Monday, February 28, 2011
After a long drive from Managua, a great day in Esteli and starting the return to Managua, what do I spot on the road? A very familiar looking box truck emblazoned with "Fells Point Meats" - that Baltimore based meat company from whom we used to source our ribs for The Ono Grill way back In The Day. Either the truck is used or Fells Point Meats has an incredible distribution area.
Sometimes you just can't escape being home...
Welcome to Plasencia Cigars.
First, My Father's Cigar. Next? Plasencia. Long a staple and fixture of Nicaraguan tobacco, Nestor Plasencia is a veritable legend in the cigar business. Way before most of the people came to Esteli, it was Plasencia and the Padron Family leading and doing their thing here.
To be honest, even though I've got a wooden Plasencia ring gauge identifier hanging on the wall of my humidor, I hadn't seen nor smoked a Plasencia cigar in many years. Yet, even though I haven't smoked a Plasencia, with 80 brands under their care, I've undoubtedly smoked something made within these hallowed walls.
Tracking the fermentation bundles.
And hallowed they are. While My Father's Cigar is modern, massive and relatively simple, the Plasencia factory is steeped in tradition. The Spanish colonial architecture is gorgeous. Large, thick wooden entry doors, tiled floors, stucco walls, tile roof and a large water fountain in the center courtyard remind you of the hacienda era with images of large fields of tobacco, white guyaberas and stylish Montecristo straw Panama hats. It is how I would like to live.
The rollers here at Plasencia can roll between 30,000 to 35,000 cigars per day, as we tour the factory, I'm offered a pre-release 5 Vegas churchill cigar. How could I say no? The churchill is large, tasty and robust.
Rotating the bundles.
We're here because Claudio The Rancher is childhood friends with Nestor's son, Nestor Plasencia, Jr. We see the fermentation rooms, the rotation and the company cafeteria. At the cafeteria I'm curious to sample what real cigar rollers eat but they're only open for lunch and it's way past lunch.
The aging room is massive and we spy a set of maduro cigars being finished aged for release. Amongst the 50 cigar bundles wrapped in paper, my cigar is pulled from the 200 count aging boxes. I fantasize about having these very 200 count boxes in my humidor back home and how happy I would be.
Stripping out the center stem.
In the rolling room, things are moving at a brisk pace as the end of the day is nearing. Rollers roll and their cigars are inspected, approved and noted on their chits for payment. Each cigar is also tested in a draw machine which ensures that each cigar allows the proper amount of air through and eliminates plugged cigars. Impressive, considering that they make thirty thousand cigars daily.
There's a hierarchy to the rollers room. The best and most senior rollers are towards the front where they roll the larger and complex shapes, like figurados. But one roller catches our attention. He's rolling a camouflage cigar taking bits of colorado, maduro and claro wrappers and pasting them together to create a literal camouflage wrapper. Like any good C.I.A. op, no one seems to know who these cigars are being made for - not the foreman, not the inspector, not even the roller himself. Rumors abound that it's a prototype for the military but reliable information seems difficult to source. Disinformation seems to be the best weapon for this cigar.
The Aging Room.
We end up in the box room. Boxes here are made elsewhere and then filled in this room. Women work diligently affixing the bands to the cigars and then lining boxes with the finished cigars and preparing them for shipment to their customers. I manage to buy a small box of Plasencia torpedos to take home with me.
As we wait in the courtyard by the fountain, someone mentions that Mike Copperman from Bethesda is also in the house tasting cigars and would I like to see him. I find Mike in their formal tasting room sampling a variety of cigars for intended purposes unknown. You know it's a Small World when you find someone from back home not only in the same country or city but in the same cigar factory.
It is a Small World. Afterall...
Maduro cigars aging.
200 count aging boxes.
Bundles of 5 Vegas cigars waiting for release.
Pressing the filler and binder.
Assembling filler and binder.
The forms for getting paid.
Testing the draw of each cigar.
Camouflage cigars - client undisclosed.
Assembling the tobacco bits for the camouflage wrapper. Amazing.
Rolled torpedo cigars - my favorite.
Pulling the pressed torpedos for the wrapper.
Finishing the torpedo tip.
Inspecting for quality.
The inspiration behind the perfect label positioning.
Ana offers a token of appreciation.
Bundles of banded cigars awaiting boxing.
Essentially the cigar cupping and blending room.
My Father's Cigar - like cigar mecca.
