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Tobacco Mecca

Indonesia's East Java Continues To Produce Fine Tobacco Despite its Troubled Economy
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 2)

Consolidated had taken a major risk in developing TBN in the early 1990s after the company's supply of wrapper from Central Africa became too expensive and variable in quality. Due to internal problems in the tobacco-producing nations of Cameroon and the Central African Republic, as well as poor relations between the African growers and their French backers (who controlled the sale of Central African wrapper), the quality and quantity of African wrapper declined during the 1980s.

"We just couldn't risk our future on the Cameroon wrapper crop at the time," says Gershel. "We had to find an alternative. We liked what we saw with the initial crop of TBN in the late 1980s, so we asked our suppliers to work on it."

According to Indoco's Meskens, whose company supplies virtually all of Consolidated's TBN, Consolidated's request to develop TBN for premium hand-rolled cigars was kept quiet for nearly four years, although many of the European cigar and cigarillo producers had already switched to lower-grade TBN. "We wanted to make sure that we could provide the right amount and the right quality," Meskens recalls. He knew after a couple of years growing TBN that his firm could supply the cigarmaker.

The tobacco is a cross between besuki and Connecticut shade. "We took a hell of a risk," says Gershel, noting that Consolidated first used its TBN on its machine-made cigars, such as Anthonio y Cleopatra, for several years before using the wrapper on such key handmade brands as H. Upmann, Montecruz and Royal Jamaica. "Our competitors couldn't figure out what we were doing, but we wanted to make sure that it would work before we let the world know about it," Gershel says. "By the time we did, we controlled most of the top TBN."

Of course, some competitors see it another way. Many who stuck with Central African tobacco or turned to wrappers from other countries say that they didn't like the quality of TBN. "The wrapper can be brittle and have a bitter and metallic flavor," says one European-based tobacco dealer who wished to remain anonymous. "My customers don't like it." This magazine has found in its tastings that some cigars that supposedly have TBN wrappers do have a metallic and rough quality to them. But Gershel and tobacco men based in Jember rebut these views, saying that a lot of tobacco sold as TBN has been either shade-grown besuki or an inferior tobacco grown outside the region that resembles TBN, called VBN, Voistenlanden bawah naungan, roughly translated, Connecticut-shade grown in Central Java.

"That's not the real thing if it is metallic," says Gershel. "There is no character like that in TBN. We buy TBN because of the taste and the quality and, of course, the consistency of the product. When people knock TBN, it may be out of envy. People knock what they can't get."

One big problem with the image of TBN is that many people thought that it was synonymous with Indonesian wrapper. "The problem was that some people promoted TBN simply as Indonesian, so some tobacco people here in Jember took advantage of that," says Meskens, who has more than two decades of experience in the region. "Some people may have thought they were buying TBN but they were getting whatever was available. Sometimes it was even binder or filler. This hurt the image of the product."

That said, however, Meskens is less concerned about the reputation of TBN and Indonesian tobacco today than he was a year ago. As in many other tobacco-growing regions in the world, the situation in Indonesia is calmer now that the boom days of premium cigar production appear to be over. Tobacco growers and packers can spend more time cultivating and processing their crops. Some companies, such as Tempu Rejo, the tobacco processor that Meskens represents, now have the time to develop new tobacco types as well as experiment with established ones, such as Connecticut shade.

"The boom period for cigars in the U.S. market was not that good of a period if you think about it," says Meskens. "No one could keep up with the demand. It was difficult to maintain your business. Now that the situation is better we can go back to normal. The serious people are the ones still in the business."

Nevertheless, some people continue to look for the quick buck out of Indonesia. Recently, Sin Teguh Wanamarta received a fax from a New York City retailer who was interested in selling a new type of cigar. "He asked us if we could supply him with clove cigars and if we could send samples. His fax said that Americans were looking for 'fancy things' and that clove cigars could be the new fashion," Wanamarta says. "We didn't even answer the fax. Only in New York would they ask for something like that."

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