Cigarticles

Cigar Paradise in Nicaragua!

J. Neil Noffsinger (Roadhawg)
Contributing Editor
 
March 21, 2011

 

Some people might argue that there are more than just three primary tobacco growing nations (outside of Cuba, that is). Still, I think most of us could agree that the tobacco regions generally recognized today as key ones (once again, not including Cuba) would be those located in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua.

A few years ago, I had a chance to visit Honduras, and experienced a great trip touring the facilities of Rocky Patel while learning about the process that enterprise employs to produce its cigars.

Because some of my favorite selections come from Nicaragua, though, when the opportunity came for a cigar tour to this particular Central American country to learn about, view and smoke some excellent cigars, I could not wait to head for the airport and start the adventure.

The basic scenario developed as follows... Mike and Nancy McCoy own and operate Mike’s Cigar Room in Conroe, Texas, and also have an interest in McCoy’s Fine Cigars & Tobacco (now managed by Mike’s daughter and son-in-law) in downtown Houston. Mike has owned several shops, having been active in the industry for over 35 years. Obviously, he has developed a lot of industry contacts. When Mike decided to sponsor a trip to Nicaragua, hosted by the Tabacalera Perdomo management team, I didn't hesitate one second to sign up. In addition to Mike, Nancy and myself, four other BOTLs made the trip. We all gathered at Houston Airport the morning of departure with high anticipation in the air!

 

Airport departure to Nicaragua

 

A smooth 3½-hour flight landed us at Managua’s Augusto Sandino International Airport. There, we joined the rest of our group, which included seven BOTLs from Columbia, SC along with their sponsor, Tom Burns, owner of Lite Um Up Cigars. We also met our host, Arthur Kemper, Vice President of Perdomo Cigars, from Miami Lakes, FL. All of us then hopped on board a school bus for a 2½-hour ride north on the Pan American Highway toward our destination in Estelí. There were several coolers on board packed with ice cold beverages, and we enjoyed great cigars the entire way as we rode past small villages and eyed spectacular scenery. Views of the mountain valleys and the volcano peak in Lake Nicaragua were counterpointed by the crazy trucks, buses, pedestrians, horses, bicycles and all other manner of distractions we encountered along the route.

 

Welcome to Hotel La Campina

 

As we gained altitude on the approach to Esteli, there was a noticeable drop in temperature. Soon, we arrived at our first destination, the Hotel La Campina, which would act as our lodging accommodation for the trip. It was a very nice little hotel with spotless rooms, an on-site restaurant where we would take all of our meals buffet-style, and a lush courtyard, not to mention a spacious seating area for lounging, imbibing adult and other beverages as well as relaxing and enjoying cigars. The helpful staff attended to our every need.

After relaxing a bit and enjoying a wonderful dinner, we adjourned to the lounge, lit up a few cigars, and got to know one another a little better. Discussions revolved primarily (surprise) around cigars! The level of excitement was high as we anticipated the tours which would kick off the following day.

 

Enjoying dinner at the hotel

 

After a delicious breakfast the next morning, we piled on the bus and headed to the Perdomo Factory. There, we were treated to delicious Nicaraguan coffee while Arthur gave us an overview of the Perdomo family history. Arthur detailed the Perdomos' relocation from Cuba and eventual settlement in Florida, the beginnings of their business on a very limited scale and, based on the success of their great tasting cigars, the start of production in Nicaragua. The business is now run by Nick Perdomo, Jr. and his management team.

After the orientation, our tour commenced with an introduction to the tobacco seed, which literally marks the start of the whole tobacco/cigar process. The seeds themselves are taken from the buds of tobacco plants in the field. The best buds from the best plants are carefully selected, and the seeds harvested. These seeds are so small that a tray of them almost looks like ground pepper. Just to put things in perspective, the screw top to a standard plastic soda bottle would hold over 10,000 seeds!

