Managua. We’re still only in Managua. Every time I doze off, I think I’m going to wake up in the van.
When we returned home after the IPCPR in Las Vegas, it was even worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. All I’d do was smoke cigars, write reviews and publish them to the web. When I was in Vegas, I wanted to be home. When I was home, all I could think of was finding a way to get back to some cigar industry event.
We’ve now been in Managua overnight, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive and getting antsy. Every minute we stay here, we get just a little fatter and a little more drunk on rum. And every minute, the factories are calling out to us. Each time I look around, the walls move in a little tighter.
Everyone gets everything he or she wants. We wanted a cigar tour in Nicaragua, and they gave us one. Brought it up to us like room service…
I figured if I wanted to learn more about how the making of a cigar can make a difference in the one I’m smoking, then I should take a tour of a factory, see some tobacco fields and meet people in the industry. So my wife Brenda and I did. We spent eight days in Nicaragua, the ‘safest Latin American country’, touring three factories, experiencing the culture and the people, as well as learning about tobacco and blending and smoking cigars with the help of David Blanco of Blanco Cigars.
We landed at the Managua airport, and headed straight to the airport pool for drinks and cigars. Once the rest of our ten-person tour party finally arrived, we all jumped into a van and headed out toward Granada. We got there rather quickly, it being a mercifully short drive and David being a fairly fast driver.
We checked into our hotel, the Guardabarranca. After settling in our rooms, we walked to our dinner location. Sitting downtown in the Calle de Calzada, outside of the Nectar Restaurant, we smoked cigars and sipped rum while waiting for our food. We were drinking Nicaragua’s own Flor de Caña 7-year-old rum, which is tasty and relaxing enough that it makes you just want to sit and smoke cigars, then drink even more rum while you smoke yet more cigars.
The next morning, David parked the van in front of a great yellow mansion that had been restored and converted to a cigar factory – Mombacho’s Casa Favilli, one of the destinations on my personal hit list.
Master blender Claudio Sgroi conducted our tour of the factory. It was an entertaining and informational tour led by a most interesting man. We followed him from room to room, watching the process of creating boutique premium cigars unfold – from fermentation and leaf sorting through to rolling the bunch and pressing it, then on to the wrapper being applied.
The making of Mombacho’s high-quality parejo cigars requires multiple steps and many hands. Ensuring the end product has a smooth draw with an excellent taste is a noble goal. But these Nicaraguans strive for perfection in presentation as well. Sgroi showed us the way Mombacho perfects its cigar presentation, with skilled tabaqueros (rollers) using the accordion folding technique on the filler, then wrapping it in the binder leaf and pressing the unfinished cigar. They test the cigars for optimal draw before applying the wrappers and sorting the cigars by color. This stage of the process is followed by aging the product an additional three months.
Watching a cigar being rolled is pure joy. The necessary skill with the chaveta (a flat, rounded blade used to trim the leaves) and application of the perfect amount of gomma (pectin) to hold the perfectly smooth wrapper in place is evident, as is the quick but perfect cutting of the leaf and the achievement of exactly the right amount of pressure to ensure a great smoke. This factory even adds a stamp (with the creation date) on the back of each cigar band for aging fans.
After dinner, we got back in the van for the drive to Esteli. We opened the windows, smoked cigars, and drank rum and some beer along the way. Nicaragua has two kinds of beer, Victoria and Toña – both surprisingly tasty brands. Finally, we came to Esteli, the home of some of the finest cigar makers in the world, and checked into Hotel Los Altos. And of course, some of the die-hards sat on the patio and smoked cigars and drank rum late into the night.
David wanted to give us a more complete Nicaraguan experience. So besides the tobacco tours, he took us to not only the best restaurants, but also to the historical cathedrals and the open-air market section of town, where fresh fruits and vegetables were for sale. While we were there, we sampled freshly made tortillas with black beans and local cheese. On another night, we went to the Hard Bar, which features a restaurant and nightclub upstairs and a casino downstairs.
David managed to show us a well-rounded picture of how the people of Esteli live. But we’d also come to learn about cigars, and he did not disappoint us. From David’s tour of the Plasencia Cigar Factory and fields as well as our own blending session, we got the whole picture.
Just outside the city, he showed us acres upon acres of sun-grown and shade-grown vegas with a sophisticated watering and fertilizing system, as well as large barns for air drying the leaves and small ones for growing seedlings. If the farmers want to produce seeds, they allow the flowers on the tops of the plants to grow. However, if the plants are allocated for the harvesting of leaves, they remove the flowers early. The most interesting thing I learned about the tobacco plant is that it only produces so many leaves. Once those are picked, no more will grow.
