The layers of thick gray smoke make it difficult to see the men sitting in the small room. Each man has five or six cigars burning in ashtrays, like players with cards face up on a table in a game of five-card stud. The conversation is friendly, yet there's a competitive edge to the words being spoken.
"What do you think of this cigar?" asks a man sitting behind a desk, handing another man a cigar. The second man takes the corona in his hands and grins as he looks at it and smells the wrapper. He bites off the end of the cigar and draws on it, unlit. He smiles again, then kindles it with a butane lighter and takes a few puffs.
"Is that strong enough for you?" asks the first man.
"This is powerful," says the other man with a huge smile, as he slouches in an armchair in some sort of relaxed tobacco nirvana. "It must be all ligero leaf, but I detect a good amount of Ecuadorian tobacco in this one, due to its salty character. You must be using binder from Ecuador, but maybe the filler is also from there?"
"You're right, Henke," says Manuel "Manolo" Quesada with a smile. Quesada owns MATASA, one of the major producers of premium cigars in the Dominican Republic. "You are always frigging right."
Henke (pronounced Hank-key), more formally known as Hendrik Kelner, is one of the Dominican Republic's most knowledgeable tobacco men. He is a small, unimposing fellow with a soft, cozy look and a big warm smile. At 50, Kelner is to Dominican cigars what chefs Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon are to French cuisine. They are all masters in their fields, transforming raw materials such as tobacco or food into something fabulous.
Born and raised in a Dominican tobacco family, Kelner is unmatched in the country for his knowledge and understanding of tobacco and cigar making. Since 1984, his company, Tabacos Dominicanos, S.A., has been producing some of the most sought-after handmade smokes to come out of this island cigar paradise: Davidoffs, Avos, Troyas and The Griffin's. He is the unofficial tobacco guru for almost all the cigar producers in and around the city of Santiago, constantly stopping by the other factories for coffee and a cigar to discuss the various aspects of cigar production.
"What can you say about Henke?" says Quesada. "He certainly knows his stuff."
Adds Avo Uvezian, the founder of the Avo brand: "He is really the master. There is no better man on this island for making cigars. No one knows more about tobacco and no one makes them any better."
Kelner overhears Uvezian's praise but seems to take it all with a large grain of sea salt. He rolls his eyes in slight embarrassment as he sits on his office couch smoking a Davidoff Gran Cru. He would never speak that way about himself, or just about anyone else he knew. Indeed, all he ever wants to discuss is tobacco. The man is totally obsessed with the leaf.
"I love every aspect of cigar making, from the tobacco fields to the rolling galleries," says Kelner with a slightly guilty look. "People sometimes ask me what stage of cigar production I like best. I can't make up my mind. I like it all. Besides, it all happens at different times, with the exception of cigar making. The crop is from October to January, February. The fermentation process is April, May, June and July. And we finish everything in November." Then, for Kelner, it all starts over again.
Kelner's zealotry for tobacco is almost the stuff of legend. He spends hours studying every aspect of cigar making: soils and climates of the tobacco fields, temperatures and efficiency of fermentation, quality and style of cigar rolling and, finally, the aromas and tastes of different blends and cigars. He probably hasn't read a novel or watched a film in years. He's too busy reading and writing about the various aspects of Dominican tobacco and cigar making. He has reams of documents, magazines, graphs, slides and books about tobacco and cigar production.
"I am convinced that the only way to make quality cigars is to have control through the entire process," he says as he puffs away on what must be his 10th cigar of the day. "The problem with the cigar business has been a question of tradition. Traditionally, even before the Cuban Revolution, cigar producers did not have much to do with tobacco growers. They knew everything about making cigars, but very little about growing tobacco."
