Cigar Diary: A Quiet Champion

Rick Meerapfel restored the reputation of Cameroon wrapper. He will be missed.
| By James Suckling | From Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

Rick Meerapfel was a hero for cigar smokers, even though very few people knew of his achievements. Cigar industry insiders credit him with single-handedly saving Cameroon wrapper from extinction in the early 1990s and with continuing to improve one of the world’s great cigar-smoking tobaccos.

Meerapfel, 52, died last November of a heart attack while visiting friends in Miami. His sons Jeremiah, 26, and Joshua, 23, will continue their father’s work with the help of their grandfather Heller, 82.

“The cigar world has lost one of the great experts on tobacco,” bemoaned Carlos Fuente Jr., a close friend of Meerapfel and one of nearly 100 friends and family who traveled to southern Germany for his burial service on December 5. “Sure, he knew Cameroon wrapper well, but he knew all the great tobaccos in the world…plus he was instrumental in creating the first blend for our Don Carlos line. I am really going to miss him. He was a great friend and a great family man.”

Meerapfel’s accomplishments in Central Africa are all the more impressive when one considers that Cameroon wrapper tobacco is grown in two of the most dangerous and corrupt areas in Africa—the countries of Cameroon and the Central African Republic. I still remember traveling to the tobacco fields of Central Africa with Meerapfel in the summer of 1997. It was one of the scariest trips I had ever taken. But it also gave me a deep admiration for the work Meerapfel was doing along with his African colleagues. The experience made me appreciate the silky brown, sweet wrappers one can find on such excellent cigars as the A. Fuente Don Carlos line, the Ashton Heritage and General Cigars’ Partagas brand.

Getting around in Africa’s tobacco country was the biggest challenge. Driving conditions were dangerous due to massive ruts in the hundreds of miles of red dirt roads and huge lumber trucks rumbling by every few minutes. Police manned the various roadblocks, toting loaded automatic weapons and regularly demanding $20 to $30 bribes. On our trip, we were effectively arrested at gunpoint at a checkpoint a few miles from the Central African border in Cameroon after some confusion over our identities with the local magistrate. I almost had to change my underwear when the guard wearing mirrored sunglasses pointed his AK-47 through the window of our four-wheel-drive Nissan pickup and told us to come with him to his police station. Even Meerapfel looked slightly worried when he was taken into the building to be questioned. We had to wait in the parking lot.

 “This is Africa. What more can I say?” said one of the African managers of CETAC SA (Compagnie d’Exploitation des Tabacs Centrafricains), a private company jointly held by the Meerapfel family and the local Africans. It grows, contracts, processes and ships premium tobacco from Cameroon and the Central African Republic. There are actually two CETACs now, one in each country. I heard that phrase—“This is Africa.”—on an hourly basis throughout the trip. The locals simply shrugged their shoulders when another obstacle complicated their daily tasks.

Meerapfel returned from the police station with a big smile on his face about 20 minutes later. “There was some confusion with orders from the local government,” he said, laughing and drawing on an A. Fuente Don Carlos Robusto. He looked a hell of a lot less nervous. “Boy, are they going to catch hell with the local mayor when he finds out what happened.”

Meerapfel took such incidents, which seemed to occur regularly, without ever getting too upset. He was focused on one thing, producing great tobacco in Africa, and he didn’t want to waste much time on local politics. “That’s not our problem,” Meerapfel said during the trip. “We are here for the tobacco and to run a serious business. Politics and other things do not concern us.”

Meerapfel had seen it all. His family, through its Brussels-based company M. Meerapfel & Söhne, had been buying Cameroon tobacco for decades. The biggest problem over the years had been obtaining quality wrapper tobacco from Central Africa, a region stretching from Baturi, the eastern section of Cameroon, east across the continent’s midsection to the western section of the Central African Republic. That’s why Meerapfel began his operation. “I couldn’t just let it go,” Meerapfel often said. “I had to do something to keep the tobacco going.”

