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Q&A: The Silent Legend

An Interview with Alfons Mayer, the globe-travelling tobacco buyer for General Cigar Co.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

For decades, Alfons Mayer was one of the world's most powerful tobacco men, buying all the tobacco leaf needed to fuel one of the cigar industry's juggernauts, General Cigar Co., the maker of Macanudo, Partagas and, at the time, myriad machine-made cigars such as Garcia y Vega, White Owl and Tiparillo. Mayer, who also helped create General's blends and spent most of each year traveling the globe, is a self-described introvert who shunned the press, turning down many requests for interviews over the years. He is familiar to all in the industry but is largely unknown to readers of Cigar Aficionado.

In January, the 78-year-old Mayer allowed senior editor David Savona into his Warren, New Jersey, home, a repository of memorabilia, notes and photos from Mayer's endless trips througout the world—almost a museum of tobacco. Filing cabinets brim with information from his decades in the business, including the book of notes he kept from his five-year apprenticeship in Cuba that began in 1952. Newspaper and magazine clippings hang on the walls in the few spaces not occupied by photographs of his family and cigar industry luminaries. A cabinet humidor amid the carefully organized clutter of his office holds cigars from decades ago as well as today, and two upstairs rooms have been converted into humidified storage for thousands of his very own Alfons Mayer cigars. Ashtrays of various colors and shapes cover nearly every table—Mayer still smokes six or seven cigars a day. The interview began over Alfons Mayer cigars and concluded with two Montecristo No. 1 lonsdales put in the box in 1959.

David Savona: Let's go back and talk about your history in the tobacco business.

Alfons Mayer: I grew up in a tobacco family. I was born in 1927. My grandfather had a company named A. Mayer & Co. They were the Sumatra sandblatt kings.

Q: And sandblatt is?

A: Sandblatt is the bottom leaves, the last three leaves on the plant. Sandleaf, they call it, because it is sandy soil.

Q: So your grandfather founded A. Mayer, and your father was in the business as well. Where were you born?

A: In Amsterdam.

Q: What was it like growing up there?

A: Ah, it was great, because you're an innocent bystander as a kid. But then you have to realize that in 1940, the [German] invasion came, and it was rotten.

Q: What did you do?

A: I never finished my last grade of high school, because all schools were closed in Holland. I was picked up one time by the Germans in a train. Got out of it, don't ask me how. It was a football game in the Olympic Stadium in Holland. The Germans closed all the doors and picked up everybody from 15 and up and picked me up and then I got out. I walked home. And then it was recommended—through a friend that had a buddy from the Gestapo—she advised me to get out of Amsterdam as soon as possible because they were going to take young people to work in the factories in Germany. I took my bicycle—it was eight, nine o'clock—and I knew exactly the farm where I wanted to go, which was owned by [Willem] Schermerhorn, who became prime minister after the war. I worked for him the last two years of the war. And my duty was to teach American pilots how to eat. You see, I don't tell these stories to everyone, because I hate to talk about it. But we had to train them how to eat, how to dress and how to shut up. And that's the way we brought them to Belgium.

Q: Why were you teaching American soldiers how to eat?

A: The Americans eat with a fork only. They cut the pancakes with a fork, they cut the eggs with a fork, they never go fork and knife. So they would go for breakfast at six or seven o'clock, and two Gestapo people stand in front of them. They would pick them up and send them to prison camp. We would teach them. They would come one by one into the house, and we would give them lessons. I'm half-Jew, my father's Jewish.

Q: Was that why you were in danger from the Germans?

A: No. I never had a star. My name was very Jewish, but I'm blond and blue eyes.

Q: So the entire country was controlled by the Germans?

A: They controlled the cities, but they didn't dare go into the polders [the part of the Netherlands reclaimed from the water, and crisscrossed by dykes]. The Germans couldn't get on these dykes. The war started [in the Netherlands] on the fifth of May, 1940. I got away the end of 1942 to the polders. I was there until 1945 on the tenth of May, when the war was over [in Europe]. Then Willem Schermerhorn became the prime minister, immediately, and he called me and he said, "Go to Antwerp to the Argentinean consulate and get your papers." I was the first one out, with 12 other people, to Buenos Aires. Twenty-one days on that boat, I'll never forget it. Everybody was sick, and I had to milk cows.

Q: You had to milk cows on the boat?

A: Yes—that was the first export from Holland. Cows. I went to Buenos Aires to see my father [who had left the Netherlands prior to the invasion] and stay there.

Q: So you started working with your father in the tobacco business?

A: Immediately. I didn't know a word of Spanish. He said, "Here's the paper, tell them who you are, and go to every cigar store you can." I was selling cigars, pipe tobacco, you name it. If it belonged to tobacco, he had it.

