Nicaragua's phenomenal growth in the cigar world, which has taken it from being off the radar screen to number two in the world, was the subject for the final seminar of the Big Smoke Las Vegas Saturday session, and John Oliva Jr. of the renowned Oliva Tobacco Co. family of tobacco growers was offering an explanation: "If you want your cigar to taste like something, you choose Nicaragua. Nicaragua has, for lack of a better term, balls."
Whatever the nomenclature, growth in the country that once saw its tobacco production devastated by a debilitating civil war has been phenomenal-a rate of 10 percent a year-as Nicaragua now threatens to overtake the world-leader, the Dominican Republic.
A confluence of great soil and weather and a population skilled at processing tobacco were all reasons given for the Central American countries preeminence. "We are not rich in land," said Nestor Andrés Plasencia, of Plasencia Tobacco, "but the land we have is very rich."
The panel of four speakers also included Eduardo Fernandez, of Aganorsa, and Alejandro Martinez-Cuenca, of Joya de Nicaragua, with Cigar Aficionado senior editor David Savona moderating.
Fernandez, of the fast-growing tobacco company and maker of Casa Fernandez cigars, emphasized the stability of the country, which in the 1980s was overrun by combat. Today, he said, the political situation has normalized, labor relations are good and the social environment is one of tranquility. "You can walk the streets at night and you don't have to worry. We all are investing in Nicaragua because we believe in it."
Martinez gave historical prospective to the discussion as the owner of a brand that was the only company exporting from Nicaragua in the 1970s. The company's Antaño 1970 cigar remembers its dominance in the market at a time when Joya de Nicaragua was the official cigar of the White House. But that was before political turmoil in the 1980s threatened to destroy the industry. Today, the industry employs some 25,000 in the country and offers a "standard of living that makes them happy." He added that just five years ago, Nicaraguan production was half that of Honduras and a quarter of the Dominican Republic.
Plasencia stressed that the country's people have "tobacco in their blood," which makes them adept processors of tobacco. Martinez concurred, adding that "the people of Nicaragua are not inheriting the Cuban desire to work with tobacco, they have had it since before Christopher Columbus. Theirs is a spirit that is reflected in our tobacco."
The panelists also discussed the diverse types of tobacco that come from Nicaragua, which allows for complex blends made from leaf grown exclusively in that country. Plasencia mentioned Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, "so imagine the quality of that soil, it is 100 percent volcanic soil." He cautioned, however, that the leaf has to be used sparingly as it can overtake a blend.
Fernandez discussed Jalapa, a region he compared to Cuba's Pinar del Río with its reddish, sandy soil. The area he said, was especially good for growing wrapper tobacco. Oliva stressed that Estelí, with its thick clay soil, is where tobacco blenders look to find strength: "When you want to kick up a cigar, that's where the balls come from." Fernandez added that the medio tiempo of Nicaragua can be like alligator skin. "Ligero that coarse is only produced in Nicaragua."
Innovations in tobacco growing were also a topic for discussion. Plasencia said that he was working on hybrid that would have a resistance to blue mold, the tobacco scourge that can wipe out whole fields in a matter of days. Oliva said that he, too, was working on blending seed types to improve yields.
Plasencia described an organic crop that he recently developed using manure that was processed with worms, producing something he calls earthworm hummus. "I went to my dad with this crazy idea," he recalled, "and he was more crazy than I am: he let me do it."
A Plasencia Reserva Organica Robusto was included in the Humidipak bag of goodies passed out to each attendee for smoking at a later time. Fernandez included one of his Casa Fernandez Aganorsa Leaf Maduro Robusto Extras, made with the medio tiempo he had referenced earlier, and Martinez gave out one of his new CyB cigars in a 6-inch-long, 48-ring-gauge format made specifically for the seminar attendees.
Among the predictions for Nicaragua's burgeoning future was Martinez's view that direct competition with Cuba would soon come. "Nicaragua is getting ready for a big fight with the opening of Cuba, and that challenge is going to happen." However, he added that Nicaragua had "nothing to envy from Cuba. We are getting ready for that fight and we are going to win."