The cargo ship Katerina sits at the dock in Veracruz, Mexico. The hulking orange behemoth looks as old as the port city itself, more rust than metal. A crane slowly lowers steel I beams into her belly, cargo for the upcoming journey out of the warm Gulf of Mexico and into the vast Atlantic.
Veracruz is the start of the journey for most Mexican cigars heading to the United States. Lately the number of shipments has been low. America seems to be losing its taste for Mexican cigars. Last year, fewer than 6 million premium Mexican cigars were imported into the United States, half the number exported in 1998 and a fraction of the 26.2 million shipped in 1997, the biggest year for Mexican cigars in recent memory.
In a recent poll on Cigar Aficionado Online, 51 percent of respondents named Dominican cigars as their favorites, followed by 19 percent for Cuba, 14 percent for Honduras and 12 percent for Nicaragua. Mexico received 1 percent of the vote.
Mexican cigars have an image problem. "They were blue-collar cigars," says James L. Colucci, the senior vice president of marketing and sales for Altadis U.S.A., the owner of the Te-Amo brand in the United States. Mexican cigars' cheap price tags (few Mexican smokes retail for more than $5), probably hurt their sales during the cigar boom.
"It was the everyman's cigar," says Colucci. "Everyone could smoke a Te-Amo. And during the boom, people didn't want to smoke the cigar that everyone else could smoke."
Both the Turrent family, makers of Te-Amo, and Altadis claim that Te-Amo sells roughly 7 million cigars a year in the United States, which is possible allowing for large inventories of Te-Amos shipped from years past. Annual sales were about 12 million during the cigar boom, according to Colucci, but the brand is still comfortably the best-selling Mexican cigar in the United States.
Mexico's cigarmakers have traditionally used only locally grown tobaccos, making what's known in the business as a "puro." (Cuban cigars, which are made entirely from Cuban tobacco, are also puros.) Restrictive tariffs made the importation of foreign tobaccos prohibitively expensive, keeping Mexican cigars all-Mexican up until 1996, when a brand called Excelsior hit the market after tarriffs were eased. The cigars were made with Connecticut-shade wrappers, a blend that didn't set the American market on fire. (The brand is no longer sold in America.)
The original Te-Amos, being all-Mexican, can't match the complexity of flavors generated by cigars made in countries such as the Dominican Republic or Honduras, where one cigar might contain a blend of tobacco from four or more nations. Now, the Turrents are creating a Mexican cigar that tastes decidedly unlike anything ever made in the country before: a cigar with a new breed of Mexican wrapper tobacco filled with a blend of leaves grown outside the country. It's Te-Amo's new Aniversario cigar, which features a dark, oily Habana2000-seed wrapper grown in Mexico, and a blend of Nicaraguan and Dominican filler. There's a dash of Mexican filler thrown in for good measure.
The change is coming from the most unlikely of places--one of the oldest cigarmakers in the world. Since 1880, the Turrent family has been growing tobacco in the lush San Andres Valley of southeastern Mexico, an agricultural area southeast of Veracruz. The family owns Nueva Matacapan de Tabacos S.A. de CV, the company that makes Te-Amo cigars. "The soil is very rich here," says Alejandro Turrent, a member of the fifth generation of Turrents to work in the family business. As evidence of the soil's power, he points to the many "living fences" that line the highway from Veracruz to San Andres. Hammer a severed piece of a tree into the ground to make a fence post, and within four months or so it might begin to grow leaves. A few years later, it will be a tree once again.
