El Titan de Bronze. 1071 S.W. 8th Street, Miami, Florida, USA
Until this year, I’d never been to Little Havana, sticking to the glitzy art deco strip of Miami’s South Beach and its mostly big name shops. Crawling along Calle Oche in a rental car on a deserted Saturday morning, looking for El Titan, I wondered if I was in the right place. Glamorous, it ain’t. Little Havana is what you’d call ‘authentic.’ It has its own energy: gutsy, kind of edgy, but a little sleepy, too. The heart of the neighbourhood, between SW 11th and 17th avenues, is best explored on foot. Art galleries catering to tourists sit alongside Cuban cafes, juice bars, theatres, antique and furniture stores. An older generation of Cuban-Americans meet to play in ‘Domino Park’s’ brightly tiled concrete square. Wander over to the corner of SW 11th and 8th and step inside an unremarkable-looking little stucco building; you’ll find a smiling face, a strong, rich smell of cigars and if you’re lucky, a warm cup of café cubano.
Sandy Cobas and her son Willy Herrera can tell you exactly what makes the cigar shop her father Carlos opened years ago different from the others in Miami’s ‘Little Havana’ district. First, there’s the fact that their cigars are made right in front of you in the shop, by eight ‘rollers’ who make a maximum of a hundred and twenty-five cigars each a day. Second, there’s the fact that El Titan’s rollers are all Cuban. This means the Cobas family can claim their cigars are made in America but “the next best thing to real Cubans”. In the cigar world, this is unusual. It’s not like it used to be in Miami’s Cuban neighbourhood. Big companies bought out all the other little cigar shops on Calle Oche and now make their cigars cheaply and on a much larger scale in places like Honduras or Dominican Republic, where rollers work in large teams or by assembly line to manufacture between three and six hundred cigars a day, “for as little as three cents a stick!” says Sandy. At El Titan de Bronze, the Cuban cigar-making tradition and a strict policy of ‘quality over quantity’ has been preserved.
Do you know how a good cigar is made? I didn’t. Sandy tells me, while I sip the sweet hot coffee one of her cigar rollers nipped out to buy. Cigars are made up of three parts: filler, that’s the stuff inside; binder, wrapped around the filler to keep it all together; and an outer wrap. It’s the combination of leaves used for each element that make up a cigar’s blend, giving it colour, flavour, strength and complexity. El Titan’s rollers each learn a blend and stick to it, so that they acquire a specialty. Sandy takes me to a cold room at the back of the shop to see their tobacco leaves, stored in simple black bin bags on shelves with faraway exotic labels: Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador. The smell is intense and the leaves are piled high, looking nothing like cigars, just yet.
It’s not only the leaves that make up a fine cigar. The ‘draw’ – how smoothly the cigar can be inhaled, how long its ash is (the longer the better, Sandy informs me) and how evenly it burns – depends on its construction. Two tell-tale signs of a Cuban-made cigar are ‘triple-capping’ and ‘entubado’ filling. The entubado method is when the filler’s leaves have been individually rolled up into tiny tube-like shapes before they are tightly pressed together and bound. El Titan’s rollers use two binders around these tubes instead of one, to keep the cigar smooth. After the double-bound cigar is pressed into a cedar mold for at least 45 minutes, it is ‘triple-capped’: a long oval-shaped piece is sliced from the wrapping leaf and wrapped around the whole cigar; a second piece is cut in a sort of teardrop shape to fit snugly around the top end; and finally, a third little circle of a cap is cut and smoothed onto the cigar’s rounded tip with a pinch of vegetable adhesive. Triple-capping ensures the cigar cuts cleanly when you’re ready to light up. If you look closely at any Cuban cigar, you’ll see the three seams that make up this ‘triple-cap’ of wrapped leaves.
El Titan de Bronze make four basic types of cigar in all different sizes, ranging from a mild to medium ‘Titan Gold’ to their more recent ‘Redemption’ line: stronger, full-bodied cigars that have put them on the map among cigar aficionados around the world. Pictures on the wall attest to the shop’s famous visitors, from sports stars to royals. Anyone in the Cobas family can tell a story or two about some of their latest and greatest fans. Some arrive simply because they’ve spotted El Titan’s brand name on a cigar they liked the look of. Sandy tells me the business was built that way. “One comes in and then him, and then he tells the other and then the other tells the other…and that’s what we want. We get a lot of cruise people. Somebody’s smoking a cigar. They’ll follow the smell and try to see the band to see whose it is. I’ve had people that have come in because somebody gave them our cigar on the deck.”
During my visit I share the floor with a friendly group of American guys in the printing business; they’re on a ‘boys cigar tour’ to South America and while they puff away they compare cigars, watches and even guns – rather sweetly asking Sandy and I if we mind, before these are revealed. They’re keen to commission El Titan to produce a custom blend of cigars that they can brand with their company name, to give out to clients and friends. Private label production is something El Titan has done with great success for various cigar distributors, shops and other types of companies, like El Primer Mundo, We the People and Chinnock Cellars, a California winery for whom Willy chose a blend to compliment their 2006 Merlot. But Sandy says they want to keep this service limited, to ensure they fulfill their obligations to current clients. “You can’t stop doing the cigars you’ve been doing for people for years, god forbid, because you’re too busy,” she explains.
Tourists and cigar novices are also made to feel “as welcome as family” at this shop, whether they want to buy one stick or a whole box. Sandy or Willy can offer advice on what kind of cigar you might enjoy, or even the best restaurant in Little Havana. “There’s one called Versailles. You go up seventh to twenty-seventh. It’s excellent. Family-style, very reasonable. That’s like real Cuban…started in the 60s after the revolution. Can’t get more Cuban than that. And their cortadito is excellent. They have a bakery and a nice little place outside where everyone smokes, drinks coffee and hangs out.” Sounds just like El Titan de Bronze, and that’s my kind of place.