Wednesday, February 13, 2008

NHC in Esteli

When you have the opportunity to visit Nicaragua with Pete Johnson, Pepin and Jaime Garcia - you simply say "YES".

Feb. 4, 2008:

In Miami:

With a 3 hour layover in Miami on Monday morning, Pete and I were able to make it to the El Rey de los Habanos factory on Calle Ocho (8th St. in Miami) for some early morning smokes (Cabaiguan) and Cafe Cubano. I was able to meet everyone at the factory and watch the hurried pace of a dozen rollers turning out my favorite sticks, and see completed wheels being stored before packaging ... sit amidst the boxes of tobacco from Nicaragua in the back and drink my Cafe Cubano and watch the tobacco being unpacked and sorted. For an hour visit, it was enough to put a smile on any cigar lover's jet lagged face. On our drive back to the airport, Amilcar (Pepin's son-in-law) called Nicaragua and told them what time our flight was due in. Pete had him ask if they could roll some fresh Pepin Blue Label Lanceros at the factory to bring in the car for our drive to Esteli. (Like I'm gonna argue with that)

After making it back to the airport and through security once again, we approached the gate and were greated by Charlie Torano (Torano Cigars). "You on this flight, too?", he asked. "Everyone in the business must be on this flight". We rounded the corner to find owners from 4 other cigar companies (CAO, Drew Estates, Torano, Oliva) on their way to Nicaragua. The scene was like a mini-RTDA, exchanging stories and news while we waited to get a status on our late-departing flight.

We're not even out of the U.S. yet and I already felt like I had a full day!

So, we arrive at Managua airport early afternoon, and it was a generally good idea to stop at the Duty Free shop. Cuban Rum! Bought a bottle of Havana Club and Ron Varadero to take to Pepin. Byron from the Tabacalera Cubana (TACUBA) factory is waiting in a car with Blue Label Lanceros for us to enjoy on the 1.5 hour ride from Managua to Esteli. The rest of the trip begins ...

Arriving at TACUBA:
The fresh lancero is outstanding as we travel through open areas - mountains on the horizon and small towns speckling the road. Two lanes the entire route, we went from 120 kph down to 30 kph constantly, passing trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, horses and plenty of people on foot. The road was busy, but I was in another world in the back seat - picking apart as much Spanish as I could from the conversation up front. "What is the verb for smoking?", I ask. The next 5 minutes had me conjugating all forms of the verb "fumar". "Yo fumo" / "El fumar" / "Nosotros Fumamos" (I smoke, he smokes, we smoke) OK - it was probably about as exciting for Byron as counting state license plates was for our parents when we went on road trips as kids.

Arriving at the factory, a humble building standing out because of the fresh aqua color paint and Pepin logos on it, we pulled right up front to a gate and proceeded inside to find Pepin and Jaime were off to visit the farm (more on that later). Pete made his way around to greet everyone and introduce me as I tried not to let my eyes wander to the various jobs going on around me - or to the piles of fresh tobacco on every rolling and sorting table - or to the piles of fresh sticks being packaged. Hey - I have good peripheral vision - I paid attention to the introductions as well!

Pepin and Jaime were not long before arriving and I shook hands and gave Pepin the two pack box of rum from the airport. "Para tu", I said. He smiled and I hoped that what I actually said was "for you" and not something embarassing.

La Riqueza:
Straight to business at hand. Off to the office area where Pete explained the packaging of his new brand, La Riqueza. A factory manager came up with some freshly rolled sticks to taste. They were La Riqueza. I had to stop for a moment and remind myself where I was. Between the jet lag, the excitement of the day to this point, and the fact that a new product was being handed to me to taste with Pete, Pepin and Jaime ... I thought a flight attendant was going to wake me up at any minute. But I was here, in Esteli, lighting what looked like the most beautiful stick in the factory. A dark, Connecticut broadleaf wrapper (first time it is being used in the factory) encased what smelled like a cigar lover's heaven. "We're going to try a couple of different versions of this so I can make sure the blend I did last month is the right one for this cigar", explained Pete.

We did smoke many La Riqueza sticks over the next 24 hours. All I can say is that this brand is going to be hot. It's blended for the aficianado. The wrapper gives it strength and flavor and the blend is rich and complex. The name is an old Cuban brand from the 1930's. It will be traditionally box pressed in dress boxes (I saw the art for the boxes - it's beautiful - from the original artwork). Hopefully available before RTDA this year in 5 vitolas.

Obviously, the afternoon went by so fast all I can remember is smoking La Riqueza around the table with Pete, Pepin and Jaime - drinking "Coke Light" (diet coke) - and talking about the many details of the packaging, etc. Before we left, Pete asked for some fresh sticks to be rolled in a different size for tomorrow morning.
With the ends of our second cigar in hand, we left the office area, through the factory which was now being swept and no longer a bustle of activity from the rollers - and headed to the car.

