We all daydream, sometimes even when we are enjoying a cigar, either alone when you just let your thoughts and imagination run free, or when you’re with friends and you go through a ‘what if’ situation. And recently, during a smoke with friends in a cigar bar, the topic of Habanos came up. What could be improved, what are they doing correctly and what would I do if I was in charge for a number of years, with free reign. That was an interesting question, and one that I could not answer in a heartbeat as there are many things, I would need to do to restore the Cuban cigars back to the glorious days when Cuban cigars were still the best cigars in the world, without hurting the revenue of the company.In the past we read some very interesting articles on Ministry of Cigars, interesting enough to acquire the database when the site was shut down. The articles about the current state of Cuban cigars and the supply chain issues due to the pandemic would be a start as well as our recent article on the choices that Habanos is making. (Lewis, please enter the links, thank you).
Tabacuba and Habanos
First of all, most issues aren’t with Habanos but with Tabacuba. Most cigar smokers think that Habanos is in control of the production of Cuban cigars, that they own the brands and the factories but it’s not the case. Tabacuba, a state-owned monopoly, is in charge of the tobacco, of the factories and of the production. Habanos is only the distribution and marketing company that promotes and distributes Cuban cigars worldwide (with exception of the USA due to the embargo). So basically, this article should be called ‘What if… Tabacuba edition’ and leave Habanos out of it as most of the issues are in the process before the cigars are handed over to Habanos.
A common problem with Cuban cigars in the last two decades is the quality control. Construction errors leading to bad draw or burn issues run galore and that is the first thing I would address. According to my knowledge, cigar rollers are paid per cigar and I would change that. They would get paid per cigar that passes quality control and each cigar would be tested with a draw master, a machine that tests the draw of a cigar. Of course, rolling a better-quality product takes a bit more time, and thus the reward per cigar would be a bit higher but with the margins of Habanos that should be no issue at all.
What I also would change is where cigars are produced. Some brands are rolled at one factory, but others are rolled at several factories. That would be a no-go. Every brand is rolled at one factory and one factory only for consistency reasons. So, for example, a brand such as Partagas will all be rolled at the Partagas factory, H. Upmann will be rolled in the Upmann factory and brands that don’t have their own factory can be rolled at another factory. For example, Quai d’Orsay and Romeo y Julieta don’t have their own factory, but all lines of Quai d’Orsay should be rolled at the same factory, just as all Romeo y Julieta should be rolled at one factory. Not the Wide Churchill at the Partagas factory and the Mille Fleur at the Upmann factory for example.
The quality control only solves one problem, but there are many problems before the cigars can be rolled, and a few problems after. But you can’t roll a good cigar with bad tobacco. The soil in Cuba is depleted after decades of mono-culture. That can only be restored with fertilizer and rest. So, equipment needs to be brought in to develop virgin land to turn into fields where tobacco can be grown. And while tobacco is growing on those new fields, the old farms need to be fertilized and other crops should be grown on that soil. Now I am not an agricultural scientist, so expert help should be hired.
The next thing is that farmers need an incentive to grow more and better tobacco. Don’t pay them the fixed amount that they get now per acre of tobacco, but pay them per yield and quality. Bigger and better leaves, perfect for wrappers, should bring the farmers more income than lower grade tobacco that can only be used for binder or filler. And again, with the hefty margins on Cuban cigars, this is not too much of a problem.
Aging of tobacco is also a thing. Cuba uses very young tobacco, and after rolling, the cigars won’t age either but are shipped out immediately. Now when I am on my way to play a round of golf with my friends and I stop at a cigar shop, I want to buy a cigar that I can smoke at the clubhouse after doing 18 holes. I don’t want to plan three to five years in advance when to play golf and buy the cigar now to enjoy then. So, I never buy a Cuban cigar. Tabacuba needs to properly cultivate, ferment, and age the tobacco instead of rushing the whole process which leads to the usage of young, and under fermented tobacco. Once you under ferment tobacco, it’s something you can’t restore. Aging can be restored with time, under fermentation cannot.
Now if Tabacuba needs to take its time to properly ferment the raw tobacco, then age the tobacco, and after rolling age the cigars, it creates a problem. That problem is the lack of income. The Cuban regime needs that income badly, so to counter that I would create a few new lines. Lines with both Cuban and Non-Cuban tobacco. That should pique the interest of many cigar smokers. So far, only one company has a cigar like that on the market, and that’s the La Estancia from the Meerapfel family. According to rumors, many Cuban cigars already include tobacco from other countries, but I would just create a few new blends and with an open mind I would disclose the blends.
For example, wouldn’t it be very interesting to create a mild to medium line of cigars with Cuban filler and an Ecuadorian or Honduras Connecticut Shade wrapper? I bet a master blender could make magic happen with these ingredients. I don’t know of the names “Suave” or “El Sombre” are trademarked for tobacco, but those would be good names for a line like this. And for the lovers of stronger cigars, what about a line called Cubanica with a Cuban wrapper over peppery filler tobaccos from Estelí, Nicaragua? The sales of these cigars will make up for the loss of revenue due to the aging of the Cuban tobacco and the Cuban Puros that will be released in the near future.
I would also temporarily stop with the regional edition program, or at least slow it down to 3 cigars a year instead of a dozen or more a year so that there could me more of a focus on regular production. I would also change the Reserva and Gran Reserva lines, that 3-year-old tobacco is a Reserva and 5-year-old tobacco is a Gran Reserva is both a joke and a shame at the same time. That should be a minimum of 5 and 10 years in my humble opinion.
But due to the revenue, I would not kill the limited edition and regional production program completely, as they are the cash-cow of Habanos. I would just limit for a few years until all the changes made in the tobacco growing process and the quality control program are fully implemented and paying off. Then those programs can go back to three limited editions and dozens of regional editions on an annual basis again. But with more planning, so that these cigars hit the market in the year that they were intended, and already with some age on it to justify the premium price.
What wouldn’t I change?
I would not change the marketing, or at least, not much. The marketing of Habanos is fantastic. I might change it to be more open, to disclose more and to send out press releases before events happen instead of press releases on how successful the launch party was, but for the most, I would keep the marketing as it is as they are doing an amazing job.
I would also not change anything about the Habanos Festival and the Partagas Festival. Both festivals bring in a lot of money for Cuba in tourism, in promotion of the island, in Cuban art and in Cuban cigars. I would actually try to sell the Cuba experience more as a package than as just the cigars.