My 4 Year Habanos Experiment


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Disclaimer:

While I vaguely mentioned this in posts over the years, this post is one that I never really intended on sharing with anyone as it may be perceived differently than intended but I wrote this as an account of my personal experience.

This in NO WAY was intended to be a source, guide, reference, etc…It’s simply my account of what I have concluded as a result of my "experiment" that started out as fun and turned into somewhat of an obsession for answers.

I've updated this with information that was generously given to me along the way.

The Premise:

In early 2003, I started to notice a significant change in Cuban cigars. I couldn't pinpoint what was changing but drew ever more curious as the year progressed. So, in early-mid 2003, I started sampling as many cigars from as many box codes as I possibly could. I started with early-mid 2002 boxes codes and worked my way through early-mid 2006 box codes.

I knew this would be quite the undertaking and need some sort of regimen, so committed myself to smoking 1 cigar a day. Also, the goal was to RARELY smoke the same vitola twice in a month. If I did smoke the same vitola within a month, it wasn’t from the same box code and I tried to keep the box codes as far apart within the 2003-2006 range as possible.

In the end (early 2007), I sampled a significant amount regular production vitolas across nearly all marcas from an average 7 box codes per vitola. I say “average” because in late 2006, I had a hard drive failure and lost the spread sheet that I had tracking the vitolas and boxes codes that were sampled. Needless to say, I was devastated but my best estimates are 1250-1600 cigars over 4 years.

It started out just a personal quest and as I got more and more into my experiment, I began to pose questions to myself.

The Experiment

(early-mid 2003 through early-mid 2006 sampling):

Part way through this experiment, I started to see a definite pattern. There was a HUGE difference, either physical (taste, touch & smell) or perceived (theory based on interviews and readings) that Tabacuba was changing the quality of Cuban cigars.

It wasn’t clear to me at the time that this change was to improve the quality but quite the opposite. It wasn’t until I started asking those “in the know” questions, that it started to become more clear. In my opinion, Tabacuba was trying greatly to improve the quality of their cigars and I was very excited to find out why, how, and eventually, what the end result would be and how would these changes affect aging.

The dramatic decrease in quality that I noticed started with box codes in the mid-late 2003. I noticed a significant difference in the quality of Cuban cigars and the change was not a good one.

After TONS of samplings (which was the fun part), I came to realize (IN GENERAL TERMS) that box codes between late 2003 and early 2005 were of poorer quality than years previous (1997 through early 2003 - excluding the "boom cigars" that is).

Generally speaking, the noticeable differences during these box codes is that a significant majority of them were under filled and spongy, they tended to be “flat” in flavor and the strength was diminished. "Sick periods" with strong ammonias were present in nearly all.

These three attributes (excluding the "sick period") were a dramatic difference from the early-mid 2002 box codes and as I got into the later 2004 through 2005 box codes, there seemed to a noticeable effort being put forth to remedy these problems.

Resulting Questions:

When did the change appear to begin?

Answered: early 2003

When did the change appear to end?

Answered: late 2005

What caused the decrease in quality from 2003-2005?

Why do current production cuban cigars, apparently starting in late 2005/early 2006 box codes, have virtually ZERO sick period?

Did Tabacuba start stock piling leaf in 2003 to age and roll at a later date? (eg: 2006)

The Quest for Answers:

As these questions posed themselves, I started researching for any information that I could possibly find (whether seemingly from a valid source or not). As I gathered information, I’d pose these questions to many that I regard as extremely knowledgeable or to those who are in the Cuban cigar business in one respect or another. (EG: Whether they have first hand knowledge or have been around long enough to make a very good educated guess).

So, why do current production Cuban cigars, apparently starting in late 2005/early 2006 box codes, have virtually ZERO sick period?

Did Tabacuba start stock piling leaf in 2003 for rolling at a later date? (eg 2006?) essentially creating 2-3 year old aged tobacco on top of the standard 1 ½ - 2 years it takes from harvest to box?

While I can’t say with 100% certainty any one or any combination of actions caused the decline in quality between 2003-2005 and the increase in quality starting in 2006, I have gathered some information that may lead to a “reasonable” conclusion.