We also received an education on the general soil conditions in Nicaragua. This soil comes from volcanic lava and is extremely rich in nutrients, even before any fertilization. It is black in color and really very beautiful, but more importantly, great for growing tobacco. Soil samples are taken from each of the fields, because even though some lots lie mere yards from others, the specific soil compositions of each of them can vary significantly.

 

Seedlings in the greenhouse

 

Seeds are individually planted (in potting trays) in a mixture of special soil mix combined with other nutrients. In the greenhouse, they are then monitored every day by the head agronomist. If there are multiple sprouts, they are hand trimmed with tweezers so that only the strongest and best seedlings remain. The seedlings are watered and fertilized by a light misting operation, and growth is checked daily as part of a strict quality assurance program. When large enough (after approximately 45 - 50 days), they are ready for transplanting to the fields. The seedlings (and the plants which they will become) are cared for and nurtured as children - truly part of the family process.

 

Plowing tobacco field with oxen

 

Next, we headed to the farms to view the tobacco fields first hand - quite an experience. As we walked through many of the fields to observe the plants in their various growth stages, we were educated on the incredibly innovative technology that enables the seedlings to be efficiently transplanted from their greenhouse home out into the fields, where they are immediately fertilized and watered. The soil in the fields is initially turned over or broken with a tractor, using increasingly smaller diameter discs to produce a finer and finer consistency. After planting, the fields are plowed and cultivated using teams of oxen, because the animals do not disturb the soil or the fragile plants. Some of the plants we saw had just been transplanted from the greenhouses that morning, while other plants had spent up to 40 weeks or so in the fields.

 

Mike’s Cigar Room group surrounded by leaves

 

As you may know, the very lowest leaves on the plant, which touch the ground, are referred to as the 'sand' leaves, and are not used at all. Then, from the bottom up, there are the seco leaves (at the bottom of the stalk), the viso leaves (in the center portion of the plant) and finally the ligero leaves (the uppermost). The leaves become progressively stronger and thicker as they grow higher on the plant, with the ligero being the strongest and most flavorful leaves, as they are closest to the sun.

Leaves are harvested from bottom to top, and there are from 6 to 7 'primings' of the leaves throughout the harvest season. The Perdomo family grows practically all of its own tobacco from Cuban seed - filler, binder and wrapper. The only exceptions are the Connecticut leaf wrappers, which are purchased from the U.S. and Ecuador. On a personal note, one of my favorite sticks is the Perdomo Lot 23 Maduro. And yes, Virginia, there really is a Lot 23!

 

Shoulder deep in quality tobacco
Neil & Aristides Garcia

 

We returned from the farms to the hotel for lunch, and then went back to the factory for an afternoon session. Aristides Garcia, the pre-production manager, took us on a tour of the curing barns, where the leaves are hung after being harvested from the fields. Aristides should be an inspiration to us all. He is now 80-years young, has a great spirit with a true passion for his job, and he smokes up to 20 cigars every day. Aristides has been enjoying cigars since he was a young 15-year old in Cuba!

In the curing barns, the leaves are hand-sewn together, placed on 8-foot poles and hung on racks. The average humidity level in the Esteli area hovers around 37%, and it is measured constantly. So the barns are actually wrapped in Visqueen in order to help more perfectly control the humidity.

After the leaves are dried and have reached the perfect color, they are taken to another area, stacked in pilons and covered by burlap, where they are measured for temperature in a controlled environment. A thermometer is placed in the center of the pilon, and at various temperatures, the leaves are all removed and their positions rotated in another pilon. That is, leaves on the top go to the bottom and ones from the inside go to the outside. This repositioning ensures perfectly consistent fermentation.

During the next step, the leaves are sorted and dried in another process step, which is unique to the Perdomo brand. They are then pressed, bundled and stacked into the warehouse 'bank' until they are ready to be used. None of this tobacco will be used for before at least three years have passed, so the customer is always smoking aged tobacco!

