Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My Father Cigars Factory Grand Opening Celebration - Esteli, Nicaragua

28 Aug, 2009

In an industry known for it's work ethic - there is a time for hard work - and there is a time to celebrate. This weekend of 29 Aug, 2009 was a time for the latter.

Although the new My Father Cigars factory in Esteli was already in full production for a short while, the Garcias invited their family of clients to join them for a gala celebration. In turn, their clients invited some of their clients - and so I and a couple of other retailers were lucky enough to join in the festivities thanks to Pete Johnson of Tatuaje.

Having made the trip to Esteli to visit the old Garcia factory, I knew a few things to expect during my travels - but as any good story goes - I could never have written the events as they transpired without looking back on them.

My flight to Miami to pick up the first of two flights to Managua on Friday had to be booked on a separate itinerary. This is bad travel mojo, I know, but the arrival in Miami was too close to get booked the whole way through to Managua. Basically, I had an hour between flights. If on time, this shouldn't be a problem. At least I thought. I argued to my inner critic that the Managua flight was always late anyway. What I failed to remember was that the flight from Columbus to Miami was on a commuter jet that taxi'd to the tarmac instead of a gate. I realized this as we arrived 10 minutes later than expected and the announcement inside the airplane said that a bus would take us to gate D38. I hurried to find the layout of Miami airport in the airline magazine.

Once we came to a stop I turned on the iPhone and texted Pete. "What gate". "E11 - did you land?" came back seconds later. I didn't know it at the time, but they were already onboard. In what seemed like an eternity, we sat on the plane waiting for our carry-on luggage to be unloaded before we were allowed to deboard and scramble to the bus that had pulled up to take us to D38. D38 to E11, I was told via text, was a 10 minute walk in the airport. "Run ... Very Fast" was the next thing that popped up on my phone. By the time the bus was loaded and we slowly made our way to the gate, I was sweating with panic. "No way to make it in time - they have to be boarding already", I told myself. As we approached the gate I received, "You have until 10:50 to make it to the gate - RUN". It was 10:45 when I was the first to sprint from the bus, head-on into a locked glass door. After it was opened, I took off. I had NO idea how to get to E11, only that I could see the E terminal stretching to the right in my peripheral vision.

I don't remember the next 5 minutes. The O.J. Simpson commercial from my youth flashed through my head - but I had to block it out because I was now laughing at myself - 6'4" / 240 wearing R&R jeans that were not made for running and being in no way similar to the graceful running back that jumped over the terminal benches with just a briefcase in his hand. I had a duffle bag bouncing from my leg to the unfortunate travellers that I passed while luckily making only one wrong turn in the maze of airport hallways. I arrived at the E11 gate at 10:50 - panting and sweating - with a look on my face that obviously read "I am too late ..." The airline attendent had closed the door already and was printing the travel log of passengers. But they knew I was coming - so I was very lucky.

I got on the plane - said my Hello's to those up front in Business Class - still in a sweat and daze from what just transpired. As I made my way to my seat in the back - I couldn't wait to fall asleep. I was out. Apparently, I missed John Gonzalez (VP of sales) coming back to say there was room up front and to come on up. As he later explained, 'I wasn't about to wake you up - you're a big guy'. A quick flight later, I was awake and landing in Managua.

By the time I made my way through Customs, almost everyone that was on the flight was waiting in front of the Duty Free store. Taped boxes at their feet, introductions began and I realized that there were a lot of people on the flight heading to Esteli for the event. Pete and Andy were joined by two other retailers, one of which handed me a boxed Cohiba Siglo V. Ashton, E.O. Brands and others were all represented in the crowd as well as the Garcias. Siglo's were cut in our group and waiting to be lit. We made our way outside to wait for two buses (vans) to pick us up for the long trip to Esteli. Pete said "I've got a bottle of Havana Club rum for each of you". Siglo in hand, now lit, and still spent from my trip through the airport, all I could think of was opening mine.

