Many months and in some cases years will pass before the leaf is ready to make a Habano.
La mayoría de las hojas se curan en las tradicionales casas de tabaco que dependen completamente de los efectos naturales del clima. Las hojas se ensartan - o unen mediante un hilo- en pares y se cuelgan unas junto a otras en cujes que descansan sobre barrederas. En la medida en que la hoja se va curando, se va elevando progresivamente el cuje hacia la parte superior de la casa de tabaco. Es necesario ajustar constantemente la ventilacióny la luz para permitir las variaciones naturales de temperatura y humedad.
Controlled curing for shade-grown leaf
The 1990s saw a major investment in temperature and humidity control for the curing of the precious wrapper leaves, to overcome the unpredictable conditions in a conventional barn. This is air curing at its most refined, with optimum conditions replicated around the clock. So the time it takes is naturally less. But there is still the need for constant vigilance and adjustment as the condition of the leaf develops - the more so, because the process now runs at full pace day and night.
Leaving the farm
Once the leaf is cured, the farmer's job is done and the task passes to the Empresa de Acopio y Beneficio del Tabaco - the 'organisation for the gathering and improvement of tobacco' which buys the leaf from the farmer. The cured leaf, separated picking by picking, is now ready to go to the Sorting House for its first fermentation.
The cured leaves are tied in bunches called gavillas and taken from the farm to the Sorting House, or Escogida. There they are placed in cloth-covered piles and undergo an entirely natural process of fermentation, triggered by the moisture in the leaf.
Fermentation is essential to the smoking quality of the cigar. It sweats out impurities in the leaf,
reducing acidity, tar and nicotine. It smooths the flavour of the filler leaves and evens out the colour of the wrappers.
Leaves that were grown higher up the plant need a longer period of fermentation because they are thicker and richer in oils.
The fermentation process is precisely the same as takes place in a garden compost heap. Moisture and compression combine to generate heat. Constant supervision is required to ensure that things do not go too far.
Sorting and Clasification
It is now time for the leaves to be sorted for the roles they will ultimately play in the making of a Habano. Size, colour and texture are the three criteria that guide the sorters.
Wrappers as you might expect get the closest attention. First they are moistened and aired to prepare them for handling. Then they are classified into a bewildering array of some 50 different categories designed to ensure that only the most perfect will ever dress a Habano. Any leaf below a certain standard is rejected and set aside for other purposes.
Sun-grown leaves are sorted into three sizes and the three essential categories of flavour or tiempos that come together in the blending of the filler: ligero, seco and volado. Leaves picked from the lower levels of the plant supply the lighter-flavoured volado (also termed Fortaleza 1) and the largest and best of these are selected as binders. Leaves from the middle provide the medium-flavoured seco (Fortaleza 2). Leaves from the top provide the fuller-flavoured ligero (Fortaleza 3).
As with wrappers, some leaf is certain to be
rejected at this stage and set aside for the making of non-Habano cigars and cigarettes.
Once sorted and rested, the wrapper leaves, which being thin only need one fermentation, are now ready to be packed in bales known as tercios for transfer to the warehouse where they will be left to age like fine wine.
Sun-grown leaf however requires further attention . . .
The sorted filler and binder leaf is now transferred to the Stripping House (Despalillo) where the first process is a moistening - or moja - that makes the leaf pliable for stripping and supplies the moisture that will drive the second fermentation.
The sure fingers of the Despalilladoras strip out the lower portion of the stem in each leaf. At the same time they conduct the final classification into the three tiempos (ligero, seco and volado). Once again any leaves that do not make the grade are rejected.
Finally the leaves are stacked in small piles and pressed between boards.
Filler and binder leaves are now fermented a second time. The piles are much larger and the fermentation is longer and hotter than the first.
Once again the thicker, fuller-flavoured leaves get the longest fermentation. The thinner, lighter-flavoured leaves get the least.
The temperature of fermentation has to be watched with care. When it gets too hot, the pile is broken up, the leaves are allowed to cool down and the stack is rebuilt the other way round (bottom leaves to the top, top leaves to the bottom). This may happen several times in the course of the fermentation.
After the second fermentation, the sun-grown leaves are aired on racks for a few days, then packed and transferred to the warehouse where they join the wrapper leaves for the final patient process of ageing.
The fullest-flavoured leaf is aged the longest and the lightest-flavoured leaf is aged the least. Like a fine wine, the longer the leaf is left to mature, the better it will be.
Filler and binder leaves are packed in hessian bales called pacas. Wrappers are packed in tercios made from Yagua which is the loose bark of the Royal Palm tree, a material used for many purposes in Cuba.
Every bale carries a label rich with information about the leaf including its size, the year of harvest and the date of packing. Tercios are also marked with the code for the escogida where the wrappers were sorted. In addition the labels on pacas indicate the leaf's tiempo as well as both the escogida and the despalillo where the binders and fillers were processed.
It is this that indicates to the blender the specific local character of the leaf which is the key to the distinctive blending of each Habano brand.