Nicaragua's Power Leaf

The cigar world turns once again to the potent tobacco of Nicaragua
| By David Savona | From Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

Something is wrong.

The visitor has been to Nicaragua before, but this is his first time during tobacco season. His black boots are coated with a layer of tan dust, a kiss from the dry weather that has scorched the Jalapa Valley for weeks. The midday sun beats down on his bare neck and arms, turning them red, and he squints at the mountains in the distance, which serve as the border of neighboring Honduras. This is the most prized growing area of Nicaragua, where dictator Anastasio Somoza once grew acre after acre of tobacco on farms named La Mia and La Suya, mine and hers.

Turkey buzzards fly at impossible heights, riding the heated air above with ease. Below, the visitor looks skeptically at a three-acre plot of tobacco. In his mind, he's comparing the sight before him with the tobacco fields of his memory, plants that he's seen in Connecticut, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador. Something just seems wrong.

The plants are too small.

The tobacco has been in the ground for months, and is almost ready to be primed, removed of its leaves one row at a time beginning with the row closest to the black soil. The tallest plants barely reach his neck, and are dwarfs compared with others he has witnessed.

Jorge L. Padrón isn't concerned at all. These are his plants. The 33-year-old is just shy of six feet tall, with a dark head of hair cropped in a short and fashionable style, and a solid build. He has a heavy brow that gives him a serious, pensive visage that hides a sharp sense of humor. A dark, round cigar bearing his name is clamped in his jaws. It was rolled this morning, and one of the tobacco leaves inside his cigar came from this farm.

The plants on the farm are Cuban-seed, growing in open sunlight without tents to shelter the glare of the sun. The Padróns simply call it Habano. This is the only type of tobacco they grow, and the only tobacco they use. From these modest plants, the family-owned company will get all of its cigar tobacco, from filler to binder to wrapper.

It's not an easy task. Conventional wisdom says that you don't grow premium wrapper tobacco in the open sunlight, certainly not in a place like Nicaragua, which has an unforgiving sun during the growing season. Certainly not with a seed like Habano, which grows squat, thick, dark leaves, not the big and silky variety prized for wrappers.

One Habano plant will grow 16 to 18 leaves, and most will become filler tobacco. Only two to four of the best from each plant will make the grade and be used as wrapper leaf. All of the tobacco, from this farm and the other 14 Nicaraguan farms that the Padróns own or contract, will be used by the Padróns. They sell cigars, not tobacco.

"We grow for ourselves," says Jorge Padrón, standing before the small plants. A puff of smoke is swept away by a stiff breeze that makes the green leaves bow a bit closer to the ground. "The person that grows tobacco to sell, it's not in their best interests to grow sun-grown."

Padrón's company, Padrón Cigars Inc., makes one of the hottest cigars on the market, the all-Nicaraguan Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series. That brand is a major reason why Nicaraguan tobacco and Nicaraguan cigars have soared back to prominence in the United States. Tobacco fields that were once studded with mines during the Contra war are again lush with plants. The tobacco industry has recovered from the destruction wrought in the field-to-field fighting during the 1980s and the U.S. embargo on Nicaraguan goods from 1985 to 1990. The country is rebuilding roads and bridges washed away in the relentless rains of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Nicaraguan tobacco farmers have largely escaped the malaise affecting their cousins in the Dominican Republic, where overplanting led to a government effort to slash plantings to minuscule levels. While fewer plants are in the ground in Nicaragua today than at the height of the cigar boom, there is a comfortable amount of planting going on.

More and more frequently, cigars with Nicaraguan tobacco are becoming mainstays in American cigar stores. Tabacalera Perdomo S.A., a Padrón neighbor in the cigar-making town of Estelí, makes several of its own Nicaraguan-powered brands, such as Perdomo2, as well as several contract brands, most notably the extremely popular C.A.O. L'Anniversaire eXtreme, which is all-Nicaraguan except for the wrapper.

