The sun is a stranger here. The thick clouds over Ecuador’s Los Rios province can make one forget that the sky is blue, not a pearly shade of off-white. It isn’t the kind of weather that brings in tourists, but these are the precise atmospheric conditions that can grow pristine tobacco. This is the birthplace of Ecuador Havana wrapper leaf, and demand for this flavorful tobacco is greater now than it ever has been in the history of the premium cigar industry.
Oliva Tobacco Co., the tobacco farming and brokerage organization from Tampa, Florida, grows much of the Ecuador Havana crop. The cigar world can’t seem to get enough of Oliva’s Ecuador Havana, a dark, comely leaf with hearty flavor that is wrapped around such popular handmade cigars as Romeo by Romeo y Julieta, Rocky Patel 15th Anniversary, Arturo Fuente Rosado Sungrown Magnum R, and Herrera Esteli.
Cigar star José “Pepin” Garcia raves about the leaf. “Ecuador Havana wrapper from the Olivas is the best cigar wrapper in the entire world,” says Garcia, whose My Father Cigars uses the leaf on a variety of smokes, including his namesake Don Pepin Garcia. “It has all the characteristics such as a thick, rich and oily structure. It’s also great tasting in flavor and the veins are hardly seen, which makes for a unique type of wrapper.”
A.J. Fernandez, who uses Oliva’s Ecuador Havana on some of his San Lotano Oval cigars, says: “The final product gives very uniform colors and perfect combustion, which provides the flavor and balance of a fine cigar. Between the high natural oil content of those leaves and the ongoing consistency, I think it’s very high-quality tobacco.”
Oliva Tobacco grows hundreds of acres of Ecuador Havana on a host of plantations throughout Ecuador, from the outskirts of Quevedo to the foothills of the Andes mountains in Guayas, more than 100 miles away. The tobacco is spawned from Cuban seeds, and the constant veil of clouds here in this region of South America filters the sun’s rays, ensuring that the wrapper leaves grow not too coarse, not too thick but just right.
“I don’t care how the leaves look in the fields,” says John Oliva Jr. with a shrug, looking over green leaves that hang languidly from their stalks. Officially, he’s the treasurer of Oliva Tobacco Co., but in reality, he’s not only the broker of this end product, but the man who oversees every agricultural aspect of its production, from seed to crop to fermentation.
“How it looks when it comes out of the barn, that’s the important part,” he says, standing on a farm full of lush tobacco located about three hours north from Ecuador’s industrial city of Guayaquil. “Anyone can grow a farm full of pretty tobacco. Once you cure it in the barns, that’s when you know how good the leaf is. Or isn’t.”
At 49 years old, Oliva still has the large, football varsity build and clean complexion of his youth, despite his silver hair. But he’s gentle with the tobacco leaves as he looks them over. This particular farm is dubbed Don Angel, named after John’s grandfather, the late Angel Oliva Sr., who founded Oliva Tobacco Co. in the 1930s. Since Oliva Sr.’s passing, the operation remains in family hands. Oliva Jr. runs it with his father, John Oliva Sr., his uncle Angel Oliva Jr. and his cousin Angel “Trey” Oliva III.
Most tobacco fields are symmetrical and flat, but the leafy plots of tobacco plants here seem to almost meander and undulate, separated by hills and trees while teak forests in the background frame the picturesque parcels. The tobacco here grows in the basin of the Macul River, which pours over its banks on a regular basis. “By March, this whole farm will be underwater,” says Oliva. “The river floods every year. It goes over your head, but I think the floodwaters do something to the ground—leave behind a sediment that adds to the nutrients. If it didn’t, the tobacco wouldn’t be as good as it is.
“These leaves here are probably going to end up on Fuente’s Rosado Magnum line. Maybe even Casa Cuba,” says Oliva, mentioning just a few of the brands that are made with his wrapper, a cover leaf that’s been growing in popularity since Oliva first planted the seed in 2001.
Oliva’s first plantings of Ecuador Havana were modest, only about 25 acres. At the time, the majority of Oliva Tobacco’s business was growing Sumatra-seed tobacco, along with a bit of Ecuador Connecticut.