As a final treat, Aristides demonstrated yet another of his many skills by rolling cigars for each member of our tour. The cigars had an attractively rustic appearance, their heads deftly finished off with pigtails! Aristides is certainly a man of many talents!

Tour group by the sorting bins

 

That evening, after dinner and the dessert challenge of choosing between tres leches and arroz con leche, we enjoyed more cigars and libations, and reviewed the many highlights of the day. It was a fascinating interchange between Arthur from Perdomo, with his great stories, the cigar shop owners, who were there providing their perspective, and the rest of us as consumers.

One especially interesting topic centered around Arthur’s explanation of the vertical integration strategy of the Perdomo business. Nick Perdomo, Jr. decided many years ago that he wanted to be in control of his own company’s destiny, and the process of becoming vertically integrated therefore evolved as a core strategy of his plan. There is not enough space in this article to describe the specific details. Simply stated, from growing all of their own tobacco, to processing it all themselves, to having their own salesforce, to manufacturing their own boxes, the Perdomos truly are in command of their business. Believe it or not, they even make their own cellophane for the completed cigars! In Nick’s opinion this is the only way they can be absolutely certain about guaranteeing  quality and maintaining their unbelievable attention to detail – it truly is amazing.

The real highlight of the evening was when Aristides and Tony Perdomo (Nick Jr.’s uncle) showed up to play dominoes. Without getting into the details, let’s just say that you have not experienced anything until you have seen two emotional Cubans team up to play a game of dominoes – WOW!

 

Ready for another day of touring

 

A great night’s sleep made it easy to wake up early the next morning and get things started off right, with a few pre-breakfast cigars accompanying the first cups of coffee for the day. Following an incredible breakfast of omelets, rice & beans, chorizo sausage, fried plantains, watermelon, mango and more strong Nicaraguan coffee, we were off again for the short drive to the main factory.

After yet more coffee at the factory, we started on our tour of the production facilities. To pick up on the process flow, the specific tobacco leaves are brought in from the storage 'bank' for the rollers, the torcedores (or female torcedoras), to assemble. An amazing amount of coordination is required between pre-production staff, sorters, rollers, box plant, etc. to ensure the right product is available, in the right amount, to the right people at the right moment to meet the demand at any given time.

 

Sorting takes a special talent

 

When we first entered the rolling area, all of the workers stopped for just an instant and rapped their chavetas (tobacco knives) on their work station tables. It made a heck of a noise, almost like off-beat applause. But this is the traditional Cuban way of greeting visitors in the workplace. It almost gave us cold chills, and was really neat!

We met first with Sarah, who manages the production staff. Sarah was born and raised in the cigar business in Cuba, and made her way to the U.S. after the revolution. She has a great sense of humor, and like every one of the other staff members we met, she has a true passion for and enjoyment of her job. Sarah was busy training and supervising new rollers and bunchers who will eventually be integrated into the production flow.

 

Roller, buncher & supervisor

 

We also met Gelsy, who supervises the teams who inspect, de-vein and sort leaves according to quality, size and color, and then prepare the allotments that are given to the roller-buncher teams. Production material is actually traced down to the individual leaf! At the start of each day, the teams are given enough filler, binder and wrapper leaves to roll 300 cigars, and that is the maximum number that they are allowed to produce. Again, this is a quality control decision - it is felt that if the teams produce more than this amount, their attention to detail and quality might be compromised. It is a conscious effort not to sacrifice quality for quantity, and this attentiveness is certainly evident in the finished product.

 

Every cigar is draw tested!

 

We then met Emilio, who supervises the rollers. Emilio demonstrated the duties of the bunchers and the rollers, explaining the exact details of each step. The completed cigars are then draw tested to ensure they meet specifications, and thus do not exhibit either too loose or too tight of a draw. Let me repeat... Every individual stick is draw tested!