"There're only two countries in the world where you can make cigars entirely from their tobacco, and it's not Mexico. It's Cuba and Nicaragua. Both of those countries have the most fertile dirt in the world for tobacco," says Nick Perdomo Jr., the outspoken owner of Tabacalera Perdomo. "It's almost like God said, 'I'm going to pick these two countries and I'm going to use them for tobacco.'"

Perdomo uses Nicaraguan tobacco in all of his cigars, and uses Nicaraguan wrapper on his Perdomo2, but he's not a tobacco farmer. Perdomo relies on outside vendors to supply him with leaf, including one of the biggest growers in the area, ASP Enterprises Inc., owned by the Perez family out of Miami.

"We grow an original Cuban seed from the 1960s that my dad adapted to the climatic conditions in Nicaragua," says David Perez, president of ASP. "We're been growing in Nicaragua since 1971." In Nicaragua, ASP grows solely in the Estelí area, concentrating on filler.

"The soils there are quite good for filler-type tobacco," says Perez. "It's a much stronger filler, with a much stronger character and taste compared to other places."

The strength of Nicaraguan tobacco also makes it popular with non-Nicaraguan cigarmakers. It's the tobacco of choice for spicing up a blend, particularly when cigarmakers are trying to appeal to connoisseurs who like hearty smokes. Litto Gomez, who makes cigars in the Dominican Republic, relies on Nicaragua for his strongest cigars, the La Flor Dominicana El Jocko Perfecto and the new Tubos. Onyx Reserve, the high-scoring, high-octane new cigar from Altadis U.S.A., has a bit of Nicaraguan tobacco in the filler blend and a Nicaraguan binder.

Tobacco from Nicaragua was widely considered to be the best in the world before civil and guerilla war ravaged the country in the late 1970s and '80s, even better than tobacco grown in Cuba's legendary Vuelta Abajo, depending on whom you ask. Rumors were rampant that Cuba herself once used Nicaraguan wrappers on her cigars. Today's Nicaraguan tobacco is very, very good -- perhaps not as good as in the past, but good enough so that the same rumors persist today.

The view on the 2001 crop is mixed. Some farmers are calling it a great year, with high yields and top-quality leaves. Jorge Padrón has a more skeptical view. He says it can't compare with the 2000 crop, a phenomenal year when his company hauled in 480,000 pounds of tobacco, about a five-year supply at its current production levels of 4 million cigars. Still, the 2001 crop isn't bad. Sure, the season has been drier than normal, but blue mold, tobacco's version of the black plague, has been kept to a minimum. With so much tobacco from 2000 jamming his warehouses, Padrón isn't losing sleep over the average-sized crop.

Padrón sleeps his best on his trips to Nicaragua, better than he does back home in Miami. It helps that the kids—Jorge Luis, 2, and Daniela Sophia, 1—are back home and that Estelí, where Padrón rolls its Nicaraguan cigars, is at the bottom of most lists of best places in the world to throw a party. The nights are largely silent, until the roosters scream at the sun around 5:30 a.m. If that doesn't wake you up, there's always the air-raid siren at 6.

Jorge and his father, Jose Orlando, typically have their first cigar of the day in their mouths by the time the siren goes off, hours before breakfast but after a bracing cup of ultrasweet Cuban coffee. After all, there's always quite a bit to do when they're in Nicaragua.

First and foremost, there's tobacco sorting. Since the Padróns plant only one type of tobacco, and determine later which leaves of it will be used as filler, binder or wrapper, the only way to get the different components is by careful sorting after maturity. Leaves that are broken become filler. Leaves that are solid but not so attractive might become binder. The best, undamaged leaves become wrapper. The best of that becomes wrapper for Anniversary cigars.

"We get natural and maduro from the same plant," says Jorge Padrón. "Retailers say it's not easy to distinguish between our natural and maduro. A lot of it is in interpretation." A Padrón natural might be golden brown, or dark brown. Maduros are usually close to black. He smiles. "That's why our inventory is a pain in the ass."