“Cuban seed tobacco in Nicaragua was coming out so well we decided to do a planting ourselves, and the first harvest turned out beautifully,” says Oliva. The first Ecuador Havana varietal he tried was Havana 2000, which Oliva still plants to this day. “The problem was the bad reputation that Havana 2000 had for not burning well. People blamed the seed strain, but that wasn’t the problem at all. Cigarmakers were putting the wrapper on their cigars right out of the barn and weren’t giving it all the extra fermentation time it needed.”
Oliva wasn’t going to rush his product. He kept all the leaves from the first harvest for more than a year before he even considered selling it. Eventually, Carlos Fuente Jr. of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. bought his first Cuban-seed crop. “I don’t even know what cigar the Fuentes put it on,” Oliva says, “or if they put it on any cigar at all.”
After seeing how well the leaves grew in that test crop, Oliva realized the potential of growing Ecuador Havana wrappers. In 2002, he tripled his Cuban-seed plantings by putting 75 acres in the ground. Each successive year, Oliva planted a little less Sumatra and added more Havana. Now, Oliva grows more Ecuador Havana than any other type of leaf.
The wrapper can be found on some of the most prominent cigars in the premium market. The list of clients is impressive and one would be hard-pressed to find a premium cigar smoker in the United States who has not tried a cigar with an Ecuador Havana wrapper. Part of the allure is not only the pristine appearance of Oliva’s Cuban-seed wrapper, but also its versatility. Wrapper like this melds equally well with either Nicaraguan or Dominican tobacco. Consider the Romeo by Romeo y Julieta brand from cigar giant Altadis U.S.A. Inc. It consists of a dark Ecuador Havana wrapper around an all-Dominican blend, and earned the No. 3 spot on Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars of 2012. Or the Arturo Fuente Rosado Sungrown Magnum R Vitola Forty Four, the No. 5 cigar from 2012, which is also made with a blend of Dominican tobacco wrapped in an attractive, reddish brown Ecuador Havana cover leaf.
Results with Nicaraguan filler are equally impressive. The Herrera Esteli from Drew Estate, Cigar Aficionado’s No. 8 cigar for 2013 sports a lighter shade of lower-priming Ecuador Havana wrapper with Nicaraguan filler. A.J. Fernandez’s San Lotano Oval Corona (the No. 25 cigar of 2012) is a hearty smoke of Nicaraguan tobacco paired with a dark, high-priming Ecuador Havana leaf. Other cigars from the 2012 Top 25, such as Macanudo Crü Royale and Headley Grange by Crowned Heads, are also wrapped in Ecuador Havana.
Like any agricultural product, soil, climate and seed strain dictate the character of the final wrapper. “You know the soil is fertile from the consistency of the dirt,” says Oliva. “This soil is very powdery and loose, but it holds everything you give it and turns black when it’s wet. Nothing drains out. Everything stays in the granules and goes right into the plant.”
The ground he’s describing is the color and consistency of fine cocoa powder, and Oliva’s boots are covered in the dusty soil after only one pass down a row of plants. He fortifies it with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, along with a cotton-seed meal. But he also adds palm oil extracted from the African palm trees found all over the area.
“This oil helps to give the wrapper that natural shine that everyone finds so attractive,” Oliva says. “But you can’t add too much oil to the cotton meal. If you do that, the wrapper will taste metallic.”
After experimenting with other Cuban seeds, Oliva found two varietals that responded best to the fine, loamy Ecuadoran soil found on his fields: Havana 2000 and Corojo ’99. “We tried growing Sancti Spíritus, we tried growing Pelo de Oro,” says Oliva. “They just didn’t work here. Havana 2000, however, is like a super plant. Very robust and disease resistant. The color is rich and the leaf itself is heavy and thick. Luckily, we don’t have the blue mold disease here in Ecuador. Sometimes you get black shank root rot or the plants will get sick and spotty, but nothing epidemic.”
Oliva says he has not had to bring in more seeds since his initial plantings. The first seeds came directly from the motherland, but all subsequent generations of crops were planted from the resulting seeds of each previous harvest. “Our first plantings used original seeds directly from Cuba,” he says. “Since then, we’ve been able to use the seeds spawned here in Ecuador from each crop. There has been no deterioration at all from year to year. If the leaves started to lose their character or didn’t grow properly, we might have to go back to first-generation seeds from Cuba. So far, it hasn’t been necessary.”
