Master Blender, a historic architect


17/04/2012

Maestro Ligador

Supplying the workshops with the adequate amounts of leaves depending on each and every brand, acting like a guardian of quality and the characteristics of each Habano based on its taste, scent and strength, is the main task of the Master Blender, a similarly historic architect of the recipes, proportions and mixtures that single out each reference within all of the company’s specific vitola stocks or just when it comes to making new products.

Time and men, during successive fermentation and selection processes, turn tobacco leaves harvested by the planters into raw materials for the making of Habanos.

As soon as the leaves are ready, the layers for the wrapping of the Habano are bundled in thatch bales. The ones to be used as filler and binder carry a label with all relevant information on their place of origin, category, harvest year, packaging date, classification in terms of strength –medio tiempo, ligero, seco and volado- as well as where the leaves were chosen and their wicks removed.

All this information is key to waiting for the right moment to ship the leaves from the warehouses to their final destination in the factories and have them rolled into Habanos. Once the master blender knows the factory’s programming beforehand, broken down in brands and sizes, he should request all the necessary tobacco leaves for the making of the respective blends.

This must be done with strict observation to the exact dosages and care in reckoning the amounts to be requested in a bid to avoid unnecessary use of the precious raw material.

Years of rest have passed by and the first thing to do is undo the tobacco bales and check on the quality of the leaves. This is carried out in the factories, in the Mixture or Blending Department –known among tobacco workers as la barajita (the little shuffle) because the operation of mounting the correct recipe for a particular Habano resembles the action of shuffling a deck of cards. The master blender unpacks the bale and carefully takes a few samples from inside.

“Until now and since the first Taino cacique in Cuba ordered the first cigar,” quips Partagas master blender Arnaldo Bishot Rojo, “the most effective way to find out how good the leaves shipped from the warehouse actually are is by putting aside the sampled leaves and check whether the glaze on the upper side is gone.”

This operation must be repeated day in and day out with each and every bale containing all kinds of leaves for filler, as well as those for wrapper.

Based on exact proportions and leaf types in terms of strength and harvest time, the master blender dictates the right blend for each Habano to be rolled, depending on a particular recipe. The process is replicated in the Blending Department in thoroughly adjusted portions. Those lots are then moved to the workshop for cigar rollers to start getting their job done.

“In the past in many Cuban factories this job used to be done to a naked eye, by barrels, by amounts of leaves for one or another blend, depending on a customer’s demand or according to what the brand owner was asking for, always based on the features of those brands. Yet the best thing to do was to make the blends based on weight percentages, as it used to be done in Larrañaga, where I worked. Today, all Cuban factories apply this method,” Bishot says with praising words.

The raw material for a Habano is completely produced in Vuelta Abajo and even though there’s a linkage between the factories and the place of origin of the leaves, the master blender is in charge of sampling the taste of the tobacco being rolled on a daily basis, always watching for the taste-scent stability of the mixture. His finest tool for this job is his own experience and expertise with recipes for each brand and vitola.

A decisive role in keeping up this product’s quality is played by the Tobacco Research Institute and Habanos S.A., as members of the Regulatory Council of Habanos Protected Denomination of Origin, an entity that stays permanently in contact with the factories and their corresponding blending departments. This is paramount to clinch full respect to the quality criteria and taste characteristics of each and every Habano.

According to Raul Valladares Diaz, an authorized voice in this field, “the master blender guarantees the continuity of the production in terms of tradition and prestige that a particular brand has historically acquired among smokers, thus preserving their main features for the consumers through the proper usage of the composition, the raw materials that provide the necessary strength, the scent and the taste of every vitola during the entire production supply of a given brand.”

This deep-rooted culture and knowledge of the alchemies, formulas or combinations that chip in a multitude of shades in terms of taste and aroma among the different Habano brands and their vitolas, is no doubt one of the most admirable elements these men boast, bearing in mind that this diversity is in part owed to the plantations, whose patterns vary depending on their location and the natural conditions they are subjected to.

That’s why it’s so vital to train, to pass that experience on to the new generations, to underscore the significance and the role these men play in keeping up the prestige of Habano as the very best product of its kind. Manual work, selectivity, tradition and demand are all parts of the process on the whole.

“First and foremost, you need to be willing to work and you must be in love with what you do just to get it done right, with the responsibility of giving cigar rollers the best raw material they can get, and with the correct dosages established for each and every brand,” said Bishot, who also recognized that even though this is an industry in which all processes count, “this one in particular is precisely one of the links we should all take care of the most.”

But caring doesn’t only mean to keep up, but also to create and renovate, to launch new products and formats in line with the consumption trends and the demands of today’s smokers. In this sense, the blender’s role is equally important, though with just other particularities. 

“The first thing in this case is know what kind of product is meant to be developed, what format and in what sizes, if it’s parejo or figurado, the color, scent, taste and strength.

Based on all this, the blender must conceive the draft blend, and to do that he needs to conduct a number of trials, send the leaves to the tasting experts, to the tasting panels, until the objective is fulfilled,” says Valladares Diaz referring to the role played by blenders in the development of the industry and its commitment to meeting the preferences of Habano lovers and aficionados around the globe.