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Nicaragua…the new Cuba? (or why Cuban cigar smokers hate non-Cuban cigars)
Maybe I am a bit crazy, but this is a question I have been contemplating for a while. I collect cigars from every cigar manufacturing country, from all the continents that produce cigar tobacco, and as such, enjoy an incredible diversity of tobacco flavors. Where the tobacco is grown, the type of seed used, the soil composition, and climate will greatly influence the flavor of a cigar. Anyone who has tasted the floral sweetness of a fine Cameroon or the intense spiciness of a Nicaraguan Corojo can see firsthand this wonderful diversity of flavors. Yet it would seem that not all countries are created equal when it comes to cigar making.
When scouring the Internet for cigar information, it becomes clear that there are two very vocal camps in the cigar community: one that thinks Cuba makes the best cigars and all Non-Cuban cigars are garbage, and another that feels non-Cuban cigars can rival the best products Cuba has to offer. There are many theories about the origins of this rift and this author would like to offer a few of his own.
“Often imitated but never equaled”
That’s an advertising line we’ve heard over the decades and typically for advertising, is an overstatement. Yet, when it comes to Cuban cigars some people are willing to go down fighting in defense of this credo. Most cigar smokers already know this passionate pastime originated in Cuba, and that it was the legendary Christopher Columbus who brought it back to Spain, igniting a worldwide passion for cigar smoking. For centuries, Cuban tobacco farmers have been cultivating tobacco in an ecosystem perfectly suited for their crop. The confluence of rich volcanic soil, plus optimum temperature and humidity, created a natural hothouse for growing tobacco. But more than simply a commodity, cigars have given the Cuban people a deep cultural heritage that has lasted through the millennia. Families handed down, generation to generation, the art of growing, curing, and rolling the product that has now become syonymous with Cuba itself.
Around the time of the American Civil War, American farmers were growing their own tobacco and rolling cigars to fill the need of local people living in the area. In Adams County, Pennsylvania, so many families were rolling and selling cigars that one could buy a cigar from almost any house on the street. On the face of what looked like a good thing for local smokers, if the truth be told, these cigars were barely smoke-able. Poor curing led to a harsh smoking experience that only the desperate could enjoy. Compare this scenario to Cuban farmers who had, centuries before, perfected the techniques to produce cigars of outstanding quality. This is not to say that all American cigars were terrible. Around that same time, Ybor City in Florida was alive with cigar manufacturing and turning out vast numbers of quality cigars. But the companies in the town near Tampa had an edge over their Pennsylvanian counterparts…Cuban tobacco. So, even though these were American made cigars, the truth is they were made from 100% Cuban tobacco and rolled in the US by torcedores imported from Cuba. From this perspective it is easy to see why non-Cuban cigars were well on the way to getting a bad reputation.
Now fast forward to 1963. American president John F. Kennedy places an embargo on Fidel Castro’s Cuba and with the stroke of a pen, declares it illegal for Americans to posses Cuban cigars. NOW WHAT?! As a footnote, just prior to signing the document to impose the embargo, it is believed that President Kennedy ordered his Press Secretary Pierre Salinger to stockpile as many Cuban cigars he could get his hands on. The unofficial estimate was a bounty of 1,200 H. Upmann Petit Upmann cigars.
“In search of a new land…”
The US is the worlds largest consumer of cigars and the embargo had created a void that needed to be filled. Luckily many Cuban tobacco farmers could for-see the communist revolution and sought refuge in other countries with tobacco growing potential. With seeds smuggled from their homeland, Cuban growers expatriated to countries in Central America, North America, South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. All in search of a new start.
