"The circus is the place for me with bears and clowns and noise
I love the shiny music that descends from overhead"-Phish "Roggae"
Beginning in High School up until the point I had my first son, I would spend my time following the band Phish around at every opportunity I had. Sometimes I would just be able to make one show in a run, and sometimes I'd hit up 10 straight along the NorthEast and Mid-Atlantic. Having a June birthday, I can't tell you how many times I spent my birthday party at a show, or how many times New Year's Eve was spent dancing the night away in Madison Square Garden with 25,000 other fans. The great thing about all of those shows - beyond the music - was running into old friends. It didn't matter what state we were in, whether it was summer or fall, or how long it was since we last spoke, when you ran into an old friend on "the lot", it was like just yesterday when you last spoke. The bond and the relationship was so strong.
This was best exemplified in 2009 in Hampton, Virginia. For a variety of reasons that are appropriate for another blog post, Phish broke up in 2004. That last concert in Vermont was the last time I saw or spoke to many of my friends until 2009 in Virginia when the band reunited. If you were observing from the sidelines, you would have thought it was 5 days since I last saw some of these people, not 5 years! The traveling circus was back in town, and everyone was back in the Big Top.
What does this have to do with Drew Estate and the CT BarnSmoker? EVERYTHING! How I never made the connection until this weekend, I don't know. But as I sat there and ran into so many old friends that I hadn't seen in weeks or months or years and we acted like it had only been days, I realized that the traveling circus had come to town and I was happy to be under the Big Top!
My day began around 6:30am (3:30am if you account for my two month old waking me up and not being able to fall back asleep) when I departed NJ on the journey to Connecticut. On my way, I smoked a Tabak Dulce Robusto that I hadn't smoked in a really long time, but was a nice change of pace especially for so early in the morning with my iced coffