The 21st Edition of the Habano Festival was held in Cuba on 18-22 February 2019. Since 2018, the festival includes the Habanos World Challenge Contest, a global contest awarding the team demonstrating the best knowledge of the Habano’s world. We wrote about the contest last year, but how do you become Habanos World Challenge champion?
This year, teams from Cuba, Cyprus (2018 winner), Italy, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates passed their respective country contests and competed for the elimination round in Havana. After their good placement in 2018, this year the Italian team, composed of Giulio Amaturo and Aurelio Tufano triumphed by beating the fierce competition of the Cuban team.
It was like competing for the football world cup against Brazil in Maracanã or against England in Wembley, with all Cuban supporters against us.
In this article you can read about the 2019 champions’ motivations, inspirations, learnings, what’s more important and what less when preparing for the challenge and more.
The elimination round and grand final are articulated in different tests: a duel with timed answers to questions on various themes, the blind tasting of cigars and spirits and #myuniquehabanosmoment, in which the participants present to the jury a cigar / drink pairing in an atmosphere of emotional and sensory involvement. The Italian team presented the pairing of El Rey del Mundo Choix Supreme with a Passito Erbaluce di Caluso.
Admittedly, some patriotism motivated me to write this article, but not only that. Aurelio and Giulio are not only Italian, we earned our Catador diploma and attended the classes together a decade ago, and we are members of the same club, Puromotivo.
I wanted to know about their motivation and preparation more than about how they celebrated their victory. Anyone who follows them on Facebook knows a lot about what they did for the latter, and they are still busy with it. In addition, I asked a few questions to Giuseppe Elefante, who flew to Cuba with Giulio and Aurelio to coach them in his role of Master of Habanos Academy (Diadema SpA). He also prepared all the tests for the Italian preliminary round and is part of the national jury.
What made you decide to participate to the Italian preliminary round in the first place?
“La Disfida (aka Habanos World Challenge Italy) is a competition we have immediately been interested in. Turin has a good tradition as our club won the very first duel, when the format was not yet defined as it is today. We like to confront ourselves and learn, and we are proud of having met the objective. We had fun and now we know much more, considering all the further study we put into this.”
What has been the journey that led you to reach this result?
“We attended one of the first Catador courses in Italy, the very first one in Turin, and are certified catadores. This was a class that produced a beautiful brood, considering that many of our classmates, like you, are active in the cigar industry. We also graduated from the Habanos Academy, Junior level, which is the only one available to consumers like us.”
In addition, Giulio has been Onav taster since 2012. Onav is the Italian wine tasters’ organization.
“All these learnings open the doors to a wide variety of worlds. They need to be explored consistently and with humility. They are only the first step of a collective journey that becomes individual, made of tastings, tests around Italy and the world, research in books and, above all, smoking and drinking with awareness.”
When Aurelio started, there were many new members at the Puromotivo club. Initially curiosity was great and the only source of information were the exchange of experiences.
“The catadores classes and the Habanos Academy were not available yet. That was the most prolific moment, with confrontations and experimentation. This all helped me form my knowledge in this world, which I am still exploring and trying to understand.”
“We belong to two clubs here in Turin, which roll into the national CCA network” (Cigar Club Association).
Giulio goes to Cuba regularly, also because his wife, Zulema, is Cuban.
“I want to thank her for the support she gave me in these months. Her help was fundamental for the preparation of our #myuniquehabanosmoment. As I land in Cuba I visit the Casas de l’Habano, starting from the Partagás factory. I repeatedly visited factories and vegas in Havana and Pinar del Rio.”
Aurelio went to Havana 3 times and states: “thanks to friends and exchange of information gathered in Italy I could hit the targets. Since the very first time I could access locations, areas, tiendas. With a normal self-taught path this would have taken much longer.
We think that the most important thing is curiosity, the quest for understanding and deepening your knowledge. In the world of our beloved cigars, especially in the case of habanos, it’s simpler, as deepening the topics means smoking many of them, in Cuba!”
How did you get ready for the world elimination round and final?
