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By: Lindsay HellerThird-generation tabaquero AJ Fernandez is not an easy man to pin down for a chat because he's always working, but the dedication he displays toward his craft is inspiring. The man behind an ever-growing array of highly-rated blends—including the #1 Cigar of 2019—AJ is like the Cuban Energizer Bunny. Learn more about his thoughts and processes below, and why he never puts less than 100% of himself into his work.
LH: You have farms in Estelí, Jalapa, Condega, Ometepe, Pueblo Nuevo, and Quilalí, but which reminds you most of Cuba?
AJF: The farms in Jalapa remind me the most of Cuba. The soil produces tobacco with a unique aroma and sweetness.
LH: You grow a lot of Crillo 98 and Corojo 99, but what about hybrid tobacco? There's quite the obsession to create hybrid tobaccos, whether that be for uniqueness of flavor, or further resistance to disease.
AJF: I have preference for a hybrid—Criollo 98 and Habano 2000 seeds. The 2000 gives it resistance to disease, and sweetness; the strength and incomparable reddish color come from the Criollo 98.
LH: What is a typical day like for you?
AJF: I'm a country boy. You will not find me behind a desk or a computer—my place is on the farms where I like to visit at least twice a day. I see the fields, and then I talk to my farm team about the progress of every lot. After I go directly to the fermentation area, which is another key part of the process. There's plenty of tobacco that needs to be inspected and tested every day, and this is what will end up on the production floor. After I'm done at the pilones, I head to the production floor to see how things are going. After all these tasks, I go to the office to sign documents, make phone calls, etc. I have a great team that helps with everything, but at the same time, this is my passion, and I can't go a day (when I'm not traveling) spending time at the farms, fermentation area, and production floor.
LH: What was it like after you left Cuba for Nicaragua, and you worked in Nestor Plasencia's factory?
AJF: When I came from Cuba it was like a totally different world. I learned about tobaccos I had never even heard of; I had the pleasure of learning about a different type of fermentation, and had the option of more ingredients to make a perfect blend.
LH: Your work with Altadis has meant reimagining classic Cuban styles for an audience that cannot legally purchase Cuban cigars. What do you think will happen if the embargo disappears?
AJF: I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to make the brands I grow. I have respect for all tobaccos around the world, and the people that grow them. I think we are all a big family, and have so much to share with one another. I do think each tobacco has its unique characteristics, and it depends on us to try to get the best out of every leaf, to deliver its best potential to our customers. To meet the demand for tobaccos in any market—especially the US market—there's got to be a plan. I know from experience tobaccos isn't something you can just do from one day to another, so it does require time and preparation.
LH: What advice would you give to an enthusiast looking to train their palate?
AJF: My advice would be to try different cigars, and look for cleanliness—aromas and flavors that you can feel.
LH: There's been debate about Nicaragua vs Cuba, and how the number of expats who settled in Central America helped make non-Cuban leaves superior in flavor and quality. Are you afraid of climate change, and if the demand for Nicaraguan tobacco could create sustainability issues?
AJF: Like I said before we have so much to learn from each other...Yes, Cubans brought some new ideas to Nicaragua, and Nicaraguans also showed Cubans their way of doing stuff, but I think the synergies of knowledge and hard work make for great tobacco.
When it comes to climate and natural resources, water is one thing we need to be concerned about. We at AJF farms take this seriously, therefore we've made big investments in world-class drop irrigation systems for all our farms to save 70% of the water used vs the old methods. We want to be here for a long time.
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