One of the most buzz-generating attendees at last year’s International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association convention in Las Vegas was China’s Great Wall Cigar. Hardly a Montecristo, but regularly smoked by Mao Zedong, the cigar brand chose the event to announce ambitious export plans.
Not many noticed in 2008 when Great Wall brand owner, China Tobacco Chuanyu Industrial Corporation, spent€ 85 million to overhaul the Great Wall Cigar plant in Shifang, Sichuan province. When fully completed in 2013, the complex will be able to produce a mind-boggling two billion cigars a year, up from the 300 million it currently produces annually.
In comparison, most Cuban cigar factories manage only about one million cigars a year. Either Great Wall is planning to replace generations of Cuban cigar-rolling expertise with a huge Chinese factory, or, more likely, it’s going after the lower-end of the market.
A spokeswoman for Chuanyu’s vice general manager, Wu Xian, says the firm intends to export many of the 11 million high-end cigars which will be rolled by hand every year at Shifang. But, she says, the bulk of production will be "medium grade" cigars. She compares those to so-called "dry" European cigars, which are mass produced and cheaper than premium Cuban smokes.
To further its plans, Great Wall has hired Dutch-based cigar maker Agio as a consultant on the new plant. Agio recently opened Europe’s largest and newest cigar factory in Belgium, where its machines chop imported tobacco leaves before pressing them into cigars. Cuban cigar makers by contrast use only whole tobacco leaves, dexterously wrapped by hand and packaged in special tubes so they retain their flavour.
Great Wall cigars have to be seen in the context of China’s entirely state-owned tobacco industry, the world’s largest. China grew one-third of the seven million tons of tobacco leaves produced worldwide last year, but local tobacco officials have been consolidating a network of myriad provincial cigarette makers into a dozen multinational players which promise to tap export markets with more sophisticated products.
However, China needs time to perfect a good cigar. "Tobacco leaf fermentation for cigars is a very difficult process," explains consultant William Silvestre, a former British American Tobacco executive who now offers his expertise to Asian firms. "Having the right moisture in the leaves is crucial. Some Chinese cigars fall apart because the leaves are so dry."
Great Wall is also struggling to find the right ingredients at home. Shifang’s sun-cured Virginia-type tobacco crop is rated the best in China, yet Great Wall has to import tobacco from Brazil and Indonesia for the all-important tobacco leaves used to bind and wrap its cigars.
Great Wall is not without garlands, having won the Damascus Gold Medal at the 2005 Damascus Tobacco Fair. And its low-price offerings are well timed. As tobacco demand dropped up to 10 percent in western Europe over the past decade, tobacco firms are turning to growth markets in Asia. In Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand, tobacco consumption marked growth during the same period, according to World Health Organisation data.
But for a firm with such big export ambitions, it’s hard to find the brand in Beijing’s cigar shops.
"They’re not any good," replies an attendant in Habanos cigar shop in the Jinglun Hotel when asked why a Chinese tobacco store wouldn’t stock a Great Wall. In a cigarette shop in the city’s bar district, a Montechristo number 4 costs€ 11, whereas the only Chinese cigar in stock, the Wangguan, made in Anhui, costs€ 0.32 a stick. "Chinese cigar makers have to learn more about manipulating taste and grading leaves," says Silvestre. "Cigar making is an exquisite hand-made process. Skill comes with experience."