My conclusion:

In regards to box codes dating from mid 2003 through late 2005 (less significant the closer towards late 2005 box codes), I attribute the under filling and spongy cigars found in these box codes to most likely be due to the implementation of the new draw testing machines.

I believe that when these machines were first introduced in the Summer of 2003, the “chupa-chupa” draw machines as they are affectionately called (named after the Cuban hard candy, chupa-chupa), most likely intimidated rollers into under filling cigars as not to “fail” the draw machines. Additionally, the baseline for what was considered “passing” may have been low at the start of the use of these machines and adjusted accordingly the more they were used.

I also believe that the predominately “flat” flavor from mid 2003 to late 2005 can most likely be attributed to experimentation of using heaters to accelerate the fermentation process. Like with the draw machines, this took some time to get refined. (“coal heaters” initially referenced by Don Alajandro and later confirmed)

While Tabacuba denies it (and MRN disagrees), the noticeable diminished strength can be attributed to a shortage of Ligero in 03 was due to a proportion of the bales being set aside for the purpose of aging tobacco allocated for production cigars. (confirmed theory by H. S.A. dealers)

It is my understanding that previously, all wrappers and fillers were aged a min. of 1 year. I suspect that due to the noticeable differences between mid 2003 through late 2005 and cigars with box codes after late 2005, that production tobacco allocations are now being aged for 2 years min with EL’s, RE’s and Reservas being aged longer (most likely 3-5 years). I would further guess that this applies to wrappers as well.

While the “sick periods” were present in cigars prior to the “cigar boom" of 1997/98 (and tobacco aged 1 year min) and present up through late 2005 but are nearly nonexistent in cigars with box codes after late 2005, one can assume that the 1 year min age has changed and/or a combination of additional aging ("2003 stock piling") and accelerated fermentation ("cooking") is taking place. (Note: Noticed a much firmer roll in late 05 / early 06 with much more robust blends, in particular coming from the Partagas factory)

It is my understanding that the "fire proof" wrapper strain (H92) was used from 99-01 and then they transitioned into H2000 strain. I believe that they now use hybrids of the H2000 every 7 years as Cuban bioengineers have discovered that 7 years is about the duration that it takes disease to adapt to the new strains. (Note: Not to be confused with filler strains H2000, followed by Corojo 99 and Corojo 98 and the current "secret" unflowering Capero#1 since early 07

I now wonder if the combination of aging slightly longer prior (2 years min. vs 1 year min.) and possibly perfecting a "cooking" method has lead Cuban cigars to the benchmark quality year of 2006.

All of this raises one more question to me.

How will the current “ready to smoke" production cigars, starting in late 2005 box codes age?

Update (06/08):

As I smoke more and more 2006's & 2007's to try to continue this on a bit, does any else notice the 2006s-2007s starts to peak around mid 2006 and drop of after early 2007?

Update (09/08) - quote by MRN:

» As [has] everyone has noticed. There is a dramatic change in taste in » Cuban cigars beginning late 2003. What is the cause of this change?

» This is due to the change of the filler tobacco strain. From the » previous Criollo used since the 1940s to Criollo98 first planted in the » » 2000 season. The official reason is that this strain is more resistant to » plant diseases. The real reason is the result of Tabacuba taking over » in 2000. The Crilllo98 strain of tobacco can double the yield of tobacco » per area planted.

» This has been the trend in agriculture worldwide since the 1960s. » Nothing new. Just that Cuba is a bit late in catching up. Expect newer » strains to come out in the future for even higher yields.

» The result for this agricultural trend is too predictable, given that the » amount of sun and soil remains the same. The taste of all agricultural » products is more “lame” than what they used to be. Those of us old » enough can remember that everything was much tastier back the good » old days.

» This is my own personal opinion only. Yes I am of the opinion that » Criollo98 filler cigars have lesser aging potential than the old Criollo » filler strain cigars.

» This is for massively produced cigars only. If you are willing to pay » for those special productions, at a huge premium of course, the aging » potential is now even better than ever.

