Havana Corner: Freezing in Havana
CUBAN-CIGAR MERCHANTS are declaring death of the tobacco weevil following a visit to a new, massive storage and quality control center in Guanabacoa, a suburb of Havana.
I visited the complex last week with English cigar merchants Jemma Freeman, head of Cuban cigar importers Hunters & Frankau, and Edward Sahakian, owner of London's Davidoff shop. The 90,000-square-foot building is a temperature- and humidity-controlled building for holding all cigar stocks for export. It has a capacity of about 70 million to 80 million cigars. Habanos S.A., the global distribution and marketing company for Cuban cigars, runs the facility.
The showpiece of the building is four massive freezers where export boxes of cigars are frozen at minus-4 Fahrenheit for five days and then slowly brought to a temperature of about 65. Cuban officials claim that this process completely kills any insects as well as eggs in the tobacco. The freezing is an added measure Habanos has taken even though cigar factories continue to fumigate smokes before they leave their doors.
"This should be the end of weevils as we know them," said Freeman with an enthusiastic smile, after visiting the giant freezers.
Let's hope she is right. There is nothing worse than finding boxes of fine Cuban cigars with weevils having a party inside. Their tiny holes make cigars unsmokable. Once they are in one box and busy at work, they are almost impossible to eradicate. The Cubans say that they can process about 4 million cigars at a time.
Cuban cigars are shipped abroad in thick cardboard boxes that hold on average about 40 individual boxes. It's these shipping boxes that are placed on large racks in the freezers and then frozen.
Freezing of cigars has been a time-honored process for many cigar lovers, who have been afraid of the ravages of the tobacco weevil. Some cigar merchants were already freezing cigars themselves in recent years. Moreover, once the beetles attack cigars, they can be killed by putting them in your freezer for a couple of days.
In the facility's quality control center, finished boxes of cigars are opened and evaluated for quality. This is why you may sometimes see Cuban cigar boxes with double seals on them. A supervisor said that 70% of all Cuban cigar boxes are opened and checked for quality, which includes tests for humidity as well as visual and manual evaluation. That figure seemed incredible to me, especially when the supervisor said that only 18 people work there — but my arithmetic has never been very good.
Regardless, Habanos is obviously serious about quality. And the days of the tobacco beetle in Cuban cigars seem to be numbered with the new freezing process.