Before we piled into our bus, someone mentioned that we should have picked up something to drink on the ride. There were 12 of us on our bus, with another 10 or so in the first van. Stuck in traffic trying to leave the airport we joked that we had a box of rum at least. I offered up mine and said "We'll have to pass it around old school - no glasses". A minute later we are cutting the tape from our box of rum in the back of the bus and we pull out a bottle of Havana Club 7 year. After a ceremonial pour on the ground to honor those who have passed before us (or to Mother Earth - both worthy traditions for consumption of libations), the bottle began it's first journey from the back of the bus forward. By the time it returned, more than half was gone and we were still making our way from the airport. Before we left Managua, it was gone.

The Rumbus had begun. It's a long drive from Managua to Esteli (150 km, much of which is slow travel) and before we knew it, another bottle made it's way from box to ceremonial pouring to consumption. The Rumbus continued - stories were pouring from those onboard - a few songs broke out. A bundle of cigars appeared and was passed around the bus. My Father Le Bijou, unbanded and fresh from the drying room. This was going to be a memorable journey.

Half way to Esteli, a traffic jam stopped the van in front and they got off to bring us bottles of water and find out what was going on behind them. Everyone stretched a bit and we picked up at least one new passenger who transferred from the van. I don't think we lost any in trade. The sights of the Nicaraguan road that I remembered from last year swept by and were replaced with the Rumbus onboard. This was the beginning of a group that is used to working hard all day, every day, relaxing in celebration.

In all, the Rumbus consumed what I think was four bottles of Havana Club, finally breaking into the 5 year variety. By the time we arrived at Los Arcos hotel in Esteli, we were all ready for some food! After dropping off our bags in our assigned rooms, everyone met in the restaurant for much needed grub. A few continued with some local libations, Tona cerveza and of course, more rum - although at least mixed with Coca-Cola. Another bundle of cigars is passed around the table. Unbanded robustos from the drying room. Everyone takes turns guessing what they are.

"Bus leaves at six" for the factory. It is now early evening and the sun is low. A group of us stand outside the restaurant on the corner, smoking cigars. The vans are boarded and we are off for the factory.

It's almost dark even though it's early. The My Father Cigars factory is only a couple of miles down the road. We pass the old factory, Tabacalera Cubana - and arrive at the gates of a modern complex many times it's size. Security opens the gates and we drive past two buildings on the grounds, each of which are many times the size of the old factory. And they are only a few of the buildings on the campus. In the back is our destination - an outdoor pavilion where lunch is served each day for the workers. A DJ is set up as well as a table full of ... well ... rum and other drinks along with some more appetizers. Groups break off and mingle. Music is playing in the background. Brand owners and factory representatives and clients are all sharing stories, but the business talk is at a minimum. This seems like a time to simply rejoice in the entire business of cigars and the passion that exists in everyone here.

Pepin arrives to much applause and it's only a matter of minutes before he picks up the microphone from the DJ. I'm thinking he may say a few words. Instead, he breaks into song - is joined by Erik - and the mood is set for the rest of the evening at the pavilion.

We are joined by Colin from European Cigar Cult Journal and Manny Ferrero from Ashton, both of whom shared stories and listened to ours. Talk turned from business to cigars to food to travel to life in general. "Enjoying life is an art" I state - it's a line from a one-man show I wrote - and it's apparent here. I turned 45 just a day ago and among the many birthday wishes still this night, I am feeling fortunate to be at this place at this time.

By the time we got back to the hotel, I was more than ready for a night's sleep.

29 Aug, 2009

Morning came early as the time difference is two hours from Eastern time since they don't do Daylight Savings time here. The room is quiet and I'm happy for a warm shower. There's a breakfast buffet waiting with coffee and I pack a cigar in my pocket and head through the lobby to find the food. Kickstarted with coffee, converstation and much needed breakfast - we are told that we are going to the factory at 11. We gather outside for a morning smoke and discuss, among other things, what to wear. Hey, we didn't know what to expect at the factory today and being told 'nice casual' could mean anything.