Tobacco growing is certainly one area in which Henke outshines many of his contemporaries, no matter where they originate--including the Dominican Republic, Honduras or Cuba, Kelner works with a core of tobacco growers about a half hour's drive from Santiago near the town of Villa Gonzalez. He logs in thousands of miles a year crisscrossing the Yaque Valley in his battered 1988 burgundy Jeep Cherokee, visiting growers and checking on the tobacco fields. Kelner has even created his own tobacco growing map for the prime Dominican regions, denoting the styles and qualities of the various plantations up and down the valley. It's a little like the classification system for Burgundy vineyards, which ranks particular plots of land according to their soil, climate and quality for growing grapes.
It all makes Kelner better informed about tobacco. With about 1,200 acres of tobacco under his control, Kelner has long-term contracts to buy tobacco from about three dozen farmers each harvest. He treats them more like family than like business associates since he knows that he has to get the best possible tobacco from them. "The quality of the different processes at the tobacco farms is crucial," says Kelner. "If you make a mistake with growing or processing the tobacco, you can't reverse the problem. You have to be right the first time. So, I rely on my growers to do things properly.
"It depends on the time of the year, but during the growing season, I may visit each farmer a couple of times a day," he says, emphasizing that he gives them technical advice as well as fertilizers and other products to grow a successful crop. "I like to see with my own eyes what happens with the tobacco. I like to see the ripening of the tobacco, the quality of the leaf. I also like to see how the farmers are handling their tobacco and see the conditions in the curing barns."
Kelner must know and understand the origins and quality of all the tobacco he uses, since he is one of the few premium cigar producers in the world who base their cigar blends on specific farms. From the moment he receives the tobacco from his various farmers, he maintains and processes each crop separately until the tobacco is finally blended for a particular cigar. Kelner, a keen wine drinker, likes to compare the way he makes cigars to the production of great red Bordeaux. Both are blends of different components--tobacco and grapes--with their own unique character due to their provenance.
"One of the most important things is to keep everything separate," says Kelner. "I keep track of every leaf from every farmer at every step. Then you can make real decisions on blends. The only problem is that you have to keep a good inventory of tobacco, and financial people sometimes don't understand this. You can't make great blends without a good inventory of different tobacco. The tobacco from all my farms are different. You can have one next to the other and they may seem to have the same seed, soil and climate, but you have different quality. There are small differences in everything."
Driving through the tobacco fields in late January, Kelner wore a huge smile as he visited a handful of his growers near the towns of Villa Gonzalez, Navarette and Jacagua. A policeman on the road might have mistaken Kelner for someone who had a few too many cervezas at lunch, considering his jolly mood and rather erratic driving, but Kelner was high on the excitement of one of the best harvests in years. Although the Dominican Republic had plenty of rain and cooler than normal temperatures this year, the tobacco was in beautiful condition--and there was lots of it. "The last time we had a harvest like this was 1992," says Kelner, as he swerves to miss a tractor and roars down the highway, which runs the length of the valley. "This year is really a great crop for us. We can use the tobacco much more quickly, since it is a lighter style of tobacco. We don't have to age it as long; plus, we have a large quantity. It is about 60 percent larger than last year's crop."
Eladio Diaz, Kelner's right-hand man, was equally enthusiastic about this year's crop. Diaz and Kelner are inseparable, with Diaz primarily involved with production. "I have worked for 16 years with Kelner, and we really complement one another," says Diaz. "He is really the expert in tobacco and I take care of the processing and production."
Kelner's manufacturing operation consists of two factories: one for Davidoff, called Tabadom, located on the outskirts of Santiago, and the other in Villa Gonzalez. He has about 550 employees, including about 119 cigar rollers at Tabadom and 110 rollers in Villa Gonzalez. The latter factory produces about 5 million cigars a year, while Tabadom makes more than 6 million. The Swiss-based company Oettinger owns a large chunk of Kelner's firm, although he claims he still retains the majority interest.
"Davidoff would like us to make 18 million cigars a year, because I am sure that we could sell more than 20 million, but we don't want to grow too quickly," says Kelner, who plans to make about 15 million cigars in 1996. "We still have to maintain our quality, and it's difficult if you grow too quickly."
