When I pass through our sales area and listen to our expert tobacconists taking calls and fielding questions, I always hear our customers ask, “What’s new?” If you have been following our catalogs for the last six months, then you no doubt realize we have been featuring some of the latest releases and hottest brands the industry has to offer. As cigar lovers continuously try out new and vintage blends, cigar makers feel an ever increasing pressure to bring innovative lines and brands to market. To appease customers and accommodate new releases year after year, the pressure to be innovative passes on from the cigar maker and blender right down to the grower, pushing the envelope of feasibility and demanding new tobaccos and processes to keep up with ever-changing consumer trends.
Innovation at the agricultural level is tough. It involves patience and a sizable investment, as land in some regions is scarce and devoting time and earth to new experimental crops can be a gamble. At the end of the day, tobacco is a commodity much like coffee, and like coffee, the price increased considerably over the last several years. As supply has tried to keep up with demand, new growers have started planting crops every harvest year. Increased competition has made growers more receptive to experimentation, and many offer unique leaves that are rich and flavorful with excellent yields.
During a recent trip to Nicaragua, I had a rare opportunity to visit two of the largest growers in the world. I got to see what they have been up to in the experimental arena, and even got an unprecedented look behind the proverbial curtain. While many harvests were at varying ages of readiness for market, it was fascinating to not only see new seed strands and soil experimentation crops, but also to taste these unique yet familiar tobaccos.
Sumatra Honduras and Nicaragua
Sumatra is one of the most workable and versatile tobacco seeds in the world. Originally grown and harvested in Indonesia, it has been planted all over, from the Philippines to Ecuador and Mexico. In 2012, the famous Plasencia family successfully grew a small test crop of Sumatra seed tobacco on a small amount of acreage in their Honduran and Nicaragua farms. Grown under cheese cloths (shade growing), they were able to match the natural cloud cover that exists in some of the most productive regions for growing Sumatra seed wrapper. The results are still pending, but I had a chance to smoke some of the earlier harvested leaves. They reminded me greatly of the finest Sumatra grown in Ecuador, with unique, spicy, and earthy qualities. In terms of appearance, the wrappers were flawless, providing a clean look and even color that can only be achieved by the labor intensive process of growing under cloth. This could be a landmark turn in Sumatra wrapper growing for the cigar industry and the most notable innovation for Sumatra in decades. Limited supply and increased demand has created a shortage of full flavored Sumatra wrappers. Not only does the advent of growing in Honduras and Nicaragua promise to close that gap, it provides a unique new flavor and take on the wrapper, which is a fan favorite in the States.
This type of ground breaking innovation is nothing uncommon for the Plasencias. Several years ago, they grew the first Connecticut seed crop in Honduras, which was also done under shade cloths and is being met with rave reviews. You’ll find it on some of the newer cigar releases over the past two years, including La Gloria Cubana Retro and Ramon Bueso Odyssey.
Perhaps one of my most exciting discoveries was at Oliva’s NICAPROSA facility in Esteli. Oliva Tampa (not be confused with the Miami Oliva family, who is best known for the Oliva cigar brand) has been growing tobacco for almost a century and is one of the titans of the leaf business. Without a doubt, Oliva Tampa tobacco dominates in terms of popularity, as cigar makers pine over every leaf they grow. The quality of the materials is best evidenced by the cigars they compose, which include a majority of Cigar Aficionado’s annual Top 25 for the last five years. The Oliva Tampa family is credited as being one of the pioneers of the Ecuadorian wrapper, specifically Sumatra and Habano seed varieties. Over the last decade, Ecuador has quickly spring boarded to the top of the list when it comes to growing wrappers, and is favored for its natural cloud cover.
John Jr. met me at their processing facility in Esteli and eagerly showed off a very rare crop of Cameroon seed wrapper that was grown as an experimental harvest several years back. The tobacco was amazing, encompassing all the sweetness I have come to appreciate and expect from Cameroon, with all the bite and beauty that the Ecuadorian wrapper is known for. It was exceptionally well balanced and burned like a dream. The only disappointment was the realization that this tobacco will never make it to market in any sort of quantity, as John explained that, “It is simply too costly to grow given the yields.” He went on to say that, “We set aside the entire harvest for private use, as we do our very best selections from our farms growing Habano and Sumatra seed. We are working on a very special project right now for an extremely limited line of cigars that will use these experimental tobaccos, as well as those set aside as our family reserve.” He divulged that the yet-to-be-named project and cigar line will not hit the market until spring of 2014, and I could barely hold back my enthusiasm. This will be the blend to watch.