My first exposure to a Tatuaje cigar was back in 2004 during a trip to Hawaii and staying at The Porn King's house overlooking Honolulu. The Porn King was excited about a new cigar called the Rare Cojonu 2003. A stellar cigar, packed with flavor, spice and a nice punch. A breakthrough cigar made by relative unknown Pepin Garcia for Pete Johnson's six accounts.
Since that time, both Tatuaje and Pepin Garcia's My Father's Cigars have grown seemingly exponentially. The opening of the new factory in Esteli was heralded as the Second Coming in cigar circles and can readily be considered the "must see" factory of any cigar trip anywhere.
The Main Rolling Room.
I had originally tried contacting Pete through modern channels like Twitter but realistically, how many cigar crazies try to contact him that way. As luck would have it, during my 36 hour stop back home in Baltimore after El Salvador, The Marvin was in town from Hawaii for just one evening and wanted to know if I had time to hang out, and over dinner and cigars, we got in touch with Pete who was also going to be in Esteli at the same time.
Located just north of downtown Esteli, along the Autopista Panamericana (500 meters north of the Texaco, to be precise), My Father's Cigars rises as a grand complex on the right side of the roadway. It's cream colored buildings dominate and curious onlookers are discouraged by the armed guards at the front gate. Luckily, we're expected and with a mention of "Senor Johnson" we are whisked into the compound and directed to the main building where we're greeted by reception and the famous Pete Johnson.
Assembling the Tatuaje Filler and Binder.
After a quick meet and greet with Pepin's children, Janny and Jaime, Pete takes us to the main rolling room where the rollers can roll upwards of 35,000 cigars per day. Divide that by about 200 cigars per day and there's at least 175 rollers doing their thing.
The first thing I notice in the rolling room is something I'm not used to in the United States. Lingering in the air is a slight acridity that I can't readily identify. Then it hits me: these people are smoking cigars!
Men assemble, women roll.
Unlike The Land of the Free, smoking a cigar is encouraged here in the factory. Anyone and everyone can smoke a cigar in the building, and many of them do. In a demonstration of the Great Irony of Modern Day America, I'm reminded once again that the "freedoms" our soldiers are defending in the Middle East are actually only possible outside the United States.
Part of today's production are Tatuaje cigars for Pete. He's here on a regular basis to see how things are coming along and to play around with new ideas for cigar blends, as well as a continuing battle with a printer in the Dominican Republic and his graphic designer in Los Angeles. At one point, Pete laments the fact that he's left his laptop back home and must conduct business solely with his iPhone4. I feel his pain.
Rolled cigars ready for inspection.
Our tour of the factory goes in a "backwards" direction where we see the process in reverse, starting with the rolling room and them moving into the issue room where bundles of tobacco are issued to the rollers. Each roller receives a bundle of tobacco based on the size and recipe for that particular cigar. They're expected to produced the expected amount of cigars from that bundle and are paid based on the number of proper cigars they roll each day. Rejects are not counted so rolling correctly is a must and in their favor.
Pete's got an idea on his mind and tells the shop foreman the blend who promptly grabs a few bunches of tobacco, roughly rolls it together and then lights it up for a few puffs to check the flavor. Between Pete, the foreman and a lady who can only be called the Madrina or Godmother of tobacco, they taste the blend and ponder the possibilities.
Claudio checks out the technique.
In the next room, women grade and sort stacks of tobacco for the issue room. From there it's box assembly and filling. Here women assemble paper boxes from printers in Holland and wood from the shop out back. Surprisingly, assembling paper boxes is more labor intensive and costly than wood boxes and I wonder about the profitability of the boxes for the cigar companies.
Next to the box room is the main humidor where the cigars are stored and aged before shipping. Even in here I'm encouraged to smoke my cigar: a pre-release, fresh from the rolling floor, Tatuaje Fausto T171. It's based on The Marvin's custom for Hawaii T110 cigar that Pete made for Marvin a couple of years ago (and a favorite of the Cigar Underground) and I'm smoking one. It's got good flavor, some spice and a good body. I'm enjoying it and secretly hoping that Pete might decide that I should take a box home for more consideration and pondering...
Ana in the rolling room.
From there we depart the main building and head to the tobacco buildings. Here, the magic happens. These are rooms where the raw tobacco is fermented, aged and processed into the leaves that will make some of the great modern cigars. There's more sorting going on in one room and then we come to the fermentation room where bundles of tobacco are fermented and rotated in continuing stacks until they reach the perfect point of "doneness."
