What an incredible night! Meeting RyJ Master Roller, Arnaldo Ovalles Bri?ones, watching him expertly roll some amazing cigars and chatting with him, sharing his experiences and wide ranging knowledge of the industry was a true treat; the truest treat a budding aficionado like myself could ever hope for.

It was a fairly quiet evening by Qba’s standards; the hip cigar lounge and Cuban restaurant located in the Westin Hotel in the heart of KL is usually extremely busy during the weekends, but as a weekday, the crowd was sparse, but lively.

Brinones set up his humble table in a corner of Qba, and he was busy the whole night, rolling, chatting, smiling, quiping anecdotes from his 17 years in the business. As the Assistant Manager of the RyJ factory, he oversees a large portion of the production line, making daily inspections of the day’s production, performing quality spot checks, and ensuring that the consistency in the factory is kept at an optimal level.

Brinones rolled a couple handfuls of 109s for me tonight!

He conceded that prior to 2000, before Altadis took up a major share of Habanos SA, Cuban cigar production suffered a sharp decline in quality control, mostly due to the increasingly significant numbers of cigars the small island nation was being asked to produce; he admitted this was a shame since 1998-1999 produced some of the most outstanding leaf in recent memory. But Altadis didn’t just bring with them investment euros, they brought with them advanced cigar production technologies, that contributed positively to the whole process chain of production and manufacturing. For example, the crop yield has been getting better and better each year when new growing and harvesting techniques were introduced. Altadis also played a large role in improving quality control of the final product — prior to their arrival, at its worst, 10-15% of the sticks leaving the factory were “poor” (tight draw, inconsistent blends, etc.). Now, especially 2003-2004, only 1-3% of the cigars are “poor”, and they have a target of 0% tolerance to “poor” cigars by the end of 2010.

I asked him what the deal was with the ELs. He said Habanos SA has been stockpiling some of its best leaf these past 10 years, and this leaf is finding its way into the EL series. Price-wise, Habanos never intended for them to be as expensive as they are now, but Altadis insisted that the ELs cater to the upper market, something “special” beyond that regular production Cubans.

The guys and me enjoying a freshly rolled Brinones!

One of his favourite ELs are the current Cohiba Sublimes; he encouraged me to get as many boxes as i can when they become widely available. I laughed and said that the price for the Sublimes was prohibitive. He laughed at me and said, “Who cares, eh, when you are smoking the best cigar Cuba has produced in 20 years!”

The gang, with Brinones and Hernandez, the manager of Qba

The evening came to a close prematurely, i felt. He was very tired (he only arrived late yesterday after a long flight), and begged to be allowed to retire. I was disappointed, but i think the 60 minutes i spent with him was a solid experience that i wouldn’t trade for anything. I’ll see him again on Saturday, and perhaps have another chance to talk to him, but i doubt it — Qba’s Saturday crowd is expected to be huge. But, certainly, that won’t deter me from trying.