always been, by the Torcedores and Torcedoras, whose practised hands no machine can ever match.

For tools they have only a wooden board (tabla), two cutters (the flat-bladed chaveta and the little disc-cutting casquillo), a guillotine, a pot of colourless and flavourless natural vegetable gum (goma), a template to check length and girth (cepo) - and the skill of their fingers.

There are four grades of Torcedor and only the top grade is allowed to make the biggest, most complicated Habanos.

It takes natural talent to reach the peak of this time-honoured craft, but one thing at least has changed. Most Torcedores these days are women (Torcedoras).

By tradition, a Lector – reader – reads to the Torcedores as they work, from the daily newspaper and from novels selected by popular vote.

First the Torcedora lays out the two or sometimes three half leaves that form the binder, placed so that the veined undersides of the leaves will face inwards when the cigar is formed.

Next she gathers together the leaves of the filler, folding and aligning each leaf to ensure a straight passage for smoke in the finished Habano. All leaves are placed with their lighter-flavoured tips towards what will be the foot (the lit end) of the Habano so that the flavour will intensify as it is smoked. The stronger-flavoured, slower-burning medio tiempo and ligero leaves are always placed at the centre.

Now the Torcedora forms the bonche or bunch by rolling the filler into the binder to the precise diameter required for that particular Habano. Rolling starts at what will become the foot of the cigar. Compression of the filler must be consistent at all points. The word torcedor translates as ‘twister’, but this is precisely what the torcedor must not do at this stage. The head (the mouth end) of the bunch is then cut square with the guillotine.

The Torcedora makes her bunches in batches and presses them for 30 minutes or more in a wooden mould to set their shape.

Next the Torcedora prepares the half leaf for the wrapper, still moist so that it will form perfectly to the shape of the bunch. She lays it on the board with its most veined side facing upward, leaving its smoothest side to be visible on the outside of the cigar.

She lightly trims the leaf with the chaveta blade, paying special attention to the edge that will be seen on the finished Habano.

The bunch is laid on the wrapper and rolled, starting at the cigar’s foot with the tip of the wrapper leaf. Sensitive fingertips carefully stretch and straighten the leaf as the bunch takes up the wrapper. The tension in the leaf has to be perfect.

Next comes the ‘cap’. First a section called the ‘flag’ is cut out from the spare wrapper leaf. It is then wound round the head to close off the open end and secure the wrapper.

To add the finishing touch, a small disc of wrapper is cut out with the casquillo and secured on the head with vegetable gum.

Finally the cigar is guillotined to length, and the work is complete.

In a day a good Torcedor can make between 60 and 150 Habanos in this fashion, depending on the size and complexity of the shape

4 - Other methods of manufacture

The trimmings from the bunches of long-filler cigars are combined with other selected chopped tobaccos to create the blends for short-filler Habanos. The Torcedor rolls the filler into full-length binder leaves with the aid of a flexible mat fixed to his bench to form a firm bunch. The wrapper is applied by hand in the normal fashion.

As the whole process is conducted by hand, these cigars too are Totalmente a Mano – totally made by hand.

The trimmings from the bunches of long-filler cigars are combined with other selected chopped tobaccos to create the blends for short-filler Habanos. The Torcedor rolls the filler into full-length binder leaves with the aid of a flexible mat fixed to his bench to form a firm bunch. The wrapper is applied by hand in the normal fashion.

As the whole process is conducted by hand, these cigars too are Totalmente a Mano – totally made by hand.

Since the 1950's some cigars have been made in Cuba by machines.

At times in the past machine made cigars were also referred to as Habanos.

But now the Habanos title is awarded solely to cigars Totalmente a Mano – made totally by hand – in Cuba according to the procedures and quality controls laid down by the Regulatory Council for the Protected Denomination of Origin (D.O.P.). Habanos from tobaccos grown in the regions and zones that are also protected denominations of origin.

5 - Checking the work

There are strict quality control tests at all stages of hand making. Cigars that fail will never become Habanos. Everyday the Workshop Manager (El Jefe de Galera) supervises the work of the cigar rollers. At the same time supervisors, who are themselves top grade Torcedores, oversee each brigade of 30 to 40 workers watching their technique and checking the dimensions of the cigars they are making.

Finished cigars are placed in lidless, wooden boxes, open at the front like office out-trays, called mini-roderos or cajuelas.

Each mini-rodero is labelled with the Torcedor’s number, the vitola de galera and the date of manufacture. Afterwards the mini-roderos are placed inside larger wooden receptacles called roderos, which then go to the quality control department where technicians check the cigars for weight, length, girth, consistency, construction and appearance, particularly examining the tightness of the wrappers and the finish of the caps.

Samples of each Torcedor’s work are regularly taken apart to verify their internal construction and blend. When problems are found the cigars are deducted from the daily quota – a serious matter for the Torcedores who are paid by piecework.

Amongst the latest quality control techniques there is a machine that checks the draw of the bunch by suction. The test takes place after the bunch has been pressed in the mould and before the wrapper is added. It was first introduced at the end of 2001 and is now used in every factory.

There are more quality inspections when the cigars go for colour grading and finally before the box is sealed (see Sorting the colours and Dressing the box).

Every factory has its team of cigar tasters – the Catadores – who meet every day to test cigars and score them according to a six-point quality checklist for draw, burn, aroma, flavour, strength and overall quality. 3-5 different cigars are tested at each sitting. If any deviation from the normal character of any brand and size is detected, they recommend adjustments to the blend.

The Catadores are the front line of the Comision Nacional de Degustación – National Commission for Tasting –, which, as a part of the Tobacco Research Institute, is closely related to the Regulatory Council for the Protected Denomination of Origin (D.O.P.) Habanos. The latter is responsible for the consistency of the blends of all Habanos.

At any time, the Regulatory Council can make spot checks on any of the quality control procedures.

Between making and packing, the cigars are taken to the conditioning room or Escaparate. Here in cedar-lined drawers, they are left to rest while they shed the excess moisture that was gained in the rolling process. After a week the cigars become smokeable but the longer they stay here the better. Conditions are strictly maintained at between 16 and 18°C and 65 to 70 percent relative humidity, noticeably cooler and drier than the ambient Cuban climate.

The Escaparate is often referred to as the “treasury”. It is here that the true wealth of the factory is stored.