Before Dinner:
Pepin drove us to his apartment where we had fresh snacks waiting and he broke out the two bottles of rum. We opened the Ron Varadero and grabbed sticks from the bundle that Pepin brought back with him. I lit it and immediately recognized it as Pepin's Black Label robusto, even though the freshly rolled sticks had a distinct flavor to them as well. We sat and talked for another hour before heading off to dinner - sticks in hand, mouth and pockets!

At the restaurant, another table of cigar business folks. During dinner, in came the Drew Estates entourage and everyone stood up again to meet and greet. Steaks and Tona (nicaraguan beer) along with freshly made frittes (fries). It was a manly feast, complete with cigars during and after.

The day has finally caught up with me. It's early. 9:30! But we're going to the factory at 7AM so I'm hoping we're heading back to the hotel at this point.

I am asleep in my humble twin bed room in a matter of minutes. It's not even 10PM.

Feb. 5, 2008:

I'm awake. Where's the hot water? What's with that funky shower head? I put it all together when I turned the water on. The shower head is a water heater. It worked well and that's all that mattered.

Byron picks us up at the hotel to go to the factory. It's just after 7AM and the place is a flurry of activity. The same as it was in the afternoon yesterday. We go upstairs with Jaime for some Cafe Cubano and in come fresh La Riqueza sticks. Much more smoking occurs. My reaction is the same. This stick is incredible. I'm now well rested. I am not day-dreaming about where I might be. I know I am sitting here and everything seems completely normal about it. Pete and Pepin and Jaime made me feel welcome from moment I arrived.

Now I can validate my first impression from yesterday. La Riqueza means "the Wealth" in Spanish. How fitting. It is a wealth of flavor and does exactly what a great cigar should do - remind you of all of the good things in life. Wealth means many things. It's not just financial. I am sitting in a humble factory in an extremely humble part of the world, and the wealth I am feeling is enough to overcome the best of us.

With more talk of upcoming Tatuaje offerings came news of three new Gaupos being released in a few months: Guapos Junior - 4 5/8 x 42, Guapos 46 - 5 5/8 x 46, Guapos RX - 5 1/4 x 50. All with pig tails and Sungrown wrappers like the current Guapo - 5 5/8 X 54. The current Guapo will be retired for now. The remaining boxes at Tatuaje will be the end of that run. I am excited about the new sizes, as the Cabaiguan Guapo is one of my house favorites, and all three sizes should prove to be spectacular.

A few hours pass and we are off to Pepin's apartment for breakfast. Eggs over bread, sandwich style, and fresh juice made with local fruit. More smoking ensues in the living room and we are off to the factory again.

Pete finds a couple of Tatuaje Black and we treat ourselves to lighting them for the informal tour around the facility. Pete takes me into a curing room where wrapper leaf is burning off the last remnants of ammonia. I almost pass out. ;-) I saw the rolling area that we've been walking through - the cold room where stacks of wheels are being stored before packaging them (about 30 days) - and the packaging room where cello is being added by hand to all of Pepin's sticks and various others.

"I need Verocu labels", Jaime tells Pete. He shows us a couple dozen boxes that are left in the packaging area. "No labels". Pete thinks about this as we finish walking around. Sitting in the front lobby, waiting for Pepin to go to lunch, Pete says "Foil. Let's put them in foil. No bands. Just foil, like the Cazadores. Good for aging." "It won't fit", Jaime says. (the next 5 minutes are a series of experiments with a foil sheet until they go to the cold room and grab a wheel of 50 verocu) "There you go - perfect", says Pete. "No problem", Jaime says and tells someone to get on it.

Over the course of the day - I talked my way into buying all of those remaining Verocu cabinets. It's perfect. It denotes the end of the East/West run of Verocu. The last few remaining cabinets will consist of unbanded cigars in foil - perfect for aging. Pete finally agreed. I hope to have them in a few weeks. Twenty some East Coast No. 2 and maybe ten West Side No. 1 cabinets. Sweet!

To Lunch and Finca la Estrella:
Pepin shows up and we head to lunch at another local establishment. Cuban sandwich for me - pork steaks for most everyone else. Who walks in? The Drew Estate entourage again! Small town. We're smoking La Riqueza again. On the patio. Orange soda in hand. We comment on what a great combination a rich, flavorful cigar is with orange soda! All agree.

After lunch we are off to the site of the NEW factory that Jaime is building up the road. There is a box factory already built and being used to build all of the boxes they are using currently. Ground has been broken for the factory building and walls are up for the two large tobacco barns that will be on the grounds as well. When finished - the entire production process will be on location there. A cafeteria for the workers - everything. And production capacity will greatly increase. We tour the box factory and the rest of the site. It's going to be beautiful. Within two years, all of the parts will be complete. Tobacco barns will be complete soon.