The bus and van were filled this morning, and we were some of the first to arrive at the factory, which was now glowing in the daylight sun. The flags of Nicaragua and Cuba both flew high in front of the buildings. A line was forming outside to sign the guestbook and enter the lobby. Inside, Pepin and Jaime Garcia were there to greet each guest with a proud grin. The lobby was decked with leather chairs and a My Father Cigars mural and photos on the walls. We were handed a wood case that housed a 3 pack of My Father cigars and headed down a hallway to a large, open room filled with seating for the ceremony.

This room was actually the rolling room. Everything was moved out and replaced with infinite rows of seating for the opening ceremony. I'm not sure how much bigger this room is than the old factory, but many times over is what I'd assume. A long table is set in front with a podium for the speakers. People begin filling the room. The factory workers are filing into the second half of the room and other guests are filling the seats in the front.

In search of water, Pete returns with another unbanded cigar from the drying room. "What's this?", I ask. "Just smoke it", I'm told with a grin. Is this La Verite, I wonder? As I was lighting it, I heard Andy talking about it. Yes, it was. I had smoked L'Esprit de Verite (the robusto version and a slightly different blend), but had yet to see this one. Excitement filled the first puff of smoke and for the next few minutes I don't even see that the room is filling up rapidly. Although it won't even be ready until late next spring, this cigar is intoxicating. They are currently resting in boxes of 500 in the drying room. Containing only leaves from La Finca Estrella, Pepin's first farm that I got to visit last year, and all from the same crop in 2008. These were the plants that were but a foot high when I visited - and now they are the sole component in this cigar. The smoke is already complex and will last us through the entire ceremony.

The ceremony lasted about an hour, starting with the introductions of the Garcia family and the others seated at the front table, including a priest who would bless the opening of the factory. Each spoke in turn, beginning with the blessing and ending with Jaime Garcia. Between speakers were traditional dances performed by local dancers and songs performed on classical guitar. We stood as the anthems of Nicaragua and Cuba were played. Jaime and Janny Garcia danced and Pepin joined in. Although the entire ceremony was in Spanish and many of us were not able to translate it all - the overwhelming feeling in the room was that of a very humble pride. Tears could be seen at the front table as the priest blessed the factory and as the family members spoke. And laughter and smiles dominated the interludes of music and dance.

After Jaime spoke, he and Pepin headed for a side door that had been adorned with a yellow ribbon for the ceremonial cutting. Those with cameras swarmed to the door as well as the local media. The ceremonial start to an already successful venture.

Pepin lead the cameras on a tour of the many buildings on the facility with John Gonzalez close by interpretting in English. We were lead through the many structures that make up this self-contained factory. Every aspect of making a cigar is covered here. From the storing and curing of tobacco, to the stripping and sorting of leaves, to rolling and banding and even box making - everything is here. The buildings are huge and capable of much more capacity than is already utilized in all that is stored there.

At the end of the tour, we arrive at another large bulding that usually contains the sorting and banding tables. They have been removed to set up for a luncheon in grand style.

Adjacent to this room, is the drying room and after we pick a table to settle at - Pete finds someone with a key and takes us in for a peak. The Verite cabinets are stored high when we first walk in. Rows and rows of shelves are filled with bundles of 50 cigars, each with a label that must mean something to those involved. Pete searches for another upcoming release, the monster coming this October - the Drac. We follow in anticipation and wonder how he's going to track them down in this maze. With a little help, he does - and hands us each one. Smiles plastered to our faces, we follow along while he looks for another - the Tatuaje Black torpedo that will eventually be placed in a tubo. A few minutes later, we are now holding two more upcoming cigars - the Drac and Tatuaje Black tubo and heading back to our table.

The meal is wonderful and the drinks are pouring. We all light a Tatuaje Black Torpedo after taking a few pictures of them first. Everyone except for Pete that is - his Black Torp was handed to Pepin when he approached our table asking for a stick. Another amazing first puff. Straight from the drying room. Memories of last year's Tatuaje Black release are shared and this one is just as good. The wrapper is even more tasty. It's a hair higher priming, we're told. It also comes from Pepin's farm, La Finca Estrella, this time.