Yet it was not just farmers who sought new possibilities beyond Cuba. The revolution also created potential riches for savvy businessmen. While some people carried seeds with them, others carried Cuban cigar brand names as well. The giant cigar conglomerates, General Cigar and Altadis, set up operations outside Cuba and started producing cigars with some of the same names as Cuba’s best brands: Cohiba, Hoyo de Monterrey, Bolivar, Macanudo, Partagas, Punch, to name just a few. But producing cigars that could compete with Cuba’s best has proven more difficult than simply stamping them with the same name. This is at the core of the Cuban/non-Cuban cigar controversy. There is little doubt in any experienced smoker’s mind that when a Cuban cigar is compared to its non-Cuban namesake, the Cuban will win, and by a huge margin. Although both cigars use Cuban seed tobacco, they are grown in nutrient-rich soil in similar climes, and are rolled by qualified torcedores. The missing link for the conglomerates seems to be that fact that they ARE conglomerates.
To a worker in a large company, work is a job, but for a small family-owned tobacco farm it’s a passion. Along with that comes a commitment to excellence and a proud heritage passed from generation to generation. This translates to extra care in growing, fermenting, blending, and rolling a product that bears the family name. To them it’s not the bottom line that counts, but rather the customer’s satisfaction. These Cuban families have a mandate and tradition to which they must be faithful. It’s a matter of their personal and national pride to make the best cigars in the world. However, with a cigar boom on the horizon, some manufacturers would choose quantity over quality.
“Too much of a bad thing…”
During the cigar boom of the 1990s, two things happened, both bad. Some cigar companies on and off the island of Cuba wanted to capitalize on the huge increase in the numbers of cigar smokers. In order to meet demand, opportunistic cigar companies increased production beyond their capacity to produce a quality product. Cigar companies were springing up out of nowhere with fancy packaging that belied its inferior product. Cigars were being rolled by unskilled hands, using under-aged tobacco, and in some cases, produced by companies that had no business being in the game. In Cuba, aged tobacco became scarce and the use of under-cured tobacco caused the taste of the cigars to suffer. Additionally, unskilled labor was used to meet demand and produced cigars rolled so tightly that the cigars smoked like bricks, with absolutely no draw at all. The once proud kingdom of the Cuban cigar was crumbling under the weight of its own greed.
It’s hard to say whether the cigar boom ended because people were tired of smoking bad cigars, or because the boom was itself just a phase. Whatever the reason, out of the ashes of that time rose a new breed of young cigar makers who have now come of age. Over the last twenty years, expatriated Cuban tobacco farmers and other entrepreneurs have worked long and hard to create a product that could pay homage to the glory days of Cuban cigars. Additionally, by that time high quality Cuban seed tobacco had begun flourishing in other countries tended by hands with generations of experience.
“What’s in a name…”
The name Padron is no stranger to accomplished cigar smokers. Padron represents not only some of the finest cigars made today, but also the triumph of the human spirit over tremendous adversity. Prior to the 1959 Cuban revolution, Jose Orlando Padron, the patriarch of the company now baring his name, grew up in the fertile farmland of Pinar del Rio in Cuba. Working the family-owned tobacco farms as a child, Jose learned the business literally from the ground up, and understood that fighting the elements as well as a repressive political regime would require perseverance and patience. His family owned vast farms on the island and sold processed tobacco to cigar makers in and out of Cuba. Filler, binder, and wrapper were all processed depending on the seed type and the needs of the customer. Luckily, Jose could see through the empty promises flowing from the lips of Fidel Castro and knew a communist dictator would soon rule the country he loved so dearly.
Another Cuban expatriate was Angel Oliva. Having formed the Oliva Tobacco Company in 1934, his Tampa Florida business had been dependent on tobacco imports from his farms in Cuba. The Cuban revolution and subsequent embargo would cause a supply deficit that needed to be overcome. This led him to land purchases outside of Cuba and to start growing Cuban seed tobacco in various Central American countries. (As a side note, the Oliva Tobacco Company is not related to the Oliva Cigar Company, which was started by Gilberto Oliva Sr. and has no connection to Angel.)
Although both Padron and Oliva were able to continue their crafts after the revolution, the fact was Cuban tobacco had a particular character that was unattainable with the product currently available. As it would happen, each would independently discover a new tobacco-growing region, one that could finally compete with that of Pinar del Rio. This was the Jalapa Valley in Nicaragua.