From the new factory site, we continue down the road to "Finca la Estrella" (the star farm). If you didn't already know, Pepin and Jaime have planted tobacco this year. Three fields. Within minutes I'm standing in a field of fresh tobacco plants, ankle high. "How long", I ask. They will be done growing in 40 days or so. Six feet high - 18 large tobacco leaves.

It's hard to do justice to the tradition throughout the factory and life of Pepin. But here at the farm - it's easy to describe. At the front, a tobacco barn is being built alongside a finished one. Traditional log and bark construction. Exactly like Cuba, Pepin says. "The tobacco needs to breathe while it's drying". It could have been steel and concrete. Probably would have been cheaper to build. But this structure looks like something from the early 1900's in Cuba. I look across the field and two ox are being steered through the tobacco plants, pulling a single blade plow to dig up the earth between the rows. (Yes, there's a John Deere tractor sitting out front - but that'll be used for something less traditional!) I approached Pepin and tried my best spanish language elements to explain how much I respected the tradition that he follows. Jaime coined the phrase "The Art, Tradition and Style of Cuba" to describe what they do. I can't think of anything better.


After spending some more time at the factory, we are off to Pepin's again for more pre-dinner snacks. Fresh Chicharones (fried pork skins) and homemade potato chips are waiting for us with the bottle of Havana Club (most of the other bottle was finished last night). Pete and I are smoking Tatuaje Black in a different vitola that he asked one of the rollers to do for us. (Please stop drooling - I did enough of that for everyone - and yes, it is just as incredible in another size) I'm staring at the chicarones thinking the are fried pork skins, but other than the snack food kind, I'd never had them. "You have to try these" is everyone's opinion. Incredible. Salty as anything, but incredible. The Havana Club is good - although the Varadero was better. 7 yr Varadero vs. 5 yr Havana Club isn't a fair comparison, though. Talk turns to Cuban Cigars. Jaime is passionate in saying that he smokes what he makes. He and Pepin start throwing out vitolas left and right - I hear "Tatuaje Regios" multiple times and look over at Pepin next to me on the couch, who appears to be repeating it like a mantra while smiling and shaking his head as if nothing being talked about could beat a Regio. I smile and and utter a simple "Si, Si, Regios y Havana Cazadores". Pepin nods in agreement. Jaime even lights up a Cohiba Maduro Robusto and passes it around, along with a Romeo y Julieta Ediccion Limitada. I have to say, after all of the sticks I've smoked in the last 24 hours, the Cohiba did nothing for me. The RyJ reminded me of La Riqueza. But it wasn't as good as La Riqueza.

This seemed like a perfect time to ask Pepin and Jaime what their favorite vitolas were in their 6 lines. Like the "Pete's Pick" sampler that I have for Tatuaje online, I wanted to create "Pepin's Picks and Jaime's Picks" samplers. They obliged. There were two sticks in common, JJ Sublime and Blue Label Robusto. I'll be putting up those 6 vitola samplers as soon as the next DPG order arrives. (I ordered all 6 lines - all vitolas!)

We all grab what we're smoking and head off for dinner again.

Back to the same place as lunch - this time I got the pork dish that Pepin had for lunch. Awesome. More Tona, more smokes. More cigar talk. No Drew Estates guys? They must be on their way.

Pete and I sat in the lobby of the hotel and finished a late night smoke. A sign nearby read "Area Fumado".

I can't explain the overload in my brain by then. There are sense memories that we gain when we experience things. Cigars, wine and food are sense memories waiting to be recorded. But nothing can record a memory like being around the raw elements: the tobacco, the grapes, the kitchen.

I'm off to bed while my brain struggles to categorize all of these memories.

Feb. 6th, 2008:

Last Morning:

Back to the factory at 7AM again. Pepin walks in and sits down in the front lobby - facing the roller's tables. He smokes and watches, with an intense look and a proud half-smile.

We sit and drink Cafe Cubano (I drink too much this morning) and smoke a few last cigars.

We head to Pepin's for breakfast again. Same as yesterday, different blend of juice. Humble. Perfect. The election results of Super Tuesday are on the TV after breakfast. Oh, now I'm starting to remember we have to go back today. It's in Spanish, but the analysis is the same as it is here. What groups voted for which candidate, etc. So complex an analysis. So cold. So very different than the last two days. I stare at the TV and I'm brought back to a world that I was fortunate to get away from for a while.

I was able to visit with passionate, humble, traditionally hard working folks for the last two days and I was right at home. Maybe that's what draws me to the cigar. I think about all of the people involved with making a single stick - from the farmer to the packaging department - the hours spent on every aspect of it. I've thought about this many times. I try to take the time to enjoy each one with the passion that goes into making them. It's calming. It's grounding. It takes us away from the hurried world we live in.

Surely, it was no coincidence that La Riqueza was a reason for the trip - because I leave feeling like a richer person. The wealth of knowledge that was shared, the wealth of tradition that I experienced and the wealth of respect that I have for Pete, Pepin and Jaime have brought me 'la riqueza'.