Peter Coyote | San Francisco Chronicle
Today I’m visiting El Laguito, the Cohiba factory where only Castro’s own cigars and his gifts for diplomats and heads of state were once made.
The factory is in a lovely pale-yellow mansion, formerly owned by a sugar magnate, has marble floors, stained glass windows, high ceilings and perfectly cared for grounds.
In the interior office of the director, Miguel Brown Vaillaint, a muscular, relaxed, black man of obvious confidence and physical strength, smiles and insists that we have a coffee together before making the tour. Cuban coffee in Cuba in the Cohiba factory sounds like a great idea to me.
In Miami, “Cuban coffee” is often drink Bustelo coffee mixed with sweetened and condensed milk and it’s delicious. In Cuba, such milk is hard to come by, so they drink their coffee (from their own beans) black and sweet with sugar. Cubans love sweets. Perhaps it’s because their economy for so many years was organized around sugar, but there are cookies, cakes, ice-creams, and sweetened drinks readily available. If you order a limonda, there may well be a half-inch of white sugar nesting in the bottom of the glass.
The jet-black sweet coffee I am served is as smooth as a fine Havana cigar and I savor it as Miguel explains how Cohiba cigars have special meaning for the Cuban people because it was the first cigar created after the revolution. “They are made from special leaves from special plantations. Everything is the best”, he says. Cohibas are given “a third fermentation” to make them exceptionally mild. He then offers a short recitative about the “Cohoba”, the indigenous people’s name for the bundle of tobaccos wrapped with a large leaf which they set afire, inhaling the smoke through their nostrils for an intoxication which put them in contact with their gods. Miguel says the small black silhouette on the Cohiba label is one of the Indigenous people of ancient Cuba, placed there to honor them.
This factory was founded in 1966 and the first Vitola (technical term for the dimensions of a style of cigar) was a slender Lancero with a 38 ring gauge. The ring gauge is calibrated in 64ths of an inch and determines the diameter of the cigar. Many cigars in fashion now, called Robustos, are over a 50 ring-gauge in size.
Because of Fidel’s attachment to this cigar, it became associated with him and branded by him. It was never sold and was only as his personal gift, and as its reputation began to spread, diplomats and heads of state waited anxiously for their gifts. It was launched as a commercial brand in 1982 and the government still reserves 20% of production for gifts.
Each year, new Vitolas were created and experimented with, but the essential taste and excellence of the ingredients was unwaveringly controlled. This year, the factory is launching a new marquee called a Gran Reserva—big robustos aged for five years, and in fact, the Festival of Tobacco to which I have been invited will announce it. The company has created a presentation vase of fine porcelain with 25 Cohibas to commemorate the millennium, and a special case of black-lacquer will be the way in which they are delivered to the public. It’s kind of like having a black American Express card the size of a computer. They will be unveiled this Friday but Miguel has already colonized my attention by telling me that I will be the first person outside of the ‘catadores’ (the tasters) to try one ... today.
Abuzz with coffee and anticipation, I set off to review the manufacture of Cohibas. It takes approximately 150 steps from the first planting of the seed until the final sealing of a box of finished cigars. Each of these steps is controlled to a degree of rigor that’s astonishing. The tasters, for instance, must pass an exam from the Institute of Tobacco. Those recommended join a group of 50—25 people from the five best factories, and 25 “less professional, but good”—to blind taste cigars. They are given forms where the cigars are numbered, cataloged according to the date, size, and coded identity, then rated in these categories: Aroma, Taste, Strength, Combustibility and General Quality. Under each category are five grades ranging from Excelente to Malo (for combustibility) or Excesivo to Insuficiente under Tiro (draw).
Our first stop is the room where the bundles of leaves from the drying houses are examined and sorted into packets of Ligero, Volado, and Seco. READ THE REST OF THE STORY HERE
Peter Coyote was in Cuba for the Habanos Cuban cigar festival and wrote a number of articles about his trip to Havana Cuba.
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