Q: When did you visit your first tobacco field?

A: In Cuba. 1952. I went to General Cigar Co. of Cuba.

Q: What was that first trip like?

A: Work until the cows come home! [Laughs.] Work, don't open up your mouth, and work.

Q: Were you with your father?

A: No. I left my father in 1952. I said, "What you know about tobacco I will never learn, because you are interested in selling your products. I want to learn tobacco." So when I got to Havana, I had to get a license to stay and work in Havana. And we kept on moving bales, all the time. My hands were open, bloody. And then one guy comes up to me and says, 'You can get rid of that in two days. Piss on your hands.' It worked—they became leather. They are still leather. I spent six months moving bales. They were aging the leaf for almost two years in yagua, palm bark.

Q: What was your title when you started with General?

A: Learning tobacco in Cuba.

Q: So you were an apprentice?

A: Yes. They were so sure I could make it, and not break me, after I pissed enough times on my hands, I could do what I wanted. And then the people, the top management of Cuba, was fantastic. In Cabaiguan, in Santa Clara, in Remedios, in Pinar del Río—all these areas were top-notch people. They had tobacco talking to them. It took me two years before I found out how tobacco talks to me. They were masters. And I had a hard time. I said I'll never get it. I'll never get it. I wrote everything down they told me at night. And I can show you that. I have never thrown anything away.

Q: Have you always been that way?

A: Always. You saw that attic? A minefield. [Laughs.]

Q: And you still have your notes from Cuba?

A: I have every farmer's name.

Q: Really? Was that a habit of your father's?

A: That's a habit of me. I always write everything down.

Q: Take me through your apprenticeship.

A: In the beginning? I had to go step-by-step what every person was doing, and they would not let me out of one step until I make the same amount as the people—everything, everything, everything I had to do, and get approved by the boss of the warehouse. Six weeks. And that's the way you worked it. When I could talk to tobacco, and they taught me that, then I was accepted.

Q: What is your impression of the old Cuban tobacco, how does that differ from your impression of Cuban tobacco now, and what are the prospects for the future?

A: I would say the good plantations—the excellent plantations in San Luis, Corojo—never changed. They are still the top-quality tobacco you can lay your hands on, because of the climatic conditions in the Pinar del Río area. I have a book from 1945, every word on how they work in Pinar del Río. When I got to Cuba in 1992, there was not a book to be found, anywhere, not in the university. The government took over. It is quite different when you are run by government than by private companies buying tobacco knowing exactly where to go, because those farmers, pre-Castro, got a much better price and were much more enthusiastic to get the quality of tobacco the way it should be than be taken over by the government, who says you have to do this, and you get paid that much. And everybody the same. That's the difference. The second category [in later years] is they needed dollars, and they didn't give [the tobacco] the sufficient age and preparation—put it in yagua for a year and a half to two years and check those bales out between A, B and C. A means use, B means wait until it becomes an A, and C from C to B to A. And that's what we did [in the '50s]. We didn't use all 500 bales, we probably got the first time 30 or 40 bales, then they go to the country and they got assessed.

Q: How long would they age the tobacco in the '50s in Cuba?

A: Those bales would go at least for a year and a half, two years, in Havana, where it is much more moist, in those stone warehouses. You cannot age tobacco in the country, because it's too dry.

Q: Were they still taking the same care with the tobacco when you went back to Cuba in '92?

A: I saw yagua in the warehouses in '92—but the rooms were almost empty. They needed dollars. And [they] sped up the [aging] time. But they got eye-openers, they knew what was wrong.

Q: So they've made changes?

A: They made changes, they're going back to the quality and preservations and timing that they find makes better cigars than before.

Q: Do you think the Cuban cigars being made today are better than those made in the mid-'90s?

A: I would say, yes. The biggest problem for the public is there are so many cigars coming in from Santo Domingo and other places, contraband.

Q: How long did you spend in Cuba learning all this?

A: Five and a half years.

Q: Your apprenticeship was that long?

A: That was for good reason—I didn't get my papers. They probably would have thrown me out after two years.

Q: Did the Cullmans own General at this time?

A: No, they owned it [starting] in 1961. When I came out of Cuba, [the company was] still under Julius Strauss. He sent me to every factory, and I did the same thing I did in the fields. The first thing is the stemming machine, and cut wrappers. I worked in a threshing operation. Everything was six weeks.

Q: Let's talk about how you rose up the ranks at General. Eventually you became the head of tobacco.

A: Yes. You have to realize I was still nobody coming out of Cuba. Then the Connecticut group directed me to go to Puerto Rico. I worked for a guy by the name of [Charles F.] Schneider, who was the head of operations for General in Puerto Rico, and not by my fault, eight months later he passed away. And a phone call came from New York and they said to take it over.

