Cigar Aficionado

In the Fields of Jalapa

Daybreak came all too soon Thursday morning in Estelí, Nicaragua. It had been a late night at the Nicaraguan Cigar Festival—or early morning, since I didn't hit the sack until 2:30 a.m.—and the cacophony of cigarmakers coming to work roused me out of bed before 7 a.m. The workday begins early in Nicaragua, and this is no place for a person to sleep in.

I needed to be up anyway, as I was due to spend the day with the team from Aganorsa, one of the largest growers of cigar tobacco in Nicaragua. If you smoke Casa Fernandez, that's one of their brands, and it's made entirely from their tobacco leaves. If you smoke other cigars made with Nicaraguan tobacco—Illusiones, Padillas, even Padróns—if might have Aganorsa in there as well.

Aganorsa grows 1,200 acres of tobacco in Estelí, Condega and Jalapa. I joined up with Aganorsa owner Eduardo Fernandez, his dynamic duo of Cuban tobacco experts Arsenio Ramos and Jacinto, and his cousin Paul Palmer. After a quick stop in an Estelí field, we went on the long, bumpy drive to Jalapa.

Jalapa is in the north of Nicaragua, right near the border of Honduras. It's a rich, vibrant valley with reddish-brown soil similar in many ways to that found in the Vuelta Abajo of Cuba. (Jalapa is at a higher elevation and is much drier than the Vuelta Abajo.) This is the region of Nicaragua that yields the most wrapper. The tobacco from here tends to be more elegant, thinner and better for wrapper than anywhere else in the country. When we arrived at a shade-covered field, I took out my video camera and had Eduardo describe the genetic traits of Corojo-seed tobacco.

Eduardo and the Aganorsa crew agreed with the people I've been speaking to about the state of the 2010-2011 crop. It's very good. Some have called it great, like Pete Johnson of Tatuaje Cigars. He was raving about the lack of rain during the growing season, which tends to concentrate the power of the tobacco, leading to more ligero, a more vibrant crop. Eduardo showed his true farmer's side, knocking his knuckles against a wooden fence when he said things were good "so far." This guy isn't counting anything yet until it's all done.

We saw many, many fields today. Some were complete, having been entirely harvested of tobacco; others had plants that were 20 days old and the size of a head of lettuce from a supermarket; others were taller than me. The Aganorsa folks, like other tobacco growers, stagger their plantings to maximize the capacity of their casas del tabacos, or curing barns, as well as their workforce. It's quite an intense process, requiring six day long work weeks.

The tobacco is harvested and then cured, and it emerges from the barn looking brown and ready to smoke. But if you puffed this leaf you would get sick, and it would taste horrible. It needs fermentation. After touring the fields, we went to the pre-industrial area in Jalapa where Aganorsa works its tobacco, fermenting it in large bulks known as pilones, which exude ammonia and other impurities, making the tobacco better and better. How do you tell when it's ready? This is when the taste buds go to work.  

Arsenio rolled up a crude cigar made solely of Jalapa medio tiempo, which I lit up and puffed. It was strong, flavorful, but linear, nice stuff for a blend but needing the company of other leaves. Then he rolled a second purito of Estelí ligero, from Corojo '99 seed, just like the other. I puffed this one and it was full of hickory flavor, with more power and considerably more complexity than the first.

Arsenio cut the head off of the cigar I smoked and tried it himself, then the other. He theorized it would be a good blend. Then he made the blend himself. Watch.

I've seen a lot of cigars being smoked, but Arsenio's way of making a blend was a new one for me. What a great way to conclude a long, enlightening day in the tobacco fields of Jalapa.