Oliva’s plantings of Corojo ’99 seed came later, in 2009. Success with this seed type was almost immediate. “The leaves are smaller than what you get from Havana 2000,” says Oliva, “but they have a lot of body and are very distinct.”
Both of Oliva’s Ecuador Havana varietals typically begin in May as seeds planted in small plastic gardener’s trays inside a greenhouse, where they stay until the sprouts are large and strong enough to be transplanted to the ground, which normally happens around late June. After 55 days, field workers pick off the leaves that grow at the very bottom of the stalk, referred to as lower primings.
This was the stage of the harvest during a November visit. In the fields, a group of workers who had been crouching among the plants stood up from their labors. They had been busy removing the bottommost leaves from the plants. If left on the stalk, the corta bajo, as the leaves are called here, can rob nutrients from the desired, higher leaves, known as the upper primings. A decrease in nutrients can indirectly mean a decrease in flavor. The workers have been toiling since 7 a.m., and now it’s time for them to break for lunch.
“The government leaves us alone to grow in peace,” says Oliva. The Ecuadoran government mandates that at least four percent of his workforce is made up of people with an infirmity or disability, weather it be mental or physical. “I employ a lot of people and Ecuador is mostly concerned with what my business can do for its citizens. Some of our workers are autistic and they have official documentation to prove it. They’re hard workers and I’m happy to have them.”
After the lowest leaves are removed and discarded, the true harvest begins. Over a period of 20 days, workers reap the leaves that grow higher on the plant, and the picked leaves are moved to tobacco barns where they’re hung to dry. This planting and harvest cycle continues until December. Ideally, Oliva aims to produce 1,200 pounds of sellable tobacco for every acre of land that is planted. Of course, the weight is determined after the leaves have been dried and air-cured in the barns. This benchmark yield is for Havana 2000 tobacco. Corojo yields a little less. “I’d love to get the same yields for the Corojo,” says Oliva, “but Corojo just doesn’t give us quite that much.”
In the Los Ríos province, Oliva owns and operates five farms growing a variety of Ecuador Havana, including some experimental hybrids. Oliva maintains that the tobacco from each farm differs in character, no matter how close they are geographically, but he makes no attempt to intellectualize or overthink the defining taste profile of his wrapper leaves. “The tobacco at Don Angel is strong,” Oliva says. “Something about the yearly flooding gives the tobacco some power. This isn’t a scientific analysis, just my own observation. At La Francey across the street, the tobacco is also strong, but doesn’t have the same kick. The wrappers from La Luchita—those have this sweet-and-sour aspect.”
The Guayas province of Ecuador resides in an entirely different region of the country, four hours south on a two-lane road from Los Ríos. The drive snakes through miles and miles of cacao and banana farms whose regimented agrarian landscapes are broken up from time to time only by small villages where a traveler can stop to buy fruit, a Coke or even a Pilsener, the country’s local beer. There is little trace of the Western world and even less cigar smoking, though, ironically enough, the image of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara pops up on the sides of busses, on small billboards and even on T-shirts. While Simon Bolivar is officially memorialized by the state in bronze or stone depending on the monument, it’s the rebellious icon of Che’s image that the people seem to have adopted, especially in the city of El Triunfo. Oliva, a Cuban-American himself, doesn’t find it especially controversial.
“People like to identify with anything that snubs its nose at the establishment,” he says resignedly.
At the very foot of the Andes Mountains in Guayas lies La Mecca, the Oliva family’s first farm in Ecuador. The plantation was acquired in 1979 by Angel Oliva Sr., a tobacco broker from Cuba who founded Oliva Tobacco in 1934. Oliva Sr. sold Cuban tobacco to the American market in the days before the Cuban embargo. After the Cuban embargo, Oliva Sr. settled in Nicaragua and Honduras, before finally exploring Ecuador.
“My grandfather bought the land from the American Tobacco Co., which was already growing tobacco,” recalls Oliva. “It was only 120 acres.” Back in those days, green leaves were in the most demand. “In the ’70s, candela was a cash crop,” he says. “About three years later, he started growing Connecticut seed and Sumatra for Frank Llaneza at Villazon.”