Perdomo shipped over 12 million cigars in 2010, so just imagine the scope of that effort! At every single phase of the entire process, there are specific checks for quality and assurance that everything is being done as prescribed. In fact, at some points, there are multiple checks, and several supervisors and managers must 'sign off' before the product continues on to the next station.

One unique quality check sees each bundle of 25 cigars that comes from the rollers being weighed. If the weight is off by as little as 2 ounces, the product is pulled for evaluation to ensure there is no problem, and the supervisor addresses the issue with the rollers of that bunch.

The huge success of the Perdomo brand has resulted in a need for expansion of the operations and facilities of the company. Construction is now well underway for a new 62,000+ square foot building, which is needed to accommodate growth.

 

New building under construction

 

Our next stop was the factory where Perdomo factory personnel make all of the beautiful boxes for the finished product. Cedar timber is trucked in from the forested areas of the country, and then the hard work really begins. The huge blocks are cut into planks, which are then dried. These planks are cut down even further to meet the specs of the specific boxes for which they will be used.

Numerous stages of sanding with finer and finer grit preceed the last steps, where the cedar is actually hand-sanded to perfection. We got to see the box assembly stage, including the intricate work necessary for installation of the hinges, clasps, liners and artwork, then observed the sealing and staining process as well as the special manner in which the boxes are dried. The screen printing process and lacquering, both of which which give each box for a specific type of cigar its own personality, come next.

A final inspection is made after the individual boxes are hand polished. These boxes truly are works of art, and I walked away with an entirely different perspective on what it takes to complete those attractive containers that end up being homes to our precious sticks.

Now back to what goes into those boxes! Once the last quality inspection is made (after rolling and draw testing), the sticks go (in bundles) into the aging rooms, where temperature and humidity are constantly monitored. When the cigars meet the exact requirements, they are taken to the sorting tables. At this step, the operator sorts the individual sticks by color to ensure that all cigars in a specific box are of the exact hue. The sorter we spoke to told us there are 73 different shades of brown! She laid about 8 sticks out on the table in front of her, and then showed us how she would sort them by color - what an unbelievable job. Yes, she really can make out 73 specific shades of brown. All I could distinguish was the difference between light brown and dark brown!

The next step is to take those color-sorted sticks and add the bands to them. As in other stages, this is accomplished entirely by hand. The cigars are then cellophaned and placed in their own box for further inspection. When they reach the next station, the cigars are removed from the box as one last check for perfection. I actually witnessed an operator take a cigar out of a box, look it over, then remove it from the cellophane and adjust the placement of the band by just a fraction to ensure that it was properly placed on the cigar. The attention to detail and the resulting quality are almost indescribable.

The filled boxes are subsequently shrink wrapped and stacked in cartons, which are then loaded into a 40-foot refrigerated trailer, gradually taken down to -40 degrees, and then gently raised back to ambient temperature to ensure there are no problems (such as tobacco beetles) once they are in the hands of the retailers and customers.

Our final stop was in the small room where the cellophane is made. It is fabricated to a specific thickness (thicker than 'standard') to make sure it adequately protects the sticks and also breathes (so there is no need to take a cigar out of the cello when it's being placed in the humidor). I don’t mean to belabor the point about Perdomo’s strict attention to detail and quality, but it was very evident throughout the entire tour.

 

Neil & our host Arthur Kemper

 

With the second full day completed, we retreated back to our hotel for relaxation, chilled beverages and cigars. The highlight before dinner occurred when Arthur gifted each of us a Perdomo Commemorativo. This cigar has been in the works for over three years, and has not yet been released. But it will be coming to the general public sometime in the next several months.

The blends, wrappers and sizes for the Commemorativo are set, but the management team is still making some refinements to the band. This cigar is designed to commemorate four tobacco regions within the country of Nicaragua - that is, Esteli (where we were), Candega (to the north), Jalapa (up by the Honduran border, an area that grows tobacco with a distinctly sweet quality) and Ometempe, the fourth and perhaps most unique area, a volcanic island in the heart of Lake Nicaragua.