Alejandro is the son of Turrent patriarch Alberto Turrent IV, whose great-grandfather migrated from Spain to Mexico in 1880 and began growing tobacco. His descendants, all named Alberto, followed in the family footsteps. (When asked why he didn't name his son Alberto, the white-haired Alberto Turrent IV smiles. "Too many Alberto Turrents.") The Turrents originally exported leaf tobacco to Europe, primarily Germany, but that market dried up with each world war. It wasn't until 1964 that the family began exporting cigars, sending the first Te-Amos to New York City. It was the perfect time for Te-Amo, and the perfect city: the largest cigar-smoking town in America was looking for a replacement for the earthy Cuban tobacco that it could no longer buy in the wake of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
The San Andres Valley sits snugly around a lake and is guarded by a pair of dormant volcanoes, San Martin and Santa Marta. A frozen gray-black river of old lava (locals say the last eruption was in the 1700s) bisects one of the Turrents' tobacco farms. The family grows three varieties of tobacco here: San Andres Negro, which grows nearly black, and is harvested by cutting the entire stalk of tobacco, rather than priming leaf by leaf like most tobacco; Habana2000, a silky, smooth tobacco that's new to the valley; and Sumatra seed, the khaki-colored wrapper tobacco that covers most Te-Amo cigars. From the 1970s through the 1980s, New York City cigar stores lived and died on Te-Amos. Old-time cigar retailers from Manhattan recall the days when everyone sold Te-Amos for the same price, but no one knew what the other was paying. These were the days before a cigar retailer could make a $4 profit by selling a cigar for $8. Some cigar merchants sold cigars at cost, making money on other items in the store, but New York retailers made a then-cool 20 percent on Te-Amo sales.
Mexican tobacco might not get respect when it is packaged in Mexican cigars, but the country is a major supplier of tobacco for cigarmakers in other countries, particularly the Dominican Republic. Macanudo, the most popular cigar sold in America, is made with a Mexican binder and a healthy dose of Mexican filler. Partagas has Mexican tobacco, as does Royal Jamaica, Habano Primero 365 and Quintero.
Alfons Mayer, the longtime tobacco buyer for General Cigar, is a big fan of Mexican tobacco. His shirt pocket is always brimming with a fat fistful of Canaria d'Oros, which are made with Mexican filler (plus Dominican), Mexican binder and Mexican wrapper. General makes the inexpensive cigar in the Dominican Republic. Maduro smokers are almost certain to puff on Mexican tobacco--most maduros are made with either Connecticut broadleaf or San Andres Negro, a small Mexican plant that when harvested and treated properly turns as black as midnight.
Nueva Matacapan makes about 14 million cigars a year, most of them Te-Amos. About 3.5 million Te-Amos are sold in Mexico, making the brand the best-selling premium cigar in its home country, although many more short-filler cigars are sold locally than long-filler varieties. The Nueva Matacapan factory has 450 workers, 150 of them cigarmakers.
The future of the company lies in the hands of the best-trained cigar rollers, who are working on the Aniversario line. Mexican cigars have been criticized for their construction quality, but Matacapan's top torcedores possess world-class skills. The workers pause as they slowly roll the new Aniversarios, tearing out veins as they go, resulting in an ultrasmooth wrapper. The factory supervisor, Pedro Fidel Gomez, 77, once rolled cigars at the H. Upmann factory in Havana. Today he supervises the 150 cigarmakers at Matacapan, and in his spare time he shows off an unusual skill. A rabid baseball fan, he's crafted a baseball bat and a baseball (with seams) out of cigar tobacco. He's working on a mitt, but the middle finger is giving him trouble. "It took five minutes," he says of the bat, a proud smile crossing his wrinkled face.
The Te-Amo Aniversarios have great potential--a pair of the cigars (the Churchill and the Perfecto) scored 88 points apiece in the June issue of Cigar Insider, a newsletter put out by the publishers of Cigar Aficionado. At a suggested retail price of $4 for the Churchill and $5 for the Perfecto, they're bargains.
Unlike traditional Te-Amos, which come in unvarnished, plain boxes, the new Te-Amos come in elaborate, numbered boxes. They're dressed up, more sophisticated Te-Amos for a tougher American cigar market. It's a new look aimed to bring new life to Mexico's best-selling cigar.