Some cigar manufacturers, such as Altadis U.S.A. (formerly Consolidated Cigars), which produces the non-Cuban H. Upmann, began using Indonesian wrapper tobacco when it couldn’t get what it needed from Africa. It recently has gone back to using some Cameroon tobacco since Meerapfel’s success.

Meerapfel created CETAC with local businessmen and almost completely without government involvement. The then president of the Central African Republic had supported the idea of a private company establishing itself in the tobacco business. By the time other government officials realized that they missed an opportunity to get their hands into the fledgling company (something Meerapfel probably would not have allowed anyway), it was too late. Some bureaucrats in the Central African Republic government tried unsuccessfully to hinder CETAC’s development through legal and illegal methods. Meerapfel once said that a government official asked during a meeting with CETAC when his new Mercedes would be delivered to him in return for business concessions. Meerapfel answered, “Never.” Meerapfel allegedly told another politician to send in his résumé to CETAC if he thought he was qualified for a position with the company, but he wouldn’t automatically be given a job based on some sort of spoils system.

Before CETAC, Meerapfel and other companies bought Central African tobacco from the French government, which for decades monopolized the crop from Cameroon and the Central African Republic through operations controlled by its tobacco monopoly, SEITA. The French ceased operation in Central Africa in 1993, claiming there was no longer demand for the tobacco and that the enterprise no longer fit within SEITA’s goals. The Africans apparently went to Meerapfel for help when the French pulled out. Even though most people said that he was crazy and that nothing could be done, he worked hard to create his company with the Africans.

Straight talking, honest and down to earth, Meerapfel preferred talking about tobacco and other good things in life like family, friends, travel, fine wine and food instead of getting involved in politics. When he set out to do something, he did it. “What my father did was amazing,” said Jeremiah, his older son. “We are going to continue his work to the best of our ability. His dream lives.”

Meerapfel also had a wicked sense of humor. During my trip, I spent a half day walking through the Central African jungle visiting small growers in tiny villages reached by small dirt paths. The growers lived in mud huts with nothing more than a blackened iron cauldron as a possession. Speaking through an interpreter, Meerapfel explained how they should grow and harvest their tobacco, and when they should ship it to the central warehouse for processing. “James, it’s good to have you here with us,” he said as we walked through the thick vegetation with the sun burning the backs of our necks. “One of the last tobacco technicians from our company who was on this path had a small problem here. A leopard attacked him. Luckily he had a hunting knife and managed to kill the cat.” To this day, I am not sure if Meerapfel was joking.

Yet, it was obvious that he took his work in Africa seriously. Not only was he building its global reputation for great tobacco, he was helping the people of two countries. He was a legend with the locals. “It means a lot to me,” he often said. “We are helping the Africans help themselves.” Through the work of his company, which employs about 5,000 people, CETAC has enriched the lives of more then 100,000 people, from the small farmers to local mayors.

I still remember his words one day when one of his bulldozers broke down about 15 miles from his base in Gamboula, Central Africa. The company couldn’t get the parts in Africa to fix it and the machine was stranded on a muddy road in the middle of nowhere. The bits needed would not arrive for another week or so from Europe. “People have no idea what it takes to put up a building or anything else around here,” he said, shaking his head in frustration. “It really is against the odds. You have to be determined to do it. Otherwise, you will never succeed. However, should we fail, there will be no more wrapper coming from Central Africa. So I am not going to fail. I don’t want to let the Africans fail, either.”

He didn’t. And he certainly didn’t let down cigar lovers around the world who enjoy a cigar with good Cameroon wrapper. Near the end of my trip in Africa, he asked me a question late one night. We were sitting on the veranda of his plantation house in the middle of nowhere in the Central African Republic. “I wonder if some banker in New York, smoking his cigar with Central African wrapper and with a glass of fine Scotch, has any idea what it takes to get tobacco out of here? He probably doesn’t care. But I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. I love it here doing this; and in the end, we both love cigars and we love what we do.”

He was probably right. It’s hard to realize the incredible dedication it takes to grow outstanding wrapper tobacco in a place like Central Africa, but at the end of the day, it’s the love of a good cigar that keeps us going day in and day out. That’s what Rick Meerapfel knew better than most.