Kelner has come a long way since 1984, when he was a general manager at the Dominican Republic state tobacco company, Tabacalera S.A. An industrial engineer by training, Kelner worked primarily in cigarette production, although he was instrumental in reestablishing a premium cigar factory for the state-run company. "It was really good for me to work in the cigarette business," he says. "The business is very advanced and very high-tech. I learned a lot, especially about tasting, flavors, analysis and other aspects of tobacco. When I decided to go into the cigar business, I decided to apply some of the technologies from the cigarette business to cigars. The cigar industry has been too traditional in the past. New ideas and technologies must be applied to making cigars, as well as maintaining the important traditions."
Watching his two factories in action, a visitor would be hard-pressed to see many innovations. Nearly everything is still done by hand, which follows Kelner's view that making cigars should remain an art. The new ideas and methods Kelner has incorporated at his factories are mostly behind the scenes, in tobacco processing and quality control. It was Kelner's dedication to quality and his frustrations with the government's bureaucratic mentality that had convinced him to leave his state job and strike out on his own. "I had some major problems with people working for the state," he recalls. "I basically treated my job like I was in a private company, and that didn't go over so well. I loved my job because I loved tobacco, but one day I decided that it wasn't worth it anymore. I wasn't making that much money and I was always fighting with people."
In 1984, after nearly 15 years with the state tobacco group, Kelner founded his own cigar business. He discovered that it was relatively inexpensive to get started. With loans from friends and family, he opened his first factory--the same one that now makes Davidoff cigars and a few other brands in Santiago. "I started off with $8,000 of my own money," he says with a laugh. "In total, the investment was about $80,000. We started making The Griffin's brand and inexpensive bundled cigars. We didn't have many contacts in the industry. We were making less than 1 million cigars in the first year. In the second year, we were up to about 1.5 million and by the third year, we were close to 2 million."
Remarkably, Kelner never thought about making his own brand at the time, although the thought does cross his mind from time to time. "Of course, I have thought about it," he says. "I would love to have my own brand, a Kelner brand. But my customers might start thinking that I am using my best tobacco, my best rollers for my brand and not theirs. I don't need that. For me, it is more important to make very good cigars for my customers. I don't need the fame of my own brand."
He definitely has plenty to contend with already, as production is soaring for most of his major brands. In 1995, production from both factories totaled: Davidoff, 5.5 million; Avo, 1.4 million; The Griffin's, 1.2 million; Paul Garmirian, 600,000; and Troya, 300,000. Kelner's forecast for 1996 is 6 million Davidoffs, 2 million Avos, 2 million The Griffin's, 700,000 Paul Garmirians and 300,000 Troyas.
In addition, Kelner has a few experimental projects under way, such as growing a couple of acres of shade- and sun-grown tobacco for wrappers. "I am very excited by these projects," he says. "The quality is very good. I don't think that I would get into the wrapper tobacco business. It's too expensive and I have enough going already. But maybe I can interest another company to do so."
Kelner is always brewing up new ideas. He never seems completely satisfied. After lunch at his home in Santiago, with his wife, Enilda, and five children (the oldest is 22 and the youngest is two), Kelner sits with a small glass of Spanish brandy and a Davidoff double corona. He puffs on the cigar and talks about life--family, cigars, friends, wine and just about anything else that comes to mind. The man looks totally content, but then someone brings up Cuba. Kelner perks up, puts down his glass and thinks for a moment. "I would love to make cigars with Cuban tobacco," he says with an almost dreamy look in his eyes, as he watches the smoke from his cigar float into the room. "But it would be a blend. I am sure that Cuban tobacco and Dominican tobacco would work well together."
Who knows what the future holds for Kelner. Cuban cigars, Dominican wrapper leaf--there doesn't appear to be much that Kelner can't do with tobacco when he puts his mind to it.