Leaves on the plants serve different purposes, depending on what portions of the plants they grow on. Seco, which comes from the bottom of the plant, receives the least amount of sunlight and has the least amount of color and oil in it, making it a milder leaf. The middle of the plant is known as the Viso and the top as the Ligero, the latter of which has the strongest flavor. The 80 to 90-degree daytime highs and 60 to 65-degree nighttime lows in Nicaragua provide ideal temperatures for growing tasty leaves.
When I took my first step into the Plasencia cigar factory, the aroma of tobacco hit me, and it was breathtaking. The smell of fresh rolled cigars and aging tobacco, coupled with the cleanliness and provincial look of the buildings, made me realize these people are true professionals. While the factory was large and the amount of tobacco that ran through there amazingly large, the efficiency and implementation of the process were more than what I’ve experienced in the States.
Our tour guide, David, took us to the pilon room first. This is where the tobacco is aged after it arrives in the factory. The tobacco is put into hands (a group of 20 similar leaves tied together for easy handling), then stacked in pilons and rotated for even fermentation. The room is humidified in order to draw out the ammonia, thereby significantly lowering the nicotine.
Standing in a football field sized room full of fermenting tobacco is not exactly a pleasant experience. The smell of ammonia was so strong some people had to leave the room. Nevertheless, David stood and explained the aging process to the die-hards.
Quality control is paramount in cigar factories. And no aspect of this factor is more apparent than the next step – the effort to ensure there are no tobacco beetles. Each factory we toured dealt with this challenge a little differently. Regardless, the main process involved freezing the tobacco, then slowly thawing it so as to kill the beetles and their eggs.
At this point, the tobacco is still not ready to roll. After bundling, freezing and aging, it gets sorted and stripped. Much of the stem will be stripped from the tobacco leaf, leaving a small part to be used as filler while the better part becomes wrapper or binder. The leaves are sorted and sorted again by color and type.
We also got to experience a blending session where we were invited into a boardroom and seated around a table. David opened a box of ‘puritos’ – small cigars rolled from a single type of leaf, and one from each of the four regions of Nicaragua. All the varietals were created from Habano seed plants. The leaves (the seco, viso and ligero) were from Esteli, the Condega Valley, Jalapa and Omatepe. Each of the regions has its own particular kind of soil, which makes for an astonishing difference in the flavors of the tobaccos.
After sampling all the varietals, we went into a special blending room. We were there to help the owner of Tabakado Sigarenwinkel in Eindhoven, Netherlands with the blend of her house brand cigars. The master blender and the master roller were also in the room, creating cigars for us to sample. In the end, the ultimate choice belonged to the shopkeeper. But she agreed with the consensus of the group, and a new blend for her shop was born.
Our group also went through the AJ Fernandez factory – our second surprise tour. Cigar factories are designed with one thing in mind, a perfect final product – that is, perfection in the look as well as in the taste. Despite the fact AJ Fernandez creates between 10 and 12 million cigars a year (making over 40,000 daily), it still passes each and every cigar through many quality checks to ensure a good product.
When a cigar is rolled (and before the final wrapper is applied), it’s draw tested to make sure the quality of the draw is the right pressure, so the air will flow through the body of the cigar bringing with it plenty of smoke. Once the cigar is perfect on the inside, the staff perfect the outside. After the cigars have been wrapped by the rollers, they’re sorted and bundled by wrapper color, assuring that when the customer opens his or her box of cigars, the look is uniform.
The finished cigars are then put into the aging chamber, a Spanish cedar-lined room. Here, the cigars are laid down to rest in wheels (large bundles), or shaping presses for the box-pressed cigars. This procedure gives the flavors of the wrapper and the filler time to intermingle, and the cigars an opportunity to reach a consistent humidity.
The perfection process is completed in the last rooms, where workers use measuring devices to wrap the rings on the cigars (so that they are all lined up perfectly), put cellophane on each of the cigars to protect them, and wrap cellophane around each box for a finished look.
After all the touring and learning, we ended our trip with a visit to the beach. When we pulled into the Hotel Aáki at Las Peñitas, it was like pulling into the parking lot of a little slice of heaven. We checked into our room, and it had the most amazing view. Outside the sliding glass doors of our room were the pool and lounge area, a beach bar and the Pacific Ocean. It was the perfect end to a perfect vacation in an amazing country.