Americans love the rich flavor of Brazilian tobacco, but will they ever acquire a taste for cigars that are made in Brazil?
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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the popular Brazilian book that became a hit movie starring Sonia Braga in the 1970s, tells a story that could only be Brazilian, and could only take place in the sensuous tropical Brazilian state of Bahia.
A voluptuous young woman, Flor is married to an irresistible bad boy who gambles away her hard-earned cash, carouses all night with his pals, drinks too much, laughs, sings and dances. She loves him madly, as do quite a number of other young women in town. He dies one day—happy, of course, dancing down the street in his Carnival costume—and eventually Flor is persuaded to marry again. This time she weds an older man, a respectable pharmacist, who comes to bed on his wedding night buttoned up in his pajamas.
Like so many heroines before her, Dona Flor has left passion and sensuality behind her—a time-honored progression, both in literature and life. But the author here is the Brazilian Jorge Amado, and what happens next is quintessentially Brazilian. If you've seen the movie, you're probably laughing already. For who can keep a straight face remembering Flor, lying dutifully under the second husband on that wedding night, and gazing up—not at the ceiling, but straight into the laughing eyes of her first husband, who's come back to her, naked no less, and it goes from there.
It is no coincidence that the Menendez Amerino Co. decided to call the fine line of cigars it has just begun exporting to the United States Dona Flor, with all the passion and sensuality that the name elicits. And like Dona Flor's first husband, who comes back from beyond, Menendez Amerino is trying once again to make its mark in the U.S. market. Although Brazilian cigars have never truly won the hearts of Americans, and remain vacant from nearly all cigar shop humidors, the country's rich tobaccos are a proven winner, and do quite well in cigar blends made in other countries.
Consider the success of the C.A.O. Brazilia, a cigar made in Honduras with an oily, dark Brazilian wrapper leaf. C.A.O. International Inc. launched the brand in 2001 to rousing success. The idea of calling it Brazilia scared people who consulted with C.A.O., and many warned the company against using such a name.
"Most of the traditional tobacco dealers told me, 'I wouldn't say that it's Brazilian,'" says Tim Ozgener, vice president of C.A.O. "A lot of people didn't promote the fact that they used Brazilian tobacco."
Ozgener not only ignored the warning, he went full guns with the Brazil name and theme. Each box is resplendent in the distinctive green, yellow and blue of the Brazilian flag. The Honduran-made cigars are finished with a leaf of Arapiraca tobacco that gives the cigar a fuller body than other C.A.O.s. It's one of the company's best-selling brands.
H. Upmann, one of the biggest premium cigar brands in the United States, has some Brazilian leaf in its filler blend. So do some of its line extensions. Brand owner Altadis U.S.A. Inc. also uses Brazilian tobacco in its Player's Club brand, as part of the filler and as a wrapper.
"Brazil filler was used a lot in the early days of CIT, Compania Insular Tabacalera, in the Canary Islands," says José Seijas, vice president of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., Altadis U.S.A.'s major cigar factory. "The combination of Brazil and Dominican olor and piloto was the choice of the Cuban expatriates to produce the cigars right after their departure from Cuba. This was the combination that they liked the most after testing many other combinations." Seijas uses mostly Mata Fina tobacco, which he describes as medium to strong, with a sweet taste and great aroma.
"We used lots of Brazil wrappers in Primo del Rey in the '60s and '70s," says Seijas. "The burning of this wrapper was exceptional as well as its flavor and appearance. The Brazil wrapper we are using these days goes from dark brown to really dark in some cases, like a darkened maduro. This is a sun-grown tobacco, and again the taste is sweet and neutral, making it a good candidate to blend with other parts of the cigar. One very good characteristic of the Brazil wrapper we use is its burning properties and striking white ash. Arapiraca is a heavier wrapper. Some people use it for maduros due to its heavy body."
A number of other cigar brands are also wrapped in Brazilian leaf, such as La Aurora Preferido Maduros, Carlos Toraño Signatures and Alec Bradley's Trilogy Maduros. The American love affair with the country's tobacco, however, doesn't extend to cigars made in Brazil. The nation is among the smallest exporters of premium cigars to the United States. Last year, only 64,000 Brazilian cigars made their way to U.S. soil, and annual Brazilian imports have been less than 100,000 cigars throughout this decade.
Menendez Amerino, however, is undeterred, with high hopes for Dona Flor. The modern history of the Menendez family—think Montecristos and H. Upmanns, circa 1959—began with the exodus from Cuba in the early '60s that set them (along with nearly everyone else in the cigar business) adrift and out into the world. They went first to the Canary Islands, where the late Alonso Menendez started making Montecruz cigars, which had more than a passing resemblance to the brand the family lost in Cuba.
"Not Montecristos!" says his son, Felix, a tall, elegant man now in his early sixties, with that melancholy smile of the Cuban exile. "My father wouldn't make Montecristos anywhere but Cuba."
Montecruz became a hit in America and a boon to the Menendez family, which had left its fortune behind in Cuba after losing everything to Castro's forces. But there was, of course, no quick return to Cuba, and eventually the family found its tradition of handmade cigars increasingly difficult to sustain in the Canary Islands. Labor costs were rising, the industry was mechanizing around them, and the Menendez clan began to look for another place to live and work.
Other companies would eventually relocate to the Dominican Republic, but in 1977, Alonso Menendez's son Benjamin chose to take the family to Brazil, guided by an enthusiasm for Mata Fina, the most famous of Brazil's tobacco varieties, and the wonderful things he was hearing about the Recôncavo of Brazil where it was grown, the rich strip of land just in from the northeastern coast. The soil was right, the tobacco was right, and then there were the women of the region.
