Big Smoke Saturday Seminars: Tobacco Lands

There is often a disconnect between the smoker and his cigar. Like in the food industry, consumers can be oblivious to the farming and cultivation required to bring their neatly packaged products to the market. The challenges are numerous and the second Big Smoke seminar brought some of the world's largest growers on one stage to discuss the history, agriculture and terroir of their tobacco.

Our panelists included Alejandro Turrent of A. Turrent Cigars in Mexico; Eduardo Fernandez, owner of Aganorsa in Nicaragua; Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana in the Dominican Republic; David Perez of ASP Enterprises Inc. in Ecuador and Josh Meerapfel, grower of Cameroon tobacco. Most likely, you have smoked tobacco from at least one of their farms.

"Tobacco is the lifeblood of the cigar industry," said Turrent, "but if you don't have great tobacco, you don't have anything."

The Turrent family has been growing tobacco since 1880. Alejandro is fifth generation and grows a tobacco varietal called San Andres Moron.

"You can get filler, binder and wrapper from this tobacco," he assures. "Sweetness is one of its main characteristics, but it also has some strength, a unique taste and excellent combustion."

For this type of tobacco, Turrent employs a method known as stalk cutting, whereby most of the plant is still attached to the stalk when it is culled. "The juices are still in the stalk and when you hang it [to cure], the leaves get the juice, the nutrients and the flavor," said Turrent who also grows Cuban-seed, Sumatra-seed and Connecticut-seed tobacco in Mexico.

But according to Eduardo Fernandez "Nicaragua is the closest thing to Cuba. The flavor, the aroma and the strength is very unique and it blends well with other tobaccos. Nicaraguan Corojo and Criollo are very sought after."

Litto Gomez describing his tobacco experiences.
Litto Gomez describing his tobacco experiences while Josh Meerapfel listens.

Fernandez outlined the three major growing areas of Nicaragua: Jalapa, which grows Cuban-seed tobacco spawned from Cuba's famed Pinar del Rio region; Condega for strength and sweetness; and Estelí, which yields a tobacco that burns very white, though is difficult to cure.

If you are a fan of the nutty and subtle spice of quality Cameroon wrapper, you have Josh Meerapfel to thank not only for growing and disseminating it, but for saving the leaf from extinction.

"The French had a monopoly in Cameroon" said Meerapfel. "But by the early 1990s, they no longer wanted it and abandoned the operation. There was a big shortage of the tobacco, so we took over the operation of the French government. The tobacco almost disappeared."

Meerapfel's family has been growing tobacco since 1876. They started in Germany. The Meerapfels have dealt with many tobacco varieties throughout their long history, from Indonesian tobacco to Cuban to Cameroon. They were major players in the world of Cuban tobacco.

Litto Gomez, owner of the La Flor Dominicana brand, does not have such an extensive history.

"I started making cigars in 1994," he said. "By 1997, I needed stronger tobacco from the Dominican Republic and realized that I had to grow it myself. Eduardo [Fernandez] gave me the first seeds for the Dominican tobacco I still grow today."

Gomez grows much of his tobacco on the La Canela farm in the Dominican Republic.

At the foot of the Andes mountains in Ecuador, David Perez grows Ecuadoran Connecticut-seed wrapper, a light tobacco that flourishes under the cloud cover of the region's hazy skies-a widely used alternative to Connecticut shade wrapper grown in the U.S. Perez's family has been growing tobacco since 1890, starting in Cuba.

"In 1960 when Fidel took power, the government offered my grandfather one plot of land," explained Perez. "He said 'You are not giving me land, you're taking it away,' so he left Cuba, taking with him his car and his monkey."

Eventually, Edgar Cullman, former owner of General Cigar, enlisted his father's and grandfather's expertise for growing candela wrapper in Connecticut.

This lead his family to Nicaragua in 1971, until the Sandanistas forced them out.

Now, Perez has 700 hectares (about 1,729 acres) in Ecuador dedicated to Connecticut-seed tobacco from a hybrid.

He also grows tobacco in Nicaragua and Peru, though he maintains a traditional approach to the growing and curing methods. "When technology advances, people tend to lose their jobs. I employ at least 5,000 people in Ecuador."

According to Meerapfel "nothing has changed. We use the same seed, same tobacco, and the same soil."

Between the five dedicated growers, their farms continue to bring an unprecedented variety of tobacco to the cigar market, keeping it interesting, vibrant sophisticated and flavorful.

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