The “Culebra” is a cigar that has been largely an enigma. Various myths and stories have been circulated regarding its history, purpose and production, but few, if any, credible sources have been cited to confirm the purported facts.
Recently, I set out to find the historical facts about Culebra cigars. In this article I will explore the early history and origins of the Culebra and I will discuss the processes for producing these unique cigars.
After searching through numerous articles, books, magazines, newspapers and the World Wide Web, I still don’t have all the answers. However, I can provide some solid resources to back up the statements that you will read below.
Culebra is the Spanish word for “snake” and a finished Culebra looks like a group of snakes that are coiled together and tied off on each end. Culebras are usually constructed of 3 or 4 under-filled Panatelas, braided together and tied off at each end so they hold their shape.
The oldest and most definitive statement as to the origins of Culebras comes from an article written in New Zealand’s Auckland Star, which confirmed that, the Compañia General de Tabacos Filipinas (est. 1881) was already producing Culebras by 1890. Min Ron Nee (2003) in his book, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars agreed: “[The Culebra] first appeared in the Philippines circa mid-19th Century, a Philippines cigar industry invention.”
However, there is also evidence that Culebras were being made in the U.S. at least as far back as 1890. Noted cigar historian, Tony Hyman (2014), produced a photo of a cigar box (circa 1890) that once contained Culebras produced by the F.P. Filbert Cigar Company in Eaton, Ohio called “Filbert’s Twisters,” a 3-cigar Culebra (see illustration below). Tony had other examples including A. C. Brenkle Company’s “Twisted Smoke,” a 4-cigar Culebra made in 1914 and the “Cuban Twist,” a 3-cigar Culebra made in Wisconsin in the 1920’s (see illustration below). Since Culebras likely originated in the Philippines (Auckland Star, 1890 and Nee 2003) and with evidence of the cigars being manufactured in the U.S. as far back as 1890, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Culebra originated no later than 1885 and most likely between 1880-1885.
Purpose of Culebra: Why Were These Cigars Made?
There are many views as to why Culebras were made. One account suggests that Culebras helped to prevent thievery or black market after sales by factory workers (Tobacconist University):
Traditionally, factories have allowed their rollers a daily ration of cigars; but managers had little control over how much one person could consume. The Culebras is an underfilled cigar that retains its rustic ‘snake-like’ shape after it has been unbraided. This visible hallmark gave managers an ingenious method to ration and control employee consumption.
Via personal email correspondence, Tony Hyman stated, “That may be the ‘story’ but in viewing hundreds of pictures of Cuban factory workers, I’ve yet to see anyone smoking Culebras.” Nee (2003) also noted that, since the number of factory rejects far outnumbered the ration of cigars per day per roller, it would be cost-inefficient to allow the rollers to make such a specialty cigar rather than just letting them smoke the factory rejects. No doubt there were thieves in the industry, but making Culebras would not be an efficient way to solve the problem given that would-be thieves could simply make more Culebras to easily thwart a rationing system.
Nee (2003) has suggested that Culebras were considered by the Philippine cigar industry as a form of packaging rather than an individual vitola. “Culebras were created based on the theory that a thicker cigar can mature better. The Culebras was designed to enable a small ring gauge cigar to mature as well as a thick ring gauge cigar.” However, if putting small ring gauge cigars together was for the purpose of helping them mature better, then boxing or bundling those cigars in groups of 20, 25, or 50 would achieve the same purpose AND more efficiently.
The more likely answer was that Culebra was a novelty form of packaging. Based on the 1890 article in the Auckland Star, the Culebra was, “A novelty… formed of three cigars plaited together.”
The rarity of Culebras in the Cuban cigar industry demonstrates that the cigar was intended more for novelty than anything else. Even in the U.S., Hyman (2014) has stated simply, “It's a novelty, like Crooks, Flats, Bends, Immense, Bang-Tails, Pegged [all historical names of cigar brands], etc.”
Master Roller Vicente Perez of Don Vicente Cigars International remembers being taught by his father to make Culebras. He said it was not something that he remembers being rolled regularly and, thus, fell into the novelty category.
How Culebras are Constructed and Smoked
Vicente Perez explained that Culebras are made by starting with 3-4 panatela-sized cigars that are purposely under-filled to allow the cigars to be braided without cracking or breaking the wrapper on the cigars. The tobacco must be moistened more than usual so that they remain flexible and are easily braided without ruining the wrappers or the cigars.
The individual cigars are tied with a ribbon or string, placed about ½” down from the caps of the cigars to hold them in place. Then, the cigars are braided together with the number of twists in the braid being determined by the length of the individual cigars (the longer the cigars, the more twists). Once the cigars are braided all the way, a second ribbon or string is tied about ½” up from the foot of the cigars. The tying of the cigars together will allow them to retain their new shape, while aging. Some manufacturers will put cigar bands on the Culebras and some don’t, it depends on the roller or company. Some rollers will place a large cap over the top of all three cigars as a more elegant finish.
