The History of tobacco: From South America to Europe via Cuba 

The aboriginal people of South America revered the tobacco plant and used it for a variety of medicinal purposes. Tobacco was an integral part of their agriculture and culture heritage and became an essential element in religious, social and political ceremonies. It’s thought that the tobacco plant was first brought to Cuba from its origins in South America sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC.   

Europeans who landed in the Americas were introduced to the pleasures of tobacco not long after landing in the Americas. Once the early explorers brought it back with them, smoking soon caught on like wildfire in the Old Continent, particularly in Spain. Bans accompanied by harsh punishments for smoking did little to curb enthusiasm for the import and the habit eventually spread to Japan, Persia, Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, tobacco was also increasingly used for medicinal purposes.      

Unable to stop the widespread use of tobacco, King Philip V passed the Estanco del Tabaco in 1917 to at least profit from its popularity. It established a royal monopoly on tobacco growing in Cuba that remained for a hundred years, under threat of death for those who may have opposed it. A royal decree lifted the monopoly in 1817 to free up tobacco trading between Cuba and the rest of the world, as long as that trade went through Spanish ports and were subject to its taxes, of course.

At the time, slaves provided much of the hard work required in agriculture. However, tobacco production was considered too delicate an operation for slave labour so immigrants from the Canary Islands were carefully groomed to cultivate and harvest the tobacco fields. By 1859, there were about 1300 cigar factories in Havana with nearly 10,000 Cuban tobacco plantations supporting them, which made Cuba the undisputed capital of tobacco production.   

Tobacco cultivation: Cigars are grown as much as made

The western region of the archipelago of Cuba, close to the Tropic of Cancer, has a relative humidity of 79 percent, an average annual temperature of 25 degrees Celcius and just the right amount of rain. This happens to be the optimal climate to grow tobacco and when combined with the unique soil properties of the region, it’s no surprise Cuba’s ‘terroir’ is known for producing the best tobacco in the world.     

But having the perfect growing conditions doesn’t guarantee an excellent crop. Like fine wine, the experience and meticulous attention to detail every step of the process by the tobacco farmers make the difference in the quality of the final product, the habano.   

Cultivating tobacco for cigars

Seeds are planted in seed beds to encourage germination and remain in carefully controlled conditions for 40 days until they are ready to be successively transplanted into the field starting in October. Leaves from the tobacco plant are then picked between 45 and 80 days after planting and then dried and fermented in the curing barns. Then some of the most skilled workers, predominantly women, delicately sort and classify the tobacco leaves in the sorting houses.        

Hand rolling cigars

As leaves are sorted, the best will be set aside to be used as wrappers. These leaves need to be rehydrated before they are rubbed, pulled and smoothed out by skilled fingers and examined closely. Once classified by size and color, only 18 to 20 kinds of tobacco leaves will ultimately be chosen to wrap a habano.

The cigar maker is the maestro and has the most demanding role in the cigar factory. He starts with placing half a leaf of binder on his work table and then chooses an assortment of leaves to shape into a bundle. He then smoothes the leaf he’ll use as the wrapper and trims its edges with his knife before wrapping it around the bundle with practiced hands. He presses the flat of his knife along the length of the cigar and then shapes the end to fit comfortably in the smoker’s mouth. The other end is clipped in a miniature guillotine to the required length for that type of cigar. It will then be checked and if approved, it’s tied with a ribbon in groups of 50 and sent to a vacuum chamber to be fumigated. They are then placed in a special closet for three weeks to cure and remove any excess moisture. Then it is on to the classification and packing department, sometimes known as the selection department, before it can earn an anillado (meaning ‘ring’ in Spanish) and wrapped by a special cigar band.