Habanos' Hurricane Headache

Hurricane Ian has caused havoc across Cuba. Nick Hammond reminds us that this is nothing new and that Cubans, and their tobacco, are remarkably resilient. They find a way. So, we in turn, must learn patience before the reward.

The path of each nascent hurricane as it tracks across the Caribbean has us cigar smokers hiding behind our sofa cushions.

Right now, Cuba’s cigar industry needs a hurricane like it needs a plague of blue mould – but Hurricane Ian has rampaged, nonetheless. 

He struck with uncanny precision at the heart of the Cuban cigar making region – Pinar del Rio in the west of the island. Aside from the obvious human cost, this is a potentially devastating blow to an industry already reeling from the effects of Covid, US blockade, a brain-drain abroad, lack of raw materials and a dozen other limiting factors.

Now, it’s important to note that Cuba is no stranger to violent weather; it’s been part of life as long as the island has been inhabited. There aren’t significantly more hurricanes than there used to be, either – but they have become more severe. If you’re interested, this is a very informative Cuban film about the historic effects of hurricanes on agriculture on the island – it’s in Spanish, but English subtitles are available. www.livingbetweenhurricanes.org/the-film/watch-full-film/

It’s too early to say how badly tobacco and its people have been affected on this occasion, but I’ve spoken to Cubans on the ground who say this time it was a bad one. Images from key plantations show widespread devastation. I include with this piece some pictures sent to me from Hirochi Robaina at the Robaina Plantation, which clearly show structural damage to several of his buildings.

At this point, it may be helpful to remind you that among the four major tobacco growing regions in the country, the Vuelta Abajo is considered the most important. Within these regions there are tobacco growing districts such as San Juan and San Juan y Martinez, the only districts deemed suitable to grow the raw material for Cohiba, for example. This is where the most coveted tobacco farms or fincas on the planet can be found, and where specific soil structures plus a unique microclimate create the perfect conditions for growing masterful tobacco.

Whenever the delicate balance of this microclimate is thrown out of whack, the problems begin. Roughly speaking, the tobacco grower here worries not about seasons as such, but about wet and dry periods; each aspect of tobacco growing is reliant on that delicate balance between humidity and temperature. Any weather event which affects this is potentially harmful.

At this time of year, the Cuban Veguero (farmer) would traditionally be concentrating on preparing for the forthcoming planting out of seedlings. The odds are at least some of these farmers will have tried to jump the gun - and will subsequently have paid the price. Seed beds will have been washed away; tobacco barns brought down. What was in those tobacco barns remains to be seen; the effects of any such adverse weather can only really be ascertained further down the line. Don’t forget that any relatively young tobacco lost now would have made its way into the ‘cigar chain’ in two or three years’ time - so every event like this has a backlash effect sometime later. All of which makes this incredible luxury business all the more precarious and, therefore, remarkable.

The growing season continues through to February or mid-March, and as an example of how key weather is to overall success of the crop, the curing period ends at the beginning of the wet season, when humidity and temperatures rocket, making it impossible to properly cure tobacco.

The much-lamented Simon Chase, former Marketing Director of Hunters & Frankau, the UK importer of Havanas and a fellow writer for Cigar Journal magazine at the time, penned, in his simple, erudite style, a fantastic piece on weather and cigars which was published in his Long View column back in the Summer of 2015. I take the liberty of dipping into it here – I think Simon would approve of these long form discursive pieces about his beloved Cuban cigars.

He talks of arriving for the annual Habanos Festival in February (ah, for those carefree, innocent, Covid-free days) to find Havana shivering in cold, blustery weather. “I reckon that outside the terminal building, with the wind chill factor, it was about 12°C (53°F),” he writes. “Regardless of occasional discomfort, the cold gave me cause for optimism. I recalled a conversation I had two years ago in London with a Spaniard called Oscar Ricote, who is Habanos S.A.’s Head of Quality Control. One of the items we discussed was the outcome of the recent harvests. At that time, it was generally understood that two out of the previous three years’ harvests had been poor. “Part of the problem,” Oscar said, “is that there hasn’t been a proper winter in Cuba for several years. In fact, people find it hard to remember the last one.” 

Simon goes on to explain that in order to produce the best tobacco, optimum conditions exist when there is a significant difference between daytime and night-time temperatures – as much as 10 Degrees Celsius. There must also be surprisingly little rainfall. “What these conditions do to tobacco is quite remarkable,” Simon writes. “First, the plants grow tall and strong, a process that counter-intuitively is enhanced by the lack of rainfall because the farmers can water the plants when they need it, not when the climate dictates.  And second, the leaves grow thicker, heavier and oilier.” And we all know what those taste like...

I well remember enjoying one of the first Cohiba Talismáns at the worldwide launch in London’s Corinthia Hotel in 2017. I reckoned it was immediately worthy of laying down for future consideration, even at such a young age. Back then, it was Hurricane Irma which was wreaking havoc – electricity was down on much of the island for 16 days – and Hunters & Frankau auctioned off the very first box of Talismáns off the rolling table to help those in need. It fetched in excess of £10,000 for the Cuban relief fund.

The triple whammy of Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma hit Cuba between August 30 and November 9, 2008, causing, on a cigar-related front, two UK regional editions to be delayed. Cigars being hampered by bad weather is nothing new and, of course, nothing when compared to the human suffering caused by such devastating weather. Cubans, and their tobacco, are remarkably resilient. They find a way. So, we in turn, must learn patience before the reward.

You will, I hope, forgive me a little cynicism though, when weather is blamed, say, for the current lack of Cohiba Behike or one of its constituent leaves, the fabled Medio Tiempo.

Weather is the both the boon and bane of a tobacco farmer’s life, for sure; and it also makes a fantastic backstop excuse!