Cigar.com was founded by and is still managed by a staff of passionate cigar lovers with one goal in mind: to provide an uncompromising level of service to our clients through an expert staff of the industry’s most knowledgeable tobacconists and consultants. For those of you who have had the privilege of working with our staff in completing your orders, you most likely experienced the fruits of these efforts first-hand, but what goes into becoming a Cigar Expert at Cigar.com? Our staff undergoes rigorous and ongoing training, not just in the office, but with boots on the ground where tobacco is grown and cigars are made to truly understand everything there is to know about cigars from the ground up!
We visit Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic frequently, hand-selecting our production and monitoring tobacco harvests, preparing years in advance to ensure Cigar.com always stocks all your favorite brands, and that we are receiving the best of the best in terms of the quality of our allocations. During these trips, our tobacconist staff frequently accompanies our buyers for on-location training. Just this past spring, one of our finest consultants was offered the chance to visit Nicaragua with me: Tina Edwards.
When we touched down in Nicaragua’s Managua airport, we were exhausted. Having met at the office at 2am for our drive to Philadelphia, followed by a connection in Miami, we were all in need of some rest. But we had a two hour drive ahead of us to Estelí to meet with the guys at My Father Cigars, home of Don Pepín García. We caught a quick nap on the ride before pulling through the gates at the factory, one of the largest in Nicaragua. We got to look around and spend some time with Pepín and his son Jaime. Despite our best efforts to get them to disclose their new releases for the summer trade show, we did get a chance to try a special blend we’ve been developing in conjunction with their factory. By now the day was winding down, so with cigars in hand we drove back to the hotel for a much-needed dinner and sleep.
On day two we were awakened by the "town’s alarm clock." Every morning, without fail, a siren sounds in the center of town at 6am, rustling up the residents of Estelí for another day of work. While the noise is certainly startling, I much prefer it to the old alarm clock in my room at the hotel. At least the siren lacks a snooze button, ensuring we peel ourselves out of bed. After a traditional Nicaraguan breakfast of eggs, rice, beans, and cheese, a full day of training was in store for Tina. We started out at my favorite farm, "Joya de Estelí" (not to be confused with Joya de Nicaragua, the cigar brand). Joya de Estelí literally translates to "The Jewel of Estelí," which is a fitting name in my opinion, because it is one of the most beautiful farms in the area with the best tobacco, nestled just a few kilometers east of the Pan American highway. The farm’s productivity is due in large part to its dark and rich soil but also because of its irrigation, which is easily accomplished with the help of the Rio de Estelí river that runs right through the center of the farm. Here Tina learned about the agricultural side of tobacco, including the seeds, seed beds, and greenhouses where the plants form their roots before being transplanted into the field. Because the farm is planted over the season in stages, we were able to see and study plants at all stages of development in the process. This wasn’t all note-taking. With machetes in hand, we helped pick leaves and cut stalks until about mid-morning when we delivered our harvest to the curing barns where the raw leaves were turning from their natural green to a golden, oily, brown.
Leaving the farm, our next stop was at a tobacco processing facility. We arrived just in time to meet AJ Fernandez who was on his way back to his factory but graciously stuck around to show us the pylons (stacks of fermenting tobacco) from the prior year’s harvest. Fermentation can take as long as two to three years when done correctly. The moisture from the tobacco naturally breaks down the organic materials in the leaf. As the process slows, the pylons are rotated and water is added to continue the process. After fermentation, the leaves are then deveined, which is no easy task as we sat with the staff attempting to pull the central veins from some filler tobaccos.
We refueled with a hearty lunch before heading to the Plasencia factory where Tina received a behind-the-scenes look at the cigar-making process. From the tobacco banks to the production floor, no step was missed as we spent the afternoon with the head quality control supervisor who discussed all of the things to look for when identifying problematic cigars and what it is that makes a particular cigar most desirable.
Our last stop for the day was at Tobacco Home, Estelí’s largest box maker. Despite all of the equipment, the box-making process is surprisingly manual and labor intensive, with artisans and craftsman carefully shaping and staining each box. We spent some time developing some new packaging concepts before retiring back to the hotel for the evening.
Day three was met with yet another siren at 6am. We conducted a brief tasting seminar at a restaurant after breakfast, covering all concepts from balance, body and complexity in preparation for what promised to be the best day yet: rolling school and cigar blending! We drove from the hotel back to the Plasencia factory where Nestor Plasencia greeted us with his signature warm smile. As Tina went right to work at the tables with a master roller, I ventured back to the blending room to prepare the wide array of tobaccos available at the factory for the blending project. When I returned to her a few hours later, I was amazed to see she had taken to cigar-making like a duck to water. While some of her final samples had a near perfect shape, I ignored some of the first samples she made, which were hiding in the corner of her table. While they were meant to be toros, I jokingly referred to them as figurados. For those not familiar with the skill required to roll a premium cigar, let me tell you, it is no easy feat. A good roller spends years perfecting their craft.
I walked Tina back to the blending room where the tobaccos had been neatly organized by seed, priming, and farm. After a brief tutorial on each tobacco, we smoked some pure grade leaf, carefully jotting down notes and familiarizing ourselves with the various possible ingredients before engaging in a debate as to what kind of cigar we wanted to make. Each leaf is carefully selected for its flavor, but strong consideration is given to how the various tobaccos interact with each other in the blend. After some trial and error, we had a finished product that we were only somewhat happy with, but it was certainly a humbling experience as we burned our young samples next to some of the factory blends that took months to develop.
While I’ve done dozens of these trips to ensure our staff has the highest competence in everything cigars, I’m reminded of my first trips to cigar country over a decade ago and how much our staff has grown over time. If you haven’t had a chance to work with any of our expert tobacconists, you’re missing out on a tremendous opportunity. From answering your questions to making custom recommendations, they can help you get the most out of your cigar hobby (and your cigar budget too for that matter).