Nicaragua is a country of immense diversity – it holds approximately 10% of the planet’s biodiversity between its sprawling Pacific and Caribbean coastlines with high mountain vistas and colonial architecture decorating the lands-in-between. Nicaragua remains one of the poorest, yet safest countries in Central America, still struggling to recover from years of dictatorship, revolution, civil war, and economic collapse. The people have shown not only resiliency, but also amazing character with their hospitality and kindness as colorful as the clothes they wear and the music they listen to.
Our ventures in Nicaragua began in Estelí, one of the world’s most important cigar producing cities. We spent our first day at Oliva, Nicaragua’s second largest grower of Cuban-seed tobacco. Oliva is a traditional family run business and has been in the tobacco industry since 1886 in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba. With the rise of communism the growing operations were however suspended and the focus was shifted from growing to brokering tobacco. In the early 60’s the communist pressure became too great for the family and they journeyed from country to country in search of the distinct Cuban taste. Travels took them to Honduras, Panama, Mexico and even the Philippines. Finally fertile ground was found in Nicaragua.
Our day with Oliva was spent primarily with Maria-Jose who greeted us Latin style with rich, dark Nicaraguan espresso. We were then taken to meet Carlos Oliva along with two other Oliva guys, Corry and Bryan both down from the U.S. for the week. Bryan was in Nicaragua to work on his cigar rolling skills for Oliva’s upcoming cross-country American tour in an Oliva clad Corvette – We look forward to seeing him in Nashville on June 30th , it will be a great time!
Maria-Jose then toured the factory with us, explaining the cigar making process each step of the way. Tobacco leaves come from seeds about the size of a small freckle. The plant will grow for approximately 6 months and then enter into the harvesting phase, “priming” and of course, like much of the cigar making process, this is done by hand. Tobacco leaves are classified into three types with the mildest leaf coming from the lower portion, or the “volado,” the middle section, slightly richer in flavor is known as “seco,” and the top section, with the strongest taste is the “ligero”. Typically, a well-balanced blend consists of leaves from all three sections of the plant.
The leaves are then sorted by size and texture, tied together, hung over long rods in large wooden barns and cured for 25 – 45 days. Curing is an aging process that uses heat and shade to reduce sugar and water content without causing the leaves to rot. Once the desired color brown is achieved, the tobacco is then separated by size, texture, and color and designated as wrapper, filler, or binder.
Next is fermentation where the flavor, burning, and aroma characteristics are brought out. The tobacco is first stacked in what are called “pillons” or large bails in rooms where temperature and humidity are controlled preventing rot or disintegration and allows the leaf to die slowly. The process of fermentation releases ammonia, which for us was very strong to the nose, but apparently you grow used to the intense smell. The tobacco is then compressed and wrapped into bales, ready for the aging process which can take anywhere from 18-24 months.
After fermentation the tobacco leaves are sorted based on overall appearance and quality– the nicer bits are used as wrappers and the not so pretty parts as filler. A cigar will contain between two and four different tobaccos depending on the ring gauge (or girth). During this process, the leaves are kept moist and handled carefully.
The bunching and rolling is done by a “roller” who takes the filler leaves in his hand and presses them together and then takes a “binder” leaf – a leaf that keeps the blend held together and rolls all parts together in a “bunch”. The bunch is cut to the designated length and placed in a 2-piece cigar mold. Once the mold is full it is placed in a screw press for 30 minutes where it is then rotated and sets again for another 30 minutes for uniformity. After the pressing is complete, the “bunches” are removed from the press and wrapped with a “wrapper leaf,” a visually appealing piece of tobacco – this is one of the most crucial elements in the process as this stage creates the appearance of the cigar. The wrapper is carefully rolled on, nearly always by a woman, as our hands are gentle and nimble! Natural glue is then applied to keep all the parts in place.
On average each cigar maker makes around 350 cigars a day. From the rolling bench the cigars are then placed in an aging room where the different flavors “marry” from 21 days all the way up to 180 days. Oliva produces approximately 30,000 cigars a day! Or 29,996 the day we visited as we indulged in a few ourselves.
We thank the team at Oliva for the opportunity to learn the craft of cigar making. Luckily you don’t have to travel to Nicaragua to enjoy an Oliva cigar. Many hands in a far away land work to make beautiful cigars so that we can enjoy them right here in Tennessee! Happy cigar smoking!
For more pictures please check us out on Facebook @ http://www.facebook.com/album.php?id=108237426983&aid=274472