Under Towering Volcanoes, the San Andrés Region Produces Richly Flavored Tobacco That Creates Unique Cigars
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95
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Alberto Turrent Cano, the white-haired chairman of the Mexican consortium that operates the factory and also the head of a separate, family-run planting operation that dates back four generations, loves to spend his afternoons touring the fields of Sumatra-seed tobacco from Indonesia, which allows his company to make a cigar without the high cost and bureaucratic headaches of importing wrapper tobacco from another country.
"The Dutch planters abandoned Indonesia after Sukarno took over," he says, inspecting several mature plants to be harvested in the next few weeks. "They came here to make tests because they knew this was a very productive tobacco area, and they found it was good-quality soil for Sumatra, but they never planted it commercially. They just left."
The Dutch departed, and the planters of the San Andrés Valley made use of the seed they left behind. Sumatra tobacco has become an integral part of the great Mexican cigars. It means that San Andrés cigar makers do not have to buy wrapper from Connecticut, Cameroon or anywhere else and they can earn extra revenue exporting wrapper tobacco to other countries in the region.
Although the Matacapan factory produces millions of export cigars each year, including many with the characteristic dark Maduro wrapper, it is still run with the intimacy of a small family operation. Each afternoon, Turrent gathers a handful of his senior people to discuss plans for the next day. It is an improvisational process: What is the most pressing problem, the most urgent need? More than a few Te-Amos are savored during the meeting.
They have had to confront serious problems in the past decade. Perhaps the worst was the blue mold infestation that severely damaged tobacco crops in Mexico and Central America. Turrent says the problem is under control, but there are constant worries.
"If you leave things for even one day, it's trouble," he says. "Everything has to get done in a certain way at a certain time or you will have problems. There is some tolerance with the cutting of tobacco, but if you do it too soon or too late you will not get the right quality and texture. You can ruin it, and one big wind or hail can end a crop within 24 hours. There are many, many dangers, things that are risky."
One thing he is not worried about is succession. His 21-year-old son Alejandro seeks to learn every aspect of the business and spends his university holidays hanging around the factory, immersed in details. He is studying international business and agribusiness at one of Mexico's leading universities--giving him far more formal training than his father enjoyed--but he will still have much to learn when he comes back to the factory full-time.
"Alejandro will have book experience and technical training, but he will still have to learn how to choose tobacco, how to blend tobacco," Turrent says. "Every planter has his own way of doing things, his own style, his own guidebook inside of him. Every year is different. Some tobacco needs more fermentation, some needs less. These are the things he will have to learn."
The main product of the Matacapan factory is the Te-Amo, the best-known line of Mexican premium cigars. The brand started in the mid-'60s, after the Cuban embargo, with the financial backing of a New York businessman who helped develop a faithful following for the cigar among the managers and workers in New York City's garment district.
"At one point in the '70s, there were more Te-Amo cigars smoked within the five or six blocks of the garment district on Seventh Avenue than there were in the rest of the country," says Gutierrez. "As the garment district began to lose its stature and factories closed, people moved to the suburbs with their Te-Amos. So today the major markets are probably in the suburbs of New York City and [on] Long Island, but the brand has also expanded into the Midwest and other cities as well."
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