Once the cigars are aged and ready to smoke, any cap over the end will be removed and the ribbons or strings will be removed from the cigars. You can separate the Culebras and smoke each cigar individually. Although you can leave the cigars bound together and smoke them all at once, Culebras should be smoked individually and shared among friends.
It’s amazing that the cigars have an easy draw, even though they remain in their new bent shape. They may look a bit funny or interesting, but they can be a very enjoyable cigar and can become the talk of any Herf.
Culebras have been around since the 1800’s and were invented by the Philippine cigar industry as a novelty form of cigar packaging. There are several myths about how Culebras may have been used as a form of rationing and control over inventory and sales to the black market, but these stories are not well documented.
When I started out on my quest to find out more about Culebras, I was baffled at how little factual information is out there regarding Cuban rolled Culebras. I was able to find no sources that confirmed when Culebras were initially made in Cuba.
I have personally spoken to three different Cuban rollers about the Culebra in the Cuban cigar industry. Rosa Peña, rolled in the Cuban Cohiba factory (El Laguito) for 33 years (post-revolution), Agapito Torres worked in the Romeo y Julieta factory pre-revolution and Vicente Perez’ father rolled in the Romeo y Julieta and H. Upmann factories pre-revolution. None of them remember Culebras being rolled in those factories during the years they worked there.
Nee, stated that Culebras are very rare in Cuba and that, since the Revolution, only three brands have produced them: H. Upmann, Romeo y Julieta and Partagás (Nee, 2003).
I have always been intrigued with Culebras. The fact that they smoke very well, even in their bent state, is an amazing feat of the cigar rolling craft. Each Culebra, whether it’s a 3- or 4-cigar Culebra, can be separated and shared among 3-4 people. It’s like having a small, braided mini Herf ready to happen. It’s always more fun to smoke with friends and enjoy and share the flavors and nuances of a fine cigar and the Culebra provides a ready means to do so.
Some Current Regular Production and/or Limited Production Culebras
Brun del Ré: Culebra Grande (7 x 44), Culebra Pequeña (5.75 x 26)
Davidoff: Special C (6.5 x 33)
Drew Estate: Medusa (6 x 44)
Illusione: Illusione 23 “tre in uno” (6.5 x 33)
Johnny-O!: A Culebra (9.5 X 47), Culebra (7 X 44), Churchill Culebra (8 X 47), Forbidden Xtasy (6.5 X 42), Magnum (7 X 47), Gold Medal (6.5 X 42).
La Flor Dominicana: Culebra Especial (6.5 x 30), Culebra Gorda (6.5 x 38), Double Ligero Culebras (7.5 x 39) [Limited to Puff ‘N’ Stuff]
Partagas (Cuba): Culebra (5.625 x 39)
Tatuaje: Tatuaje Black, “The Old Man and the C” (7.5 x 38), El Triunfador “The Old Man and the C” (7.5 x 38)
Auckland Star (1980). Volume XXI, Issue 150, (26 June 1890), page 5.
Cigar Press Magazine Online (June, 2010). Culebra Cigars. Accessed July 6, 2014. Available at: http://cigarpress.com/Culebra-cigars
Habanos S.A. website. Available at: http://www.habanos.com/article.aspx?aid=270&lang=en
Nee, M. R. (2003). An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars (Jan. 2003, pg. 94).
Tobacconist University website. Tobacco College: Cigar Shapes & Sizes. Accessed July 6, 2014. Available at: http://www.tobacconistuniversity.org/curriculum_tobacco_college_shapes2.php
Personal Interviews (All interviews took place between June 16 and July 11, 2014)
Tony Hyman is a Cigar Historian and Curator of the National Cigar Museum. Website available at: http://www.Cigarhistory.info
Rosa Peña works at Don Vicente Cigars, Las Vegas Nevada. Rosa has been a cigar roller for 48 years. She rolled at the El Laguito factory (Cohiba) in Cuba for 33 years. Subsequently, she left Cuba and rolled at the Graycliff factory in the Bahamas for 11 years and then moved to Las Vegas and is currently rolling at Don Vicente Cigars.
Vicente Perez is owner of Don Vicente Cigars, Las Vegas Nevada. Vicente learned to roll from his father, Victoriano Perez Montego, who rolled at the Romeo y Julieta and H. Upmann factories in Cuba. He has been rolling for 30+ years.
Agapito Torres rolled in Cuba in the Romeo y Julieta factory (pre-revolution).