» In short, the good old days of buying premium Cuban cigars at » ordinary prices are now gone for good. The good stuff is still available, » but at a price.

» For those who complain. We have been taking advantage of the » Cuban cigar industry's stupid mentality for too long to have been » spoiled. The Cubans are getting real now and this is the time you should » also get real. No premium products nowadays come without a huge premium.

I, unfortunately, have not been into cigars long enough to have tasted a large amount of early 90s cigars when they were "fresh" to have a baseline comparison between the Criollo vs the Criollo98. The vintage cigars I have had would have been aged a number of years prior to me smoking them, so a comparison between the two in their "fresh" state could not be included.

Additionally, MRN is referring to the FILLER and not the wrapper strains (Corojo, Habana 2000, Corojo99, Comparo2).

I too believe that the strains of tobacco played a part. Strains are changed every 2-3 years for awhile there. I'm not convinced that strains will exhibit the same flavors and some of them certainly impacted combustion which can impact flavor.

I believe that the change in curing is more likely to bring consistency than it is negative affects. I've read 3-4 people with wild stories about these changes to the curing barns in '03 and others that quoted Robina as saying it started in '05 and is just now getting more prevalent. I've also heard say the new wrapper leaf in both good and bad light. I believe it to be lacking in flavor.

The good news is that we have had a few good years of production, the bad news is that the last few cycles were 2-3 years which means this one could be done very soon. (late 05 to early 07 seem to be the peaks)

(Note: Again, do not confuse wrapper strains with filler stains)

I hope this translates well over many years of updating

.

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Thanks so much for sharing this Mark. Its too bad your database got wiped out it sounded very comprehensive. I am most weary about the "cooking" techniques used to speed up the fermentation process. It seems to have MRN unconvinced about the aging potential of our tasty 2006-2007 smokes.

Tampa, would you agree that the Mag 50 is the best example of great 08 stock? I know the Trini reyes are also excellent but have no experience other than these.

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Hey Mark,

Fantastic post. I relaxed this morning and read it twice. Great info. Thank you for putting such an effort into your experiment, and Thank you for sharing it. I can not wait for the further updates.

This is one of those posts where I really feel like I learned a lot in one sitting. I never new all the wrapper names and filler names, and the curing barn experiments, I could go on and on.

Thank you

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  • 4 weeks later...

Hi n2adventure,

I do have a question for you.

I have found a big change in my most recent box of SLR Series A.

The last box I had was AOM OCT 06 and they were like the SLR's

that I have always enjoyed, a dominate taste of floral honeyness and buttery tastes. My last box ,AOM FEB 07, have changed all togther.

Frist, the wrapper was the darkest I have seen in a long time almost

Maduro. The taste was more animal, barnyard, peppery with just

hints of floral and sweetness. How would you explain this radical

change in the blend and the taste ??.

Can you please give me your impression on this. Thanks:-|

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Great post Mark and I really cannot add a great deal as I concur with much that was written.

Couple of points.

1. I have little doubt that in 2003 commenced a phase where a % Ligero was set aside to be aged with the intention to have a "bank" of aged Ligero for future years. Today there is a store of 3 years of Ligero.

2. Dryers in the barns increased consistency (stable Temp).

3. Loose rolled cigars came about as roller "Fear" of having cigars returned. The % of loose rolled cigars dropped significantly by 2005. The correction was due to better education on what was expected maximum/minimum PSI.....as opposed to previous focus on Minimum alone.

4. A series of very good seasons.

5. Better tobacco strains. My undertanding of the lifecycle of a strain is roughly 7 years.

6. Blend inconsistency is still a curse. I blame blend inconsistency for the variance between close years of cigar production (SLR as mentioned by Laficion).

7. You get greater inconsistency in June July production due to high humidity (rain). When it rains for a week all the factory windows are open and the cigars are rolled at a very high moisture content. Still some of my favourite recent cigars are Jun/July (07) 898 V and Punch Petit Corona.

8. I am finding 2003 cigars to be aging very well. I didn't think they would.

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