As dinner comes to a close and we are debating lighting up the Drac, Pete dissappears into the drying room again to retrieve another Black Torpedo and Drac for himself (his Drac was handed out during dinner as well - to Colin from ECCJ). He returns with two more cigars for each of us - the upcoming Verocu tubo and a Frank Undressed and the remaining bundle of Dracs. "For this evening". Shaking our heads, we now realize that we have all of the new cigars. (Black Tubo, Verocu Tubo, Drac, Frank Undressed - and smoked La Verite earlier) I borrow Pete's extra Black Tubo and line the four up for a quick photo.

The Drac is amazing. Refined blend with a little 'bite' in the beautiful, dark wrapper. (pun intended) Pete lights the Frank Undressed and tries to convince me to put the Drac down and smoke the new Frank instead. I assure him that I'll get to it in no time at all.

After some extended conversation, Pete asked a driver to take us to La Finca Estrella to see the new Rottweiler pup there. It's not growing season, so the fields are empty. In fact, it's the end of rainy season, as witnessed on our bumpy drive down the unpaved road to the farm. It's a short visit, but I can see how much bigger the fields are from just a year and a half ago. The soil is rich - overturned and black as coal - waiting to be planted again. Between planting tobacco there - they plant beans to return nutrients to the soil and to harvest for the workers in the factory to take home.

The rain stops on our way back to the factory - a stone's throw but a long bumpy ride to get there. By the time we are back, most of the guests are gone. The party out back for the factory employees is still frolicking. Inside the luncheon room, the Garcia table is alive with songs breaking out (the guitar player from the ceremony is at the table now).

I am now ready to light the Frank Undressed and settle in again. A few people join our table next to the Garcias and we are back to listening and telling stories. The Frank Undressed is the same cigar with another wrapper? Well, that makes it an entirely different cigar yet again. The blend comes through even more without the broadleaf wrapper from the original Frank released last year. This one is just as special. We saw the white boxes that will house 10 of these sticks while at the trade show in New Orleans. We all agree that it is incredible and that we are incredibly lucky to have a chance to smoke it here at it's source.

I think the others saved their Verocu tubo torpedo to savor at home, but I ended up smoking mine before we left the factory that day. (Yeah - that's five sticks while I was there - none of which have been released yet) The torpedo is a great size for the Verocu blend. Sort of between the East and West flavors from last year because of the size. (All were the same blend, btw) This will be yet another huge hit. Did I mention the tubos? The black is in a black tubo and the Verocu will be in a red tubo, 10 to a box. Hopefully November this year. We saw the tubos on display at the trade show as well and they look great.

Watching the Garcia table I'm reminded of stories about the relaxing Sundays in Cuba. Family gathered to eat, sing and dance the day away - celebrating after a week of work. This was one of those days - one of those moments - when you feel lucky to be surrounded by family - even if it's an extended family as was the case at our table of likeminded souls.

When it was time to go, we stashed our cigars for the evening and to take home in our bag and headed outside. A few words in Spanish and a few minutes later and Pete is holding another bunch of cigars. "For later".

Back at the hotel there was an outside patio on the third floor - rooftop. The night progressed much in the same way the weekend had gone - and the celebration continued. Chairs were gathered and jokes were told. The remaining bottles were opened and many more cigars were passed around. Pete and Erik told jokes - Erik repeating a few in Spanish for those who were looking at us laughing and wondering what could have been so funny. It was an early evening by the time most of us retired to our rooms - but it was a long, wonderful day. We promised that the trip back to the airport tomorrow morning would NOT turn into another Rumbus - and the next day we kept that promise.

To recap the day brings a smile even now. It wasn't just the special cigars we were treated to by Pete - although that would be enough for any of us to smile about. It was the humble and grateful attitude that was apparent on the faces of all those involved with the factory and all of us lucky enough to be a part of this celebration, that I will remember. The feeling that success is a true reward for hard work is easily forgotten in our modern culture. I am thankful to be able to see that a modern success can come to fruition through the eyes of a traditional past.


1 Sep., 2009