Habano Tasters, Guarantors of Quality


25/02/2011

In this demanding trade that comprises human beings gifted with good natural tasting and smelling sensors, these workers are sort of personal guardians of habanos’ quality, tradition and leadership, a staff inserted in the cigar factories’ so-called tasting commissions, strict bodies serving as juries that hand down decisions on brands and vitolas rolled in every factory in terms of aroma, strength and taste guidelines, depending on each and every blend. And they also call the shots when it comes to putting new habanos in the market.

The role played by this small group of men and women is so decisive that we decided to sit down with Juan Jose Lopez Freire, currently the chief of the Industry Division at Cuba’s Tobacco Research Institute. Mr. Lopez is a renowned taster, main promoter and as-a-matter-of-factly founder of these tasting panels that have now turned into quite an institution of its own and an indispensable link in Cuba’s cigar-rolling industry.

“This came into being in the 1970s,” he recalls. “Before that, owners and managers used to approve or turn down the outcome of their workshops and make decisions as far as quality was concerned.”

After the triumph of the 1959 Revolution, the development of the habano called for more specialization and demand in terms of quality, and for new proposals designed for the international market. Schools of cigar rollers opened and the industry was enhanced with the addition of new workforce and the creation of more jobs, a process that had to be closely monitored.

Thus, the industry decided to have 10 such experts for every 100 cigar rollers, as many as each and every factory needs. “There are up to three tasting commissions in some of the largest factories, operating in different shifts in an effort to ease these specialized inquiries,” Juan Jose adds.

As a rule, the commissions ought to be renewed every three years because some members change jobs or feel their skills for this particular function have dwindled. It’s precisely Cuba’s Tobacco Research Institute the main responsible of this issue.

Today, Cuba’s cigar-rolling industry counts on more than 120 of these experts that conduct different tasks as rollers, managers, fillet makers or wick removers. Anybody can opt for this job –as long as they have the necessary conditions- and join the teams, following the go-ahead of Cuba’s Tobacco Research Institute.

 

Demanding Requirements

In addition to being gifted with the ability to identity tastes, smells and strengths, a good habano taster must have the gift of the gab, be bold enough to stand up for his opinions and cherish unconditional love for tobacco.

Applicants should go see their quality chiefs in their industries and file the application as they wait for the renovation of their factory’s tasting panel. When the moment comes, they are put through their paces in a test in which they are handed over three cigars without bands –two similar and one different- for them to tell them apart. This procedure is repeated half a dozen times, just in case.

Following the approval of the initial evaluation, the would-be taster will enroll in a course in which representatives from Cuba’s Tobacco Research Institute enlighten applicants on the matter’s different technical aspects because, in addition to whatever God-sent gifts they might have for the job, they need both formation and training.

A tribute to habano tasters, their skills and their major role in the preservation of this product’s quality, or just as a tool for appraising new blending proposals and vitolas, will be the Grand Blind Tasting Session that for the first time will be held in this 13th Habano Festival. As many as 30 participants from among commissioned tasters, sommeliers and aficionados have been handpicked for this contest.

 

AMONG HABANO TASTERS

Noel Castro Mendez

He cut his teeth in the tobacco industry in 1998. He’s 30 and works as a fillet maker. “I was drawn to these tasting sessions from the very beginning, so I went to see my boss to make an application to join these teams. This has meant a lot to me because I know I’ve had a say in the quality of habano for the past 10 years.” Mild-tasting cigars are high on his list of preferences, in formats like Robusto, let alone his fondness of Julieta and Mareva.

Tamara Jane Roche

She has over 14 years of experience under her belt, first as a roller and later on as quality standardization technician, a task she shares with her stint as a taster. “I see it as a very interesting job, despite its complications and high level of responsibility that call for knowledge in just about everything, for understanding of the entire cigar-rolling process from the wetting of the leaves all the way to the end product, and that’s something that helped me a lot in our job and when it comes to making judgment or conclusion in the tasting of habanos.” Tamara prefers midsize ring gauges and Dalia tops her list.

Juan Jose Lopez Freire

This 68-year-old man has spent most of his lifetime in the habano realm. He started working as raw material selector at the Jose L. Piedra cigar factory at age 16. After 1959, he took management courses and proceeded to get a degree in Chemical Engineering back in 1979. He finally landed a job at Cuba’s Tobacco Research Institute and took a number of specialization courses there. He’s a founder of the tasting commissions. He’s in charge of habano tasters in Cuba. His personal preferences sway from the Cohiba Siglo VI to the brand’s latest addition, the high-quality Behike.

Saul Gonzalez

He’s been involved in the world of tobacco for 23 years, where he started working as a cigar roller. “Tasters play a fundamental role in the industry for they appraise the exact blend and help prevent any problem that might come up in the rolling process,” he admits. “I love the world of tobacco. I’m fascinated by the necessary dedication this industry takes, the detailed tasks, the marketing, the growth and all that culture I’ve learned about in different courses at different levels.” He loves habanos of ring gauge between 48 and 55, like the Corona Gorda or Robusto, and is a part-time smoker of Cohiba and Hoyo de Monterrey.