A busman’s wedding anniversary
World-renowned cigar expert Simon Chase uses his wedding anniversary as a thinly veiled cover to explore the joys of Nicaragua’s booming cigar industry
On a Saturday afternoon in September, I was seated amongst a group of aficionados in my local cigar store where “sampling” is permitted. We had discussed topics ranging from Europe’s migration crisis to the underwhelming start to the season by the nearby Chelsea Football Club. After a pause someone said, “It’s about time I went to another Festival. Is there anything special happening next year?”
Ever since our wedding day in October 1985, my wife Gabi and I have looked forward to this autumn because it promised
a major celebration for our 30th wedding anniversary. Gabi wanted a location to rival our honeymoon, which took place on the tiny, idyllic, Caribbean island of Nevis. So, last year, out came the world map. The focus fell on South America. Tour companies were consulted and itineraries came pilling in. Soon it became apparent that South America is rather large—as are most of the countries it comprises. Possible tours abounded but most of them involved travelling thousands of miles and, worst of all, catching planes, trains or buses to various must-see, tourist attractions at six o’clock in the morning. For a sedate septuagenarian like me, this was not appealing.
By good fortune, in the summer of 2014 our twin, 21-year-old daughters took a back packing holiday around Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Out of the two Central American states, it was the latter that stole their hearts, so Nicaragua became our target destination.
At this point I became strangely taciturn. All along, Gabi had insisted that our fortnight away should be a complete break from our daily lives. Contact with our offices back home should be minimal and the last thing she would permit was for me to fall in with the local cigar fraternity.
At that time I think she had a vague idea that Nicaragua grew some tobacco and maybe made a few cigars, but she was blissfully unaware that it is now the world’s fastest-growing premium, hand-made cigarproducing country. And furthermore that it was the only one of the four major cigarproducing countries that I had never visited.
I waited with bated breath to see if she could find a resort suitable for our anniversary celebrations. Thankfully she did. It was called Morgan’s Rock in the south of the country where, set in 4,000 acres of protected tropical forest, you could stay in cabins perched on cliffs overlooking a secluded beach on the Pacific Ocean.
With the destination decided, the question became how I could wangle a visit to Esteli, Nicaragua’s cigar capital, which lies in the far north of the country. My endeavour was greatly assisted by a young American couple, Colin and Andrea Ganley, who have settled in Nicaragua and started producing a high-end coffee brand called Twin Engine.
In a former life, Colin was a Uk-based cigar journalist and he and Andrea have become firm friends of both mine and Gabi’s. It was easy to persuade Gabi to visit the Ganleys, particularly because, earlier this year, Andrea gave birth to their first baby— Lucille. They live in the northern city of Leon, which is only some 75 miles (120km) from Esteli.
Very kindly, Colin offered to drive us to Esteli and show us around. So, early on a sunny Tuesday morning, he and Andrea picked Gabi and me up from our hotel in Leon. The two-hour journey took us through lush, green valleys flanked by ranges of volcanic hills—in Nicaragua there is always a volcano somewhere of the horizon. The road gradually climbed from Leon, which lies virtually at sea level, to Esteli, which has an elevation of some 2,800 feet (850 metres).
My mind turned to what I already knew about the town. Back in the late 1970s, when I joined the cigar trade, there was one cigar brand from Esteli on the UK market called Joya de Nicaragua. It was well made and enjoyed the reputation of offering the nearest taste you could find to a Havana. It disappeared in 1980 because the Sandinista-somoza civil war had broken out with Esteli as one of its flashpoints. The troubles continued throughout the 1980s as a result of the Us-backed Contra war, which once again put Esteli in the firing line because of its proximity to the border with Honduras. Peace returned in the 1990s, but the task facing the tobacco growers and cigar makers, many of whom were Cuban émigrés, to rebuild their businesses was horrendous. Sadly, they were in no condition to benefit much from the US cigar boom of the mid1990s. Undaunted, they set to work and by the turn of the century Nicaragua’s reputation in cigar circles was in the ascendant. Today the word Nicaragua is on the lips of every non-cuban or New World cigar smoker, so although I did not know quite what to expect, my visit was long overdue.
You enter Esteli along the Pan-american Highway. Both sides of the road show signs
of development. Shops, restaurants and even a brand new hotel tell the story that the town’s economy is doing well.
Our first port of call was Plasencia Tobacco S.A., where we were to meet Nestor Plasencia Jr., scion of one of the greatest of the tobacco dynasties—formerly a Cuban family, of course. The immaculate, single-storey, yellow-and-white building stretches along a wide frontage. Inside we were welcomed by Nestor, whom I have known for several years because he makes a cigar called La Invicta for Hunters & Frankau. The factory is nicknamed La Catedral del Tabaco (the Cathedral of the Cigar) because it surrounds a cloistered courtyard garden lovingly designed by Nestor’s wife. To the left was the galera, where 180 cigar rollers worked in pairs, one preparing the bunch (fillers and binder) with the aid of a bunching device and the other adding the wrapper. It’s a system I know from the Dominican Republic, but it’s very different from the Cuban method, where one roller is responsible for bunching and wrapping each cigar. Interestingly, the total output is much the same either way because, in Cuba, you can measure the annual output of factory by a rule of thumb that it takes 40 rollers to make a million cigars, and the formula works almost exactly for the 7 million cigars that Nestor produces here.
What I had never seen before was that over half of the factory’s floor space was devoted to the pre-industrial processing of tobacco. This involves the fermentation and classification of leaves that can take several years to complete. I was shown vast halls containing stack upon stack of all types of leaves gently fermenting and ageing prior to being judged ready for the rollers. I couldn’t help thinking how envious the factory directors in Cuba would be to have such a resource on site as opposed to a hundred of miles away in the Stripping Houses of Pinar del Rio. It must be more cost-effective, too.
With as much richly deserved pride as he showed in his factory, Nestor was keen to introduce us to Maria Rosa Vivas, who heads the company’s social responsibility programme. Rosa took us over the road to see the kindergarten that she runs to
educate the pre-school age children of the factory workers. But her responsibilities do not stop with education as she also helps to administrate the health programme that is available to all employees.
During the day I was to learn that most of the 56 independent cigar factories from those on the scale of La Catedral right down to some of the humble chinchales (a Cuban word for tiny cigar workshops) offer welfare packages to their workers. Nestor, who is President of the Nicaraguan Cigar Association, told me that the country’s production of premium cigars was likely to reach 120 million this year, up from a figure of around 70 million in 2007. It was heartening to hear at a time when tobacco seldom attracts positive press that so much of Esteli’s commercial success is shared with the community.
If such a thing as “the Nicaraguan dream” exists alongside the well-known American version, I was to encounter it on our next visit, which was to the factory of A.J. Fernandez. Eleven years ago, Abdel Fernandez left his family’s tobacco fields in San Luis, Cuba, and arrived in Esteli. Armed with the accumulated knowledge of three generations of his family in tobacco, he set up a chinchal with just four cigar rollers. Today, he presides over a massive factory employing 300 rollers capable of producing 12 million cigars per year. It was strange that I had never heard of this operation before, although my ignorance could be explained by the fact that much of his production goes to the US website retailer, Cigars International, to be sold under their own brand names like Man o’ War and Ave Maria. The scale of A.J.’S enterprise is impressive, and I left Esteli buzzing with excitement at what I had seen and vowing to return.
After celebrating our anniversary in the peaceful luxury of Morgan’s Rock, we had one more destination to visit, the city of Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Renowned for its cathedral, quaint colonial streets and good restaurants, it seemed unlikely to house any cigar sites of note. I was wrong. Our visit to Esteli had not gone unnoticed on the internet, so I was contacted by a young man called Daniel Brancata, who used to work at Mitchell Orchant’s Mayfair shop in London. He is now employed at the only cigar factory in Granada owned by the Mombacho Cigars S.A. Unsurprisingly, Mombacho is the name of the city’s nearest volcano and the company makes cigars under both the Monbacho and Tierra Volcan brand names. But the outstanding feature is the building in which the cigars are made.
A couple of years ago, Claudio Sgroi, a Sicilian by birth, who learnt his trade with Davidoff in Europe and Henke Kellner in the Dominican Republic, together with some Canadian investors, decided to convert an elegant early 20th century mansion called the Casa Favilli in the heart of Granada into a cigar factory. The result is an immaculate, yellow-and-white, two-storey edifice replete with a marble staircase, colourfully tiled floors and a roof terrace that is currently being converted into a cigar lounge. Claudio cited Havana’s Partagas factory as his inspiration, but I felt the atmosphere was much more like a mini El Laguito. At present, he employs 18 cigar rollers making around 300,000 cigars a year, but that has room to grow and deserves to do so.
Nicaragua is most definitely a destination for cigar enthusiasts. I would also recommend it for celebrating wedding anniversaries, but for that you have to be as fortunate as I have been in choosing my wife.