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Ecuador: Land of Fire

Ecuadoran cigar wrapper tobacco thrives in a world of volcanoes and perpetual cloud cover.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

(continued from page 1)

Premium cigar tobacco has been cultivated in Ecuador since the 1960s, when growers searched the world for wrapper alternatives to Cuban tobacco in the wake of the U.S. trade embargo. Today, Oliva Tobacco and ASP harvest most of the leaves that end up on cigars smoked in the United States. The Perez family concentrates on Connecticut-seed tobacco, a leaf that tends to be light and golden brown. The Olivas specialize in dark-brown Sumatra-seed wrappers, green candela tobacco and small amounts of the dark and oily Habana2000.  

The Olivas grow tobacco on five farms in Ecuador that are split into two regions. (Every Oliva farm in Ecuador is named after a wife of a family member, with the exception of Don Angel, which was named in honor of Angel Oliva Sr., the founder of the company who died in 1996 at the age of 89.) Near Barranco Chico, a town east of the southern port city of Guayaquil, the Olivas grow on 220 acres, split into two farms. The company once grew all of its Ecuadoran tobacco here, but for the past three years it has used this area pri-marily for candela tobacco. Candela is cured at very high temperatures to lock in the green color of the plant. These green wrappers are used on some machine-made cigars and on a limited number of premium cigars, including some Berings and Arturo Fuentes.  

Three years ago, the company more than doubled its operations, adding three farms on a 300-acre spread near Empalmé. They shifted their Sumatra-seed operations to the new plot and recently planted a few acres of Habana2000 wrapper. All of it is being grown for Douglas Pueringer, the co-owner of Tabacalera Tambor S.A., the Costa Rican manufacturer of Bahia cigars. Pueringer is using it to make Bahia Millennium cigars.  

The Olivas have been handling Ecuadoran tobacco since 1975, and they began growing it themselves in 1980. The company moved to Ecuador after more than 200 acres of its Nicaraguan farmland was nationalized by the Sandinista government in 1980. They needed to find a substitute for Nicaraguan tobacco for Frank Llaneza of Villazon & Co. After trying several seed varieties, they settled on Sumatra.  

"We tried Cameroon, we tried Cuban, but what Frank liked best was Sumatra. That was the one that really had the taste. Frank was the guy that popularized this wrapper," says John.  

"It was the nicest wrapper that I had smoked in a long time," says Llaneza. "The taste and burn were very close to perfect."   Llaneza uses the Ecuadoran Sumatra on Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars. Oliva's Sumatra tobacco also wraps La Gloria Cubana, Puros Indios, Cuba Aliados and JR Ultimate cigars. Tabacalera A. Fuente also uses Sumatra-seed Ecuadoran wrappers for its popular new Arturo Fuente Aged Sun Grown and Ashton Virgin Sun Grown cigars, although the phrase "sun grown" is a bit of a misnomer. "Cloud grown" would be more appropriate.  

Cigar sales may have slowed in the United States, but Oliva says that demand for its Ecuadoran tobacco is increasing. The company's 1999/2000 plantings are up 15 percent from the season before. "We're running out of barn space," says Angel Oliva III, 33, an Oliva Tobacco executive. "We're building more barns now."  

As in Connecticut, each curing barn in Ecuador needs heat to dry the tobacco properly. The Olivas use gas burners in some of their barns, but in others they employ a very old-fashioned method--charcoal pits. In the dim light of a typical Ecuadoran day, the pits emit a soft, red light, bathing the barn in a roasted, herbal aroma as they gently nudge the temperatures higher, pushing the chlorophyll and ammonia out of the drying plants above.  

A horse slowly strides across a fallow tobacco field, his hooves sinking into the dark dirt. He steps across the dried stems of an old tobacco crop. The old man on his back sits easily in the saddle, his face a crisscrossed map of wrinkles from a lifetime working outdoors.  

The veguero gently eases back on the reins, and the horse stops. The man squints, looking up at a gazebo, where a statue of the Virgin Mary sits inside, protected from the tropical mist. After a moment of prayer, the old man crosses himself. He pulls the reins to the right and heads back to the work of the day.  

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