An Interview with Carlos Fuente Jr.
A decade after introducing the Fuente Fuente OpusX, Carlos Fuente Jr. discusses its significance and what is to come.
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005
(continued from page 1)
Q: All your blends? That's amazing.
A: That's how my father taught me. We're from the old school. Remember, I was born in a community where right next to my grandfather's house was another cigar factory. At night, when they would have conversations, they would go, "Hush. They're listening."
Q: But with so many warehouses, tobacco everywhere...
A: We have our inventories, everything is in bond, and numbered. It's itemized. When we look at tobacco now, we would designate it thinking it's going to be for X. You're constantly inspecting it, the tobacco evolves, you see whether it's ready to use. That's why it's alive. If you were to run things by the book, it would not be consistent. You feel the tobacco, the oils, and you have an idea of the heat that's going to be required to bring out all the flavors and the aromas of that tobacco. It's like cooking. If you have [two] Chilean sea bass, and one is three inches thick and the other is one and a half, you don't cook them the same.
There's three parts to making a great cigar. There's the science and the know-how, the experience. There's the art, which is the judgment call, that feel that you know exactly what to do. But there's something else: the inspiration. And I consider that very spiritual.
Q: Say you were going to make a new cigar today. Would you have an idea in your head?
A: I can't go out and make a cigar. It's an inspiration. It's a feeling. It's timing. That's why sometimes you see many years go by without something new, and then it's just bam-bam-bam-bam, you have six, seven different sizes, a different blend. Like right now, I really feel that motivation. I want to create this magical farm for the best fillers in the world.
We just want to make the best cigar possible. We made a decision years ago, my father and I. At one time during the '90s we worked Saturdays, we were working sometimes into the night, the demand was so big. And we just said to ourselves, "No. We're going to make the best cigars we can." And we're making a lot less cigars today than we did in the '90s.
Q: How many cigars do you make?
A: This year I think we're going to be over 36 million cigars. In the '90s we hit over 40 million. But today we'll stay at 36. Right now we're expanding our operations, but to make more small specialty rooms. I love the art, I love the creativity, the excitement.
Q: How many factories do you have?
A: Four factories.
Q: Can you describe your change in cigar-making method?
A: During the time between 1994 and 1997, we were losing 300, 400, 500 cigarmakers a year. Prior to that, we were one of the only cigar factories with a school. We were constantly teaching people. And people would come like bounty hunters, standing in front of our factory, and offer them money. In a year over 200 factories opened up. At that time we were the only ones making Hemingway shapes, and our Hemingway cigarmakers were targeted, and they were hired away from us. I used to tell my dad—I'm going to go down like John Wayne in True Grit. It became an industrial war.
Q: It had to drive you nuts.
A: I was in the middle of a lawsuit [against the Opus One winery], people were knocking off our shapes, we had over five wage increases in one year. I kept increasing the cigarmakers' wages, and my dad came to me and said, "You're going to destroy the cigar industry. Enough is enough." I said, "I'm going to fight to the very end." He said. "But Carlos, you have to be wise." One night, in the middle of the night, I was really stressed out. I woke up and said, "My dad is right." A lot of our cigarmakers don't know how to read and write. They're making more than a teller in a bank, a teacher, administrators in our company. But no matter how much money they made, by Friday they were in debt. Then a door opened in my mind. I said, "With what a cigarmaker makes today, I want to find someone educated, from the city, that will have a career they can be proud of. To become artists." We realized we couldn't bring them into our factories to train them. There were a lot of bad habits.
Q: What kind of bad habits?
A: When we went to the Dominican Republic, there were cigarmakers from two towns, but those towns traditionally made rustic little cigars, perritos. They made 800 cigars a day. We came into an industry with a pay standard, and a lot of cigarmakers in 1980 made 400, 500 cigars a day. They used to fold leaves in half to make a cigar.
A: Booking. That wasn't the proper way. But we couldn't be too strict, because they would go down the street. So we told the cigarmakers, "We're going to change the way we make cigars. Instead of folding, you're going to make an accordion." It springs back. But technically it wasn't right.There's a lot of different things and techniques that were born at Tabacalera A. Fuente.
Q: The accordion method is better than booking?
A: It's much better. But then a door opened, and I thought to myself, we need to get educated, young cigarmakers. I wanted to make sure when I taught these young men and ladies, they were going to be unique and different. And I wanted to do something so special, I knew they could not go work somewhere else and make 400, 500 cigars per day. For the first two or three months, it was nothing but philosophy, showing them tobacco plants, listening to Cuban music, showing them magazines, showing them the lifestyle of people who smoke cigars. It was Operation Blank Slate. Instead of doing the accordion, we taught them to make these very small entubado, little tubes [with the tobacco leaves]. You're making something round. It's like a rose. And you start making your cigar round on the inside. I didn't know it at the time, but they can only make 75, 100 cigars a day like this. In the old days, traditionally in the cigar industry, you would start in the cigar factory young, making brevas, fumas, and you had to make a lot of cigars in order to make minimum wage. And you would hope in years you would move up in scale to maybe a corona gorda. That would take many years. But when you're making 500 cigars, you pick up a lot of bad habits. I said this has to be different. I said this is like a military academy. When you graduate, you're going to be a colonel. You'll never be a private. And if you love it, one day you'll become a general. One day, I took all the cigarmakers who make Fuente Fuente OpusX—our best cigarmakers—and said, "I'm really proud of you. But there's going to be an adjustment. Either you go into the main gallery, or I will pay off your benefits and you can get a job with any other factory." Most of them stayed. A few left. That was a great risk. I took all these cigarmakers with 15 years' experience, and I brought all these young men and ladies that were 19, 20, 21 and sat them down to make Fuente Fuente OpusX.
Q: What did your father think of this? Was he worried?
A: He must have been worried, of course, but my father has always given me support. He always taught me, if I fall, I would learn to get up by myself. We used to have horses. When I was seven, eight years old, I fell off the horse. I went to the house crying. My father picked me up by the belt—I never remember touching the floor—and he put me right back on that saddle. It was a big risk, but through those cigarmakers I learned things never imaginable. I learned you could make a gran panetela, a lancero, by making these small little tubes, by using five different tobaccos, and two binders. The cigarmakers that make the Fuente Fuente OpusX, they're the best in the world. You have to remember, the first classic pyramid to come out of the Dominican Republic with a point was the Fuente Fuente OpusX. Before that, all the pyramids had a flat head. We tried for years to teach cigarmakers, and they refused to make it. It was the mentality. By bringing on the young people, who were artists, we created all these different shapes—the Cuban tickler, the football, the baseball bat. When we saw the results, we changed the Arturo Fuente Hemingway room, because we have different rooms to make different cigars, and Don Carlos. Now all the production today, all the cigars are now made entubado. Everything.
Q: Some of the shapes you mentioned, like the cigar that you're smoking, the BBMF, you sell only for charity. Why not sell them to the market?
A: Remember, it's not about cigars, it's about people. And it's a privilege to have a product that you can use for charity events, to help others. We've been very fortunate and blessed. My family is living the American dream. But America is a philosophy. America does not have borders or boundaries. America represents a dream, a dream for human beings all over to understand. It's freedom, freedom from poverty, illness, repression. It's the right to dream. I know, as an American, I have the responsibility to share this dream with everyone who's around me.
Q: Do you have a favorite spot to sit and reflect, when you're at peace?
A: Right now at this moment, this is the spot. I'm enjoying my cigar tremendously. You're helping me reminisce and remember the most beautiful memories of my life. At this moment, my vision is very clear for the wonderful things that are left to come.
Photo by Justin Steele
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