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

Virtuozity - - THE HUMIDOR -

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.

Si­mon Chase with Nestor Plasencia in the clois­tered court­yard at La Cat­e­dral del Tobaco.

The huge op­er­a­tion at A.J. Fer­nan­dez’s fac­tory.

Plasencia To­bacco SA’S fac­tory in Eseli.

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