The best Padrón wrappers are silky and fine, and look as if they were grown beneath cheesecloth shade, but they are simply the lucky leaves that were shaded by a higher leaf. The family has little respect for traditional shade-grown tobacco.

"We've never used any shade-grown tobacco in our cigars," says Jose Orlando Padrón. He's a serious-looking man with a weathered, expressive face that commands respect. When he speaks, the 75-year-old often punctuates his words with a pointed finger. "When Cuba was making its best cigars ever, it was using sun-grown tobacco." Jose Orlando has been making cigars for 37 years, trying to emulate the taste of the sun-grown-wrapped H. Upmanns he knew as a young man in Cuba.

"The problem with sun-grown," he says, "is that you only get two or three leaves [from each plant] that can be used for wrapper."

Tobacco growing is a creeping, slow process for the uninitiated.

It takes 40 days for a seed to grow into a four-inch-tall plant, big enough to go from the seedbed to the tobacco field. After three months in the field, the leaves are harvested, then put into tobacco barns for about two months to dry, or cure. (Temperature, humidity and rainfall can change the time needed at each step.) Then the tobacco is brought to a warehouse, where it's fermented. This crucial process removes the ammonia and other impurities in the tobacco that make it taste harsh, and can take about one year to complete. Then the tobacco is aged, in the Padróns' case for three to four years. When the process is complete, the tobacco inside a cigar can be five and a half years old.

The Padróns get a complex taste in their cigars by blending tobacco from different areas of Nicaragua. "We use tobacco from 15 different farms," says Jose Orlando. To an expert such as himself, the differences are extraordinary -- a bit of elevation here, extra rocks in the soil there -- but even an amateur can see some of the differences. Condega, a town about four hours north of Managua, features soil that's nearly black and even sprouts the occasional cactus, which seems out of place in the grassy surroundings. The soil in the Jalapa Valley, near the Honduran border, is reddish brown and not as rocky.

The Padróns are standing inside a gloomy tobacco warehouse, surrounded by bulks of dark tobacco that come up to their chests. Jose Orlando digs his hands into the pile, the heat from the pressure and moisture warming his hands. He brings out a hand of tobacco, several leaves tied together at the stem, and removes one dark leaf. He tears it out, then wraps the leaf around his burning cigar. He puffs, hand on hip, staring at the wall, testing the tobacco. It's a process he'll repeat more than 20 times before the long day is through.

Lunchtime in the Jalapa Valley, and the guest of honor has finally arrived. He's sitting in a plastic bucket, being carried by a pair of husky tobacco farmers, and he's been sliced into five pieces.

He's the roast pig, and he's going to feed Nestor Plasencia, his son, Nestor Jr., the Padróns, four tobacco farmers and the visitor from the United States. The traveler waits at the table before getting the scoop on proper pig roast procedure -- the feast begins in the kitchen. As the cook grabs random pig parts and starts slicing hunks of pork for the table, the farmers reach in for a strip of salty skin or a tender hunk of rib. Later, over plates heaped with yucca and garlic, black beans, rice and the pork, the men crack jokes as they sip what passes for cold beer.

Few men laugh as hard or as hearty as Plasencia, today one of the largest tobacco farmers and cigarmakers in Central America. But in the 1980s, his business prospects were bleak. His crops had been wiped out by merciless attacks of blue mold. He was deep in debt to one bank, and his chances of paying the bank back apparently sent his banker to the hospital. Plasencia paid the banker a friendly visit in the hospital as the man was recovering from a triple coronary bypass -- the banker joked that he had had one blocked artery for each of Plasencia's companies.

Plasencia barely pauses as the cook hands him a plate sagging from the weight of a thick slice of pork, but shakes his head "no" as the visitor offers him yucca. "I am on a diet," he says, seriously.

Today, the only way that Plasencia stresses out a banker is when he threatens to move his wealth out of a financial institution. His pockets are stuffed with millions of dollars made by selling unnecessary bits of his two-nation tobacco empire at the height of the cigar boom, and he's the primary source of the popular Habana2000 wrapper.