Until this point, Nicaragua was quietly producing tobacco of good quality that was finding its way into cigar blends. Yet the tobacco of the Jalapa Valley had yet to be exploited. In 1967, a Nicaraguan tobacco merchant approached Jose Padron with a sample of Jalapa tobacco. He was so impressed with the sample that a trip soon followed and so began a new beginning for Padron Cigars. The richness of the volcanic soil and climate showed potential to be as good as the best growing regions in Cuba. Samplings of Jalapa tobacco would soon start a migration of growers that would signal the beginning of a new paradigm for cigar manufacturing. Setting up production facilities in nearby EstelÃ, established cigar families and young cigar entrepreneurs would find the perfect environment to spark their dreams. This small Nicaraguan town would ultimately develop into a hub of cigar manufacturing.
“The spice of life…”
This is where the Cuban/non Cuban discussion gets interesting. (Again, this is only a theory so please don’t get too agitated about it.)
“There is nothing like a Cuban cigar.” Anyone who has ever smoked a good Cuban cigar knows this is true, and those who have not are probably pretty sick of hearing about it. There are many things that make a good Cuban cigar special: centuries of experience, perfect climate, rich soil, experienced farmers, and the fact that they are the standard to which all others are judged. But over that past decade, the non-Cuban cigar has taken giant steps towards claiming its rightful place in the pantheon of cigar history. It is no longer a matter of one cigar being better than another, but rather a preference of flavor. Each cigar manufacturing country has its own unique flavor characteristics and within each country lies regions that contribute unique tobacco flavors. The same genus of tobacco if planted in different locations will produce a distinct flavor dictated by its locale. But this article claims that Nicaragua is “the new Cuba”. How would one country above all the others, be better suited to compete with the island synonymous with the cigar itself?
Nicaragua has a unique geography that has allowed a particularly wide variety of tobacco flavors to exist. The region near EstelÃ produces exceptionally strong tobacco with an identifiable spicy component. This tobacco is so recognizable that an experienced smoker will taste it when used in a variety of cigar blends. Additionally, the regions of Condega and Jalapa contribute their own identifiable characteristics that give the Nicaraguan blenders a wide palate of tobacco flavors from which to choose.
Other countries have regional flavors as well but the Nicaraguan tobaccos are so distinct as to have created a more identifiable personality. This is where the comparison to Cuba becomes apparent. Both Nicaragua and Cuba produce puros (cigars with tobacco from only one country), that when smoked will reveal its country of origin. To some extent, this is true for other countries, but in this case the regional character of the cigars is more pronounced. So strong is the personality of Nicaraguan tobacco that when used as part of a multi-national blend, it will add a component that will contribute a disproportional degree of flavor. Much like pepper will add a singular flavor to food, so will tobacco from Nicaragua when used in a cigar blend. Also, the quality of construction in Nicaraguan puros has out-paced that of Cuba. While Cuban cigars have fallen in this regard, many companies that produce Nicaraguan puros have set up shop in Miami to employ torcedores from the local Cuban immigrant population. This has resulted in a construction quality that is unsurpassed by any other cigar manufacturer, Cuban or otherwise.
“Necessity is the mother of invention…”
Through hard work and inspiration, the current group of independent cigar makers has accomplished something extraordinary; to produce cigars that match or exceed the original Cuban archetypes. While Cuban cigars will always be the standard on which others are judged, the product has remained virtually unchanged over the decades. That’s not a bad thing. Cuban tobacco has extraordinary qualities that newcomers are trying to imitate. But in this endeavor a generation of young cigar makers has created a healthy competition amongst themselves. The resulting innovations in cigar blending and construction have created new flavor profiles, vitolas, and strengths that have expanded the smoker’s palate.
At the heart of this taste revolution, Nicaragua has forged the foundation from which many bold new blends have been built. Its rich, spicy tobacco has become the trademark of a new generation of cigars that can now take its place as a true alternative to the Cuban cigar. Greatness can often be judged by how influential its presence is. While the Cuban cigar has been the wise grandfather of the industry, it is now its progeny who have taken the plow and forged a new direction, one that will impact cigar manufacturing for generations to come.
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Reprinted by permission of the author.