Major expansion came in 1997, and Oliva Tobacco purchased the La Francey and Don Angel farms, which were also used for Sumatra and candela. Some of the Sumatra crop was acquired by the Fuentes, and in 1999, the Fuentes produced the Ashton Virgin Sun Grown brand for brand owner Robert Levin. Full bodied and draped in the dark, oily leaves of Oliva’s Ecuador Sumatra-seed wrappers, the brand became a critical and commercial success.
“After the Ashton VSG, that’s when everybody wanted Sumatra. Llaneza and Ernesto Perez-Carrillo [then of La Gloria Cubana fame] had already been using Sumatra, but once Carlito [Fuente Jr.] made the VSG, the demand grew,” says Oliva.
Today, Ecuador Havana is more the focus. Oliva’s entire patchwork of plantations spans about 600 acres, most of which are dedicated to this very popular leaf. Ecuador Havana can cost a cigar-maker anywhere from $17 to $27 per pound, depending on the quality of the tobacco.
“I grade in five levels of quality, one to five,” Oliva says. “Quality is assessed by texture and color consistency. It can’t have too many veins or blemishes, the color has to be rich and even, and the leaf has to be supple. A lot of the time, you don’t see the flaws in the leaf until after it’s come out of the barn. If it’s perfect, that’s grade one tobacco. Anything less than grade five, and I sell it as binder.”
Although quite necessary to the construction of a premium cigar, binder leaf doesn’t command the same price as wrapper leaf. The binder sits, unseen to the eye of the smoker, beneath the wrapper, and holds together the collection of filler leaves. Aesthetics for binder are irrelevant. When dealing with this behind-the-scenes tobacco, cigar-makers are far more concerned with combustion and flavor. However, one won’t find any filler tobacco in Oliva’s Ecuador operation at all. Despite the fertile land, one would be hard-pressed to find filler tobacco anywhere in the entire country of Ecuador. The reason is simple: It’s too thin.
“Filler tobacco needs body,” Oliva says. “Because the sun’s rays are filtered by the clouds, the tobacco [in Ecuador] never thickens, never gets strong enough for a viable filler.”
After the harvested tobacco from Oliva is hung in a barn to dry for around 35 to 45 days, the leaves are removed from the rafters and packed in 100-pound cardboard boxes, which are labeled by type and harvest date and sent to a heated warehouse. This is where they’re given what Oliva calls a “sweating,” or light fermentation, allowing colors in the tobacco to even out. From there, the tobacco goes to Nicaragua, where the wrappers undergo fermentation at a sorting and processing facility owned by Oliva Tobacco in Estelí. Purchasing agents and brand owners from every walk of the premium cigar industry visit Oliva’s facility to choose tobacco and find just the right shade of color for their existing or prospective brands.
Demand has been so great for Ecuador Havana wrapper that Oliva recently purchased a new property to expand its plantings. They dubbed the land La Lydia, named after John Jr.’s mother. The 325-acre lot has been planted with more Cuban-seed tobacco. As far as Oliva can tell, the demand for the product is only growing.
“There are people who buy my wrapper, but won’t admit that they’re using wrapper from Ecuador,” Oliva says. “They say it’s Nicaraguan. I guess wrapper from Nicaragua is supposed to sound better. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. And even though the seeds are Cuban for my wrapper, I never claimed that anything I grow tastes Cuban. That’s not what I’m looking to do and that’s not what my operation is about.”
The clouds temporarily clear, allowing the sun to come out for a moment or two. This is rare sight for the region. Most of the time, the cloud cover is so thick and constant that the nearby Andes are completely invisible. Now, through a light haze, the verdant mountains appear large and spectral.
At a barn on La Mecca, Oliva inspects some hanging leaves, which have turned brown from the time they’ve spent curing. The tobacco barn smells like honey and yeast as all the wrapper leaves inside slowly ripen. Oliva is pleased with what he sees, and is confident that this wrapper will be of high quality.
Who will end up with the privilege of buying the best? Even among bales of the priciest grade one tobacco, very few groupings can be the true cream of the crop. When asked this question, Oliva lets out a long laugh and then steps out of the barn, shutting the large double doors behind him. He looks out at the mountains that make this land so special, and allows himself a smile as he answers. “They all do.”