The money has changed some things -- his truck is new and cozy, and he's even allowed himself the luxury of a global phone, the type with an antenna the girth of a thirty-aught-six rifle that can reach anywhere on the planet via satellite for a hefty fee. "Short calls," Plasencia deadpans, booming a mock phone call to the lunchtime crowd. "Hello? We here. Goodbye." He air-slams the phone down, breaking up the room in laughter again.

Plasencia is funny, but he's a sharp businessman. During the cigar boom he claims to have made more than 30 million cigars a year, and he grew much of his own filler. Now he concentrates on wrapper.

"During the cigar boom I grew more filler and I bought the wrapper," he says. "Now I have the equipment, the barns, and I produce wrappers." Wrapper tobacco is where the money is, selling for $20, $30, $40 a pound, compared with less than $10 per pound for filler. "The small growers produce filler for me," he says.

Plasencia grows a variety of wrapper tobacco in Nicaragua, from Connecticut-seed to Habana2000 to sun-grown. The Connecticut and Habana2000 seeds grow tall, proud plants under cheesecloth shade.

"The shade has several purposes. It lessens the intensity of the sun. The plant, seeking photosynthesis, grows taller," explains Plasencia. "As the plant grows, the leaves get thinner. It also protects from insects and creates more humidity."

Plasencia isn't afraid to try new things. The Habana2000 has worked beautifully, and he's placed his son, Nestor Plasencia Jr., in charge of an organic tobacco project. Nestor Jr., 26, is shorter than his father, but has the trademark Plasencia stout frame and an easy smile. He's growing his second full-sized crop of organic tobacco, about 50 acres' worth.

"My grandfather started growing here in Nicaragua," says Nestor Jr. "It's hard work. You don't want to be the weak link in the chain."

Nestor Jr., who was trained as an agronomist in Honduras, digs his hands into a sandbox-sized tub of dirt and begins to wax eloquently about humus (which he pronounces ooom-uhs). It's worm shit, part of the all-natural fertilizer employed on the farm.

The Plasencias own a massive farming operation in Nicaragua and say they farm more than 500 acres in the country, with about 400 acres over the border in Honduras. More land is grazed by the thousand Sabu cows Nestor Plasencia owns, thus fertilizing the land for future plantings as crops are rotated. In one area, an army of sprawling tobacco curing barns cover the landscape like a tiny city. Habana2000 cures in some barns, Connecticut shade in another, green candela in yet another.

Later, on the long drive back to Estelí along the dusty, broken road to Jalapa, Nestor Sr. turns serious. "I came to Nicaragua when I was 15 years old with my parents. The Castro government confiscated our business in Cuba on October 3, 1963." Numbers and dates come easily to Plasencia, who has an unnerving attention to detail. "My father came here, to Nicaragua, working in Jalapa. I studied agriculture." Then, the unthinkable occurred. "In July 1979, the Sandinistas took the government. They confiscated all assets, we moved across the border [to Honduras]. February 1980, the blue mold entered this country. It was the first time [blue mold appeared] in Central America. The first crop the Sandinistas grew had blue mold."

The blue mold attacked across political boundaries, striking the Sandinistas and their victims with ferocity on both sides of the border. Plasencia lost crop after crop to blue mold, as did other growers. The problem became so severe that they abandoned their traditional practice of planting tobacco in the fall -- today, most growers in Central America plant in January and finish the harvest by April or May. And the days of twice yearly harvests are over.

The truck grows silent. The road is one long construction zone, and the work crews have stirred up dust storms of biblical proportions, which coat the car. With the setting sun glaring in the windshield as he drives west and south, Plasencia grows silent as he steers.

The visitor sits back in his seat and reflects. The blue mold is under control. The days of war seem a lifetime away. And the tobacco seems as if one day it could rival the legendary tobacco of the past. He organizes the thoughts of the day, and looks forward to the cigars of the evening.

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