The distinctive tobaccos from these four areas give the Commemorativo a flavor unlike any I have experienced in the Perdomo line. This cigar is very smooth and consistent, as expected. But it also possesses a definite 'umph' factor in its strength that is very pleasant. The Commemorativo displays a nice bump in flavor, but with no harshness or bitterness whatsoever. It really is a quality cigar.

After our final dinner of the trip and several rounds of toasts, Arthur gave each of us a very special cigar, the Edicion de Silvio, from the cigar line that honors Nick Jr.’s grandfather. This is, without question, a super-premium cigar.

We waited until after dinner settled a bit and then fired the Edicion de Silvio up – Wow! This selection was the torpedo with an absolutely perfect, flawless wrapper, a smooth and creamy taste and effortless draw. Pure and simple enjoyment for an hour plus. A solid cigar with a clean white ash that held on until I was ready to discard it. In short, one of those memorable sticks that really define the cigar smoking experience. The blend and mix of tobaccos from the four regions was not revealed, but Arthur did tell us that there are only five Torcedoras in the company who are allowed to roll this particular cigar. It is truly unique.

Soon afterwards, Uncle Tony Perdomo and Aristides Garcia came to the hotel for more cigars, a sampling of 18 Year Old Flor de Cana Rum and another rousing session at the domino table. Tony Perdomo manages his own factory in Esteli, where the Perdomo Fresco line (with the natural wrappers) is manufactured. Uncle Tony even brought plenty of sticks for us to enjoy, and he took the time to hand punch them before he got there. How’s that for hospitality?

 

Evening dominoes at La Campina

 

The next morning, everyone was up early. Once again, there was plenty of time for cigars before breakfast. After yet another outstanding meal, we said farewell to the staff of La Campina and thanked them for their attentiveness and for taking great care of us. We loaded our luggage onto the bus, and made one final stop at the factory for a cigar, a cup of coffee and to say “adios” and “muchas gracias” to all of the management staff for their hospitality.

The bus ride back to the Managua Airport was uneventful, and we said our farewells to the other tour attendees as we made our way through immigration and headed to the duty-free shop for rum and Nicaraguan coffee beans before boarding our flight back to Houston.

Hopefully, it's obvious to you, the reader, that this was one fantastic trip. The experience certainly increased my knowledge and appreciation of fine cigars. And it goes without saying that the fellowship with other BOTLs is always fun.

Thanks to Arthur Kemper from Perdomo for his awesome job as host and translator, and to Mike & Nancy McCoy for sponsoring the trip. If you ever get the opportunity to take a factory tour in Central America, do not pass up the chance! It is really a unique experience.

Those memorable days were certainly filled with cigars. So, on a final note (because readers always tend to ask how many and what types of cigars I fired up), here are the Perdomo sticks I enjoyed on this tour:

Lot 23 Maduro (3) Edicion de Silvio (1)

Reserve 100th Anniversary Criollo (1) Reserve 100th Anniversary Maduro (3)

Hand-rolled by Aristides Garcia (1) Patriarch Maduro (1)

Patriarch Corojo (2) Fresco Natural (1)

Habanito Maduro (1) Commemorativo (1)

Nicks Sticks Sun Grown (1) Grand Cru Corojo (2)

Grand Cru Maduro (1) Habano Maduro (1)

Habano Connecticut (2) Habano Maduro (1)

Perdomo2 Maduro (2) Perdomo2 Natural (1)

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Neil Noffsinger (Roadhawg) is a retired sales executive from the semiconductor industry. Neil enjoys life with his wife, Gail, in Spring, Texas, where he is now an active Realtor. The ten years since his retirement have been filled with motorcycles and extensive travel to all corners of the U.S. and Canada. He has been on 2 wheels in 49 states (missed Hawaii), and typically enjoys a quality cigar at the end of the day – especially after an 800+ mile day in the saddle of his motorcycle!