Fermentation produces heat and the bundles of tobacco are surprisingly warm to the touch. Fans and water sprayers, as well as constant rotation, keep the fermenting tobacco bundles at the desired temperature (and rate of fermentation) and prevent spontaneous combustion and catastrophe.
The Tatuaje Fausto F171 - not even on the market.
Pete tells us that the fermentation process has advanced so much over the years that they can take a bundle of tobacco and have them ready for rolling in about 18 months.
We move to the bundling area where fermented and dried tobacco bundles are placed in massive wrapped bundles and stored on pallet racks for future use. It is rumored that it were bundles just like this that were discovered in 1994 after eighteen years of storage that were used in the 1995 Partagas 150th Anniversary Cigar. Perhaps in another fifteen years, a secreted away bundle here will be found for another benchmark cigar for another generation of cigar smokers.
6 3/4" x 48 of pure goodness and The Pete Johnson.
Off of the bundle room are the rooms where the leaves are allowed to "degas". Open the door, step in and you're hit immediately with the toxic aroma of ammonia. It's so thick you think you're going to pass out. I'm not talking about just the aroma of ammonia or the hint of ammonia, this is like being dropped off in the middle of an ammonia plant during a meltdown. It's so noxious, I can barely breathe, my eyes are watering and I'm starting to wonder if I might pass out and die.
Escaping the room, I wonder just how any of these people are able to work in that environment.
To the back of the compound is the box plant. Here, wood boxes are custom made by hand. They're cut from aged Spanish Cedar planks and made into simple, raw wood boxes to screened and lacquered boxes. Today they're in the midst of making the Fausto boxes for Pete and I'm fascinated to see the process from raw wood to painted, screened and lacquered.
Off to the side are the buses that ferry the workers to and from Esteli as well as the company cafeteria where full meals are provided to every employee for a modest fee. The factory workers here are some of the highest paid and well treated in Nicaragua, meaning that there's a constant stream of applicants desiring the better lifestyle promised by employment at My Father's Cigars.
This Lady is like the God Mother of tobacco.
Back at the main building we enjoy Cuban coffees while finishing my cigar. Pete's still in the middle of dealing with his graphic design/printer crises, as well as expecting other luminaries visiting Esteli for a tour. We thank him for his time and make our departure from cigar's mecca.
I depart without the hoped-for box of Fausto cigars, but Ana knowingly gives me her T171 to enjoy later. It's a good day.
Assembling boxes for La Aroma de Cuba.
The environmentally controlled aging room.
Showing us the fermentation bundles.
Making boxes for the Tatuaje Fausto.
Screen printing the Fausto boxes.
Post tour service.
A Cuban Coffee at My Father's Cigars.
Our host describes his favorite dishes.
During our trip up to Esteli, Claudio asked me what I wanted to eat for lunch. Turns out that the factories would be closed from noon until 1pm and we might as well go for lunch too. One possibility was the place that was featured with Andrew Zimmern offering iguana, snake, armadillo and other Bizarre Foods. Tempting but since Esteli has been essentially invaded over the years by Cuban immigrants, there had to be a place offering great Cuban cuisine. Cubanitos 20-09 has to be one of those places.
Since it's a Monday, a number of the other Cuban joints are closed, directing us to the door of Cubanitos 20-09. I have no idea what the "20-09" stands for but judging by the interior, maybe they opened in 2009. As we pull up, the owner is standing there, waiting to welcome us into his establishment. He's wearing jeans and a black t-shirt reminding you that Esteli is anything buy a place that takes itself too seriously.
Roasted Chicken Dip appetizer.
The food is simple, but delicious. We start off with a house complimentary appetizer of roasted chicken dip and some Townhouse-looking crackers. It's tasty but I hold off since I know the Masa Frito is coming and going to be a big dish. We were hoping for the Lechon Asado but they only roast the whole pigs on the weekends when they bring in large crowds looking for the ultimate in traditional pig.
Claudio's cuban sandwich looks killer and I'm tempted to think that maybe I ordered poorly, that is, until our plate filled with fried pork, yucca and rice arrives. The pork is perfectly seasoned and cooked. The plate is filling and I'm glad I'm sharing it instead of trying to finish it myself. I chose wisely.
Uh-Oh - more Gran Reserva...
A little salad.
Claudio, Nicaraguan Rancher.
Masa Frito - delicioso!