Q&A: The Silent Legend

An Interview with Alfons Mayer, the globe-travelling tobacco buyer for General Cigar Co.

(continued from page 1)
A: I have every farmer's name.
Q: Really? Was that a habit of your father's?
A: That's a habit of me. I always write everything down.
Q: Take me through your apprenticeship.
A: In the beginning? I had to go step-by-step what every person was doing, and they would not let me out of one step until I make the same amount as the people—everything, everything, everything I had to do, and get approved by the boss of the warehouse. Six weeks. And that's the way you worked it. When I could talk to tobacco, and they taught me that, then I was accepted.
Q: What is your impression of the old Cuban tobacco, how does that differ from your impression of Cuban tobacco now, and what are the prospects for the future?
A: I would say the good plantations—the excellent plantations in San Luis, Corojo—never changed. They are still the top-quality tobacco you can lay your hands on, because of the climatic conditions in the Pinar del Río area. I have a book from 1945, every word on how they work in Pinar del Río. When I got to Cuba in 1992, there was not a book to be found, anywhere, not in the university. The government took over. It is quite different when you are run by government than by private companies buying tobacco knowing exactly where to go, because those farmers, pre-Castro, got a much better price and were much more enthusiastic to get the quality of tobacco the way it should be than be taken over by the government, who says you have to do this, and you get paid that much. And everybody the same. That's the difference. The second category [in later years] is they needed dollars, and they didn't give [the tobacco] the sufficient age and preparation—put it in yagua for a year and a half to two years and check those bales out between A, B and C. A means use, B means wait until it becomes an A, and C from C to B to A. And that's what we did [in the '50s]. We didn't use all 500 bales, we probably got the first time 30 or 40 bales, then they go to the country and they got assessed.
Q: How long would they age the tobacco in the '50s in Cuba?
A: Those bales would go at least for a year and a half, two years, in Havana, where it is much more moist, in those stone warehouses. You cannot age tobacco in the country, because it's too dry.
Q: Were they still taking the same care with the tobacco when you went back to Cuba in '92?
A: I saw yagua in the warehouses in '92—but the rooms were almost empty. They needed dollars. And [they] sped up the [aging] time. But they got eye-openers, they knew what was wrong.
Q: So they've made changes?
A: They made changes, they're going back to the quality and preservations and timing that they find makes better cigars than before.
Q: Do you think the Cuban cigars being made today are better than those made in the mid-'90s?
A: I would say, yes. The biggest problem for the public is there are so many cigars coming in from Santo Domingo and other places, contraband.
Q: How long did you spend in Cuba learning all this?
A: Five and a half years.
Q: Your apprenticeship was that long?
A: That was for good reason—I didn't get my papers. They probably would have thrown me out after two years.
Q: Did the Cullmans own General at this time?
A: No, they owned it [starting] in 1961. When I came out of Cuba, [the company was] still under Julius Strauss. He sent me to every factory, and I did the same thing I did in the fields. The first thing is the stemming machine, and cut wrappers. I worked in a threshing operation. Everything was six weeks.
Q: Let's talk about how you rose up the ranks at General. Eventually you became the head of tobacco.
A: Yes. You have to realize I was still nobody coming out of Cuba. Then the Connecticut group directed me to go to Puerto Rico. I worked for a guy by the name of [Charles F.] Schneider, who was the head of operations for General in Puerto Rico, and not by my fault, eight months later he passed away. And a phone call came from New York and they said to take it over.
Q: What was the operation like?
A: We were growing tobacco, the farmers independently, and I would buy the tobacco for short-filler cigars. And the tobacco [that General Cigar grew on its farms in] Connecticut came to Puerto Rico. I made blends from Colombia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, a little bit from the Philippines. There were fantastic people coming in and out all the time, so they kept me there managing an operation, 1,650 people. That was a lot of responsibility.
Q: After Puerto Rico, what was your job like as a tobacco buyer?
A: Ninety days [a year] in the New York area, including Saturday and Sunday.
Q: And the rest of the days you were in the fields?
A: Yes. When I go overseas, I go on Sunday. And you don't spend that kind of money for Tuesday and Wednesday. No, you come back on Saturday. You're seeing thousands of bales. Every bale has to be opened. I had the reputation of looking at every bale—I learned that in Cuba.
Q: Why not just stay in New York, pick up the phone and say, I need this many bales?
A: No, that's like shooting yourself in the head. Once it is here, how are you going to get it back?
Q: How much would you buy?
A: Huge amounts. We had a tremendous mass-market business. Premium was not there yet. I had the short filler, chewing tobacco I did with a guy in Wheeling [West Virginia], and we had the snuff, which was done with another guy.
Q: Was it competitive?
A: Very competitive.
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