"Lace-making women," as the local bandits used to sing about them, which meant "very good hands," according to Mario Amerino Portugal, who should know. Not only did Amerino Portugal sell Mata Fina tobacco, but he was enough of a man-about-town to have merited a mention, by name, in the book Dona Flor itself—as the owner of the apartment where Dona Flor and her first husband met for passionate trysts, before actually sanctifying their union.
Finally, Benjamin Menendez agreed to visit Brazil. "I decided that since Bahia was the heart of the premier tobacco of Brazil, it would be a good place to go," says Menendez. Amerino Portugal took him through the palm trees and mangoes and the tropical trees known as red flamboyance to São Gonçalo dos Campos, about an hour and a half inland from the city of Salvador in Bahia, straight into the heart of the tobacco fields where the best Mata Fina in Brazil is grown. An empty warehouse there was just "wanting," as the Brazilians say, to be converted to a cigar factory, and with Mario Amerino Portugal now as a partner (and perhaps more to the point in this extended family, a brother-in-law), the firm, called Menendez Amerino, started operations there in 1977.
Brazil wasn't the immediate boon it had anticipated, and there was no third hit à la Montecristo and Montecruz. The brothers Menendez had a tough time. "I thought Brazil could be a very good place, but it doesn't have a name in the U.S.," Benjamin Menendez recalled in a 2002 Cigar Aficionado interview. "I personally lost money in Brazil."
Benjamin went on to other projects, later finding fame in the United States making the Macanudo brand. Felix stayed in Brazil. His factory is big for the country, with close to 100 cigarmakers, but modest by Central American or Caribbean standards.
Though the techniques they use here hark back to Cuba, the place speaks first and foremost of Brazil. The factory itself is beautiful, for one thing, with whitewashed walls, high ceilings, beams and tiles, built by people who know how to keep it cool inside, even in summer at high noon. The windows let in a filtered light and the rooms are large and airy, filled with women wearing fitted sleeveless tangerine-colored blouses, working among the ubiquitous tobacco leaves that you smell before you see.
Menendez shows off his stocks of tobacco. The leaves are in every stage of preparation: some are still fresh from the field, some are two years old and fully cured, some are wet, some are dry, and many of them smell rich and alluring. He is confident it will find a receptive audience in the United States. "Brazilian tobacco isn't so much unappreciated in the United States as it is unknown," he says. "We are confident that it will be well received, once the consumer gets a chance to smoke it."
Arturo Toraño, a cousin of the Menendez brothers (and a member of the renowned Toraño cigar-making family), selects and cures the tobaccos and blends the leaves. He took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion as a young man in 1961 and spent 22 months in a Cuban prison, where he learned, among other things, to eat shrimp. He hated it as a boy, wouldn't eat it, thought he couldn't, but deprivation can be the mother of more than one kind of education. And even so, despite eating whatever shrimp and anything else that came his way—dog, cat, the usual prison fare—Toraño lost 50 pounds in there. But that was a long time ago and a long way from Brazil, where now, a smiling, sophisticated bon vivant no one could call underweight, he lights up another Dona Flor and turns to his tobacco.
The dark and strong Mata Fina grown in the northern part of the Recôncavo is called Mata Norte, and that figures predominantly in the Dona Flor blend. The sorting process results in the poorest leaves being packed up for bulk export to Africa, for dark cigarettes, with other short filler going to the Caribbean and some long filler exported to Europe. The best is tied into hands, graded and separated. The lower-end leaves will become short-filler cigars. The best will go to make Dona Flors.
All this sorting, curing and aging takes time, to say nothing of work, but in this part of Brazil, people still know how to work, and there seems to be plenty of time. The sun moves slowly across the sky, and then there's the bell for the morning coffee break, with café au lait and the Brazilian version of French bread that tastes so impossibly good, served with butter and guava jam. Then some more work, and a lunch hour long enough so that everyone can go home. And then there's the afternoon work, and then maybe just before the next coffee break, Toraño will pronounce a bulk cured, ready for the next stage.
"Paciência," counsel the workers at the final sorting table. Patience is key, they grew up understanding, if you're in the business of making lace, or a first-rate cigar. These women, old and young, but all sharp of eye, sit at a long table, assessing size, color, integrity of the leaf, and a subject Menendez speaks about in very serious tones: consistency. The women nod, as they continue their sorting, setting aside the longest and most perfect leaves for binder and wrapper.
The cigar rollers sit apart, at individual tables, smoothing the binder, and then pressing the bunch, which includes the filler, into their molds. As they roll the wrapper around the bunch, they finish the cigar in the Cuban style, with the three-seamed cap they call tres vueltas.
"The tres vueltas take more time," says Felix Menendez, "and it's not everyone who still does it."
The carefully constructed cap slows production, and is one reason why Menendez Amerino says it will produce only three million Dona Flor cigars this year, which will sell in the United States for up to $14 per cigar. The true question is what kind of reception will they receive in the United States.
Dona Flor herself, of course, would be undeterred. It's not hard to imagine her here, trading her famous spices—she was a chef—for the best Mata Norte, smoothing each leaf with a close eye for Menendez's consistency. Dreaming, perhaps, of her first husband as she rolls, snips, rings, bundles and presses the final product.
Victoria Shorr, a writer specializing in Brazilian topics, is finishing a book about bandits roaming the northeast of Brazil in the 1930s called Glimpses of God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun.
Photo by Christian Cravo