“We studied a lot and did a lot of other things. The HWC is a very eclectic competition. You need to know a lot about cigars both at theoretical level and at practical level.” According to Giuseppe, it’s a complete mastery of all the phases of the production process as well as extensive experience gained in the field; a considerable mnemonic effort is also needed to remember dates, launches and events of particular interest in the history of the Habano. “You need to identify a cigar, its strength level, the aromas… (during the final competition we correctly identified 3 of 3).”
“But to win this is not enough: you need to know drinks and food for the pairings, have a good degree of imagination and confidence because one of the fundamental tests is #myuniquehabanosmoment, the presentation in the form of a theater scene, of a moment of appreciation of the habano and of the spirit.
Furthermore, you need to have a good language knowledge, as in the contest the official languages are Spanish and English. You need to be calm and physically strong. In fact, during the final you could cut the tension with a knife and even the easiest things seemed difficult. The final occurs at the end of a strenuous week during which we did not sleep a lot.
Last, but not least, the synergy and complicity of our team were key. It may be chance or maybe an aptitude raising from our common passion. We immediately understood we were on the same page. Within seconds we had the same thoughts and we developed them spontaneously.”
Giuseppe added: Aurelio and Giulio had to overcome particularly selective eliminations. The elimination test carried out in Italy is designed to whip the participants and prepare them to face even more severe tests: for this reason the questions prepared for the Italian competition are always very difficult, sometimes fierce, even cryptic. Our boys, however, presented themselves to the final with an enviable cultural back-ground and with an extraordinary determination. The final test provided only an essay of their profound preparation, and their victory best testifies to the cultural growth that characterizes our country. Aurelio and Giulio represent the clearest expression of the Italian enthusiast: competent, cultured, curious, always looking for useful information to better understand the world of cigars. We are particularly proud of their splendid performance.
What would you recommend to the aficionados planning to participate in future contests?
“We recommend to study the current rules. Some things are more important than others. Take time to rehearse the #myuniquehabanosmoment and to identify a message to be pursued with clarity. It is a multidisciplinary test: speed in reacting and ability to adapt to situations are of extreme importance.”
Giuseppe said: “Those who decide to tackle this challenging competition must be ready to make substantial sacrifices. Preparation requires time and dedication because the subjects of study are numerous and complex; moreover, it is necessary to have a deep familiarity with the Cuban vitolario in its entirety, since the blind tests represent a rock that can be insurmountable for those without sufficient experience. The role of the distributor and the support it offers are of fundamental importance. Diadema has always been present and attentive both in planning the format, right from the preliminary stages, and in operational support for the team that played the final. We think that feeling this closeness is important for the team, especially in topical moments, where the tension is really very high.
Diadema was present at the HWC with his vice-president, Miguel Angel Eusa Mendia, who closely followed each stage of the contest ensuring the team all the support possible in a climate of great participation and enthusiasm, while I played an absolutely marginal role as consultant and supporter. I was delighted to be present at this extraordinary victory as a representative not only of Diadema but also of Alto Salento Cigar Club whose President Nicola Pileggi was the creator of this exciting format. For a series of unfortunate circumstances both he and Andrea Vincenzi, President of Diadema, could not savor this beautiful victory, of which they are undoubtedly craftsmen.”
What were the best and the less good moments?
“With no doubt the most beautiful moment was when we learnt we had just won, in Rome and in Havana. The adversaries were very competitive and in both cases we thought we did not make it. Without being rhetoric, the moments with the other teams were great. We promised the other Italian teams we did not defeat them in vain, we told them we were bringing a little bit of them to Cuba. We believe we did so, “stealing” some of their good ideas.
The less good moments were when we discovered something new in the competition. We spent the evening before the final to rehearse something that was totally unknown to us until the afternoon. Also, we did not feel good when we made some avoidable errors due to the stress.
Luckily the good moments were far more than the others. We felt very supported by all Italian friends in Italy and abroad.”
“Viva l’Habanos World Challenge !”
When thinking of government agencies struggling to differentiate between premium cigars and other, more industrialized tobacco products, one key question comes to mind: would cigarette consumers do all this in the name of the cigarette culture? I searched and could not find any analogous cultural event. What do you think?