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The Dominican Cigar Explosion

With 1996 Cigar Exports up 70.9 Percent to About 140 Million, Cigarmakers in the Dominican Republic Have Shifted into High Gear
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 1)

"It is the best crop I have ever seen both in quantity and quality. The weather has been almost perfect," says Kelner. Farmers in the Dominican Republic planted 27,832 acres of premium tobacco for this year's crop, 53 percent more than the 1995-1996 crop. (Tobacco growers speak of harvests in split years, since the planting begins in late fall and finishes in late winter.) "There's going to be tobacco for everybody who wants to make a cigar," says Alvaro Quesada, president of the Association of Tobacco Exporters of the Dominican Republic.

A healthy Dominican tobacco crop is essential to the cigar industry. Not only is the Dominican Republic the leading producer of premium cigars for the United States, but cigarmakers around the world rely on Dominican tobacco for their blends. It is an essential part of cigars produced, for example, in Jamaica (Macanudo, 8-9-8 Collection), Honduras (Puros Indios, Gispert), Nicaragua (Don Juan) and Mexico (Excelsior).

The only major concern many cigar producers had with this year's crop, assuming no drastic changes in the weather, was whether there would be enough curing barns and warehouses to handle the huge volume of new tobacco. A portion of the 1995-1996 crop was lost due to difficulties in curing and processing. "If the weather stays the same, the tobacco will dry quickly. We shouldn't have a big problem," says Gomez. "But if it becomes wet, we will have a worse problem than in '95-'96, when we lost 30 percent of our crop."

Losing a part of the crop would be nothing short of a disaster. The demand for Dominican cigars has turned the tobacco market in the region into a free-for-all for many manufacturers. Large, established companies such as Tabacalera A. Fuente, General Cigar, Tabadom and others have fewer problems. They have long-term contracts with farmers and processors (packers, as the trade calls them) for good tobacco. But others have been left scrambling to find tobacco. "They basically use what they can get," says Eladio Diaz, the production manager for Tabadom, one of Kelner's cigar factories. "And it can be really bad quality. I have even seen some of these places using coriollo," an inferior type of tobacco usually reserved for cigarette production.

Benjamin Menendez, of General Cigar Co., producers of Macanudo and Partagas cigars, adds, "They will use anything and buy anything. I recently heard of a new factory rolling cigars and they hadn't even stripped the stems of the tobacco for the fillers. There're some really bad cigars out there."

The results of cigar evaluations in Cigar Aficionado underline some of these problems. More and more new cigars from the Dominican Republic and other countries are coming onto the market, and they are often mediocre, suggesting the use of inferior tobaccos. Moreover, Cigar Aficionado has noticed changes in some brands' blends, indicating they do not have the tobacco inventory to maintain their house style. "Many of these new factories have no inventories of either tobacco or cigars," says Wayne Suarez, a director with Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. "How can they produce quality cigars without inventories?"

Another problem for many newcomers is finding the rollers to make the cigars. Many new factories have lured rollers and other tobacco workers away from established firms. Some employees received incentives to change jobs, including small loans, housing or even transportation, but others have moved because they prefer to work near their homes in the country, rather than commuting to downtown Santiago, which can involve hours on a bus each day. "When I took rollers, I never thought of the consequences," says Abraham Shafir of Tamboril Cigars, which opened last year in the town of Tamboril, a move heavily criticized by established cigar firms. "I have never gone to a roller's house and asked them to work for me. I have never paid one to leave a factory and come work for me. They come on their own."

Some other new factories claim the rollers are coming because they are fed up with working for established firms. "We treat them like brothers, like human beings," says Orlando Alvarez, who runs a small factory with a couple of dozen rollers in a tiny building in Villa González called Tabacos M. Cellurales S.A.

Alvarez may be treating his employees like family, but the work conditions at his factory are some of the worst encountered in the Dominican tobacco business. The work rooms are humid, poorly lighted and musty. It is more like a cellar than a small cigar factory. Even the tobacco used is second-rate, resembling cigarette tobacco more than quality cigar leaf. And the odor of ammonia almost takes your breath away.

Whatever their reasons, rollers are certainly changing jobs, often at the expense of the longtime manufacturers who trained them. Fuente and Tabadom each lost more than 100 rollers last year, which angers Kelner and others. "People who pay rollers to come and work at their factory, they are not getting rollers. They are getting prostitutes," says Kelner. "They don't have a factory. They have a bordello." The departing workers included some of his most experienced people.


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