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Cigar Diary: A Quiet Champion

Rick Meerapfel restored the reputation of Cameroon wrapper. He will be missed.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

Rick Meerapfel was a hero for cigar smokers, even though very few people knew of his achievements. Cigar industry insiders credit him with single-handedly saving Cameroon wrapper from extinction in the early 1990s and with continuing to improve one of the world’s great cigar-smoking tobaccos.

Meerapfel, 52, died last November of a heart attack while visiting friends in Miami. His sons Jeremiah, 26, and Joshua, 23, will continue their father’s work with the help of their grandfather Heller, 82.

“The cigar world has lost one of the great experts on tobacco,” bemoaned Carlos Fuente Jr., a close friend of Meerapfel and one of nearly 100 friends and family who traveled to southern Germany for his burial service on December 5. “Sure, he knew Cameroon wrapper well, but he knew all the great tobaccos in the world…plus he was instrumental in creating the first blend for our Don Carlos line. I am really going to miss him. He was a great friend and a great family man.”

Meerapfel’s accomplishments in Central Africa are all the more impressive when one considers that Cameroon wrapper tobacco is grown in two of the most dangerous and corrupt areas in Africa—the countries of Cameroon and the Central African Republic. I still remember traveling to the tobacco fields of Central Africa with Meerapfel in the summer of 1997. It was one of the scariest trips I had ever taken. But it also gave me a deep admiration for the work Meerapfel was doing along with his African colleagues. The experience made me appreciate the silky brown, sweet wrappers one can find on such excellent cigars as the A. Fuente Don Carlos line, the Ashton Heritage and General Cigars’ Partagas brand.

Getting around in Africa’s tobacco country was the biggest challenge. Driving conditions were dangerous due to massive ruts in the hundreds of miles of red dirt roads and huge lumber trucks rumbling by every few minutes. Police manned the various roadblocks, toting loaded automatic weapons and regularly demanding $20 to $30 bribes. On our trip, we were effectively arrested at gunpoint at a checkpoint a few miles from the Central African border in Cameroon after some confusion over our identities with the local magistrate. I almost had to change my underwear when the guard wearing mirrored sunglasses pointed his AK-47 through the window of our four-wheel-drive Nissan pickup and told us to come with him to his police station. Even Meerapfel looked slightly worried when he was taken into the building to be questioned. We had to wait in the parking lot.

 “This is Africa. What more can I say?” said one of the African managers of CETAC SA (Compagnie d’Exploitation des Tabacs Centrafricains), a private company jointly held by the Meerapfel family and the local Africans. It grows, contracts, processes and ships premium tobacco from Cameroon and the Central African Republic. There are actually two CETACs now, one in each country. I heard that phrase—“This is Africa.”—on an hourly basis throughout the trip. The locals simply shrugged their shoulders when another obstacle complicated their daily tasks.

Meerapfel returned from the police station with a big smile on his face about 20 minutes later. “There was some confusion with orders from the local government,” he said, laughing and drawing on an A. Fuente Don Carlos Robusto. He looked a hell of a lot less nervous. “Boy, are they going to catch hell with the local mayor when he finds out what happened.”

Meerapfel took such incidents, which seemed to occur regularly, without ever getting too upset. He was focused on one thing, producing great tobacco in Africa, and he didn’t want to waste much time on local politics. “That’s not our problem,” Meerapfel said during the trip. “We are here for the tobacco and to run a serious business. Politics and other things do not concern us.”

Meerapfel had seen it all. His family, through its Brussels-based company M. Meerapfel & Söhne, had been buying Cameroon tobacco for decades. The biggest problem over the years had been obtaining quality wrapper tobacco from Central Africa, a region stretching from Baturi, the eastern section of Cameroon, east across the continent’s midsection to the western section of the Central African Republic. That’s why Meerapfel began his operation. “I couldn’t just let it go,” Meerapfel often said. “I had to do something to keep the tobacco going.”

Some cigar manufacturers, such as Altadis U.S.A. (formerly Consolidated Cigars), which produces the non-Cuban H. Upmann, began using Indonesian wrapper tobacco when it couldn’t get what it needed from Africa. It recently has gone back to using some Cameroon tobacco since Meerapfel’s success.

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