Q: What was the operation like?

A: We were growing tobacco, the farmers independently, and I would buy the tobacco for short-filler cigars. And the tobacco [that General Cigar grew on its farms in] Connecticut came to Puerto Rico. I made blends from Colombia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, a little bit from the Philippines. There were fantastic people coming in and out all the time, so they kept me there managing an operation, 1,650 people. That was a lot of responsibility.

Q: After Puerto Rico, what was your job like as a tobacco buyer?

A: Ninety days [a year] in the New York area, including Saturday and Sunday.

Q: And the rest of the days you were in the fields?

A: Yes. When I go overseas, I go on Sunday. And you don't spend that kind of money for Tuesday and Wednesday. No, you come back on Saturday. You're seeing thousands of bales. Every bale has to be opened. I had the reputation of looking at every bale—I learned that in Cuba.

Q: Why not just stay in New York, pick up the phone and say, I need this many bales?

A: No, that's like shooting yourself in the head. Once it is here, how are you going to get it back?

Q: How much would you buy?

A: Huge amounts. We had a tremendous mass-market business. Premium was not there yet. I had the short filler, chewing tobacco I did with a guy in Wheeling [West Virginia], and we had the snuff, which was done with another guy.

Q: Was it competitive?

A: Very competitive.

Q: Have you been to all these countries where tobacco is grown?

A: Every one of them.

Q: I'm going to throw out names of tobaccos, and I'd like your impression of each one, all right? Let's start with Jamaican.

A: Flavorful, little grassy, nothing to compare with. Medium quality. It was used mostly politically because of England.

Q: Piloto Cubano from the Dominican Republic.

A: In my time, the best tobacco out of Cuba when well handled.

Q: Nicaragua.

A: Extremely strong. Too much of it gives you very few clients.

Q: Honduras.

A: I got familiar with Honduran tobacco in the later years after we bought Villazon. It was suitable.

Q: Cameroon.

A: The best wrapper—but not enough of it.

Q: Mexican.

A: Second quality. Cuba No. 1, Mexico No. 2. Always has been famous. From the San Andreas Tuxla area only.

Q: Connecticut shade.

A: Tops, if well aged.

Q: Indonesian.

A: It all should go to Europe, for that is its climate condition.

Q: Candela.

A: It's good, you want one?

Q: You like candela?

A: It depends how old it is. [Leaves his chair, comes back shortly with two candela cigars with more than 20 years of age.]

Q: Thank you…let's continue. Ecuador?

A: A good replacer for people who need wrappers.

Q: Connecticut broadleaf.

A: Strong and too native. Raw, ordinary, very difficult to have a bundle of cigars made from the same broadleaf.

Q: Dominican olor.

A: Smells like rotten eggs—and I am being nice about it.

Q: Peru.

A: Tumbe doesn't burn so it has to be Terra Poto. Great for short-filler cigars and an insult to premium.

Q: Philippines.

A: Excellent for short-filler cigars.

Q: Panama.

A: It was a disaster.

Q: Costa Rica.

A: Too small quantities.

Q: Brazil.

A: A very interesting ingredient for premium cigars. It should be below 17 percent of the cigar.

Q: What about shade-grown Dominican wrapper?

A: We at General Cigar wasted a hell of a lot of time. And wish anybody else the best of luck.

Q: Cuba.

A: Still the best tobacco for premium cigars in the world, of Pinar del Río, certain areas in Remedios, in small proportion. Because not all Pinar del Río is OK, but we all know that it is still the best.

Q: Let's talk about the cigars we're smoking now, your Alfons Mayer cigars. It comes in a unique box, with all three cigars, breakfast, lunch and dinner, your three different blends. What made you want to come out with your own cigar?

A: When I decided to retire, they said to stay. Then when I turned 72 in 1999, my wife, Sara, passed away. Right here. I started to slow down, because somebody had to be here and be around. I retired in 2001. The Cullmans said, "We want to make a party." I said, "No, take me to the best restaurant in New York." We had dinner, wonderful.

Q: Where did you go?

A: Four Seasons. And they said, "Why don't you make an Alfons Mayer cigar?"

Q: It's made by General. Can we talk about their age?

A: They are fully aged. They age here at least another two years, and they already have three years on them.

Q: And you sell them from here in Warren, A. Mayer & Co.

A: Yes.

Q: Was it hard for you to retire?

A: Ah, no. I was glad. I was very happy to get out, to say I don't have to drive to New York anymore.

Q: What motivated you?

A: I loved the job. I loved the tobacco. Money was no object. In Cuba I think they paid me $100 a month, but I had food, living and a jeep. And that was really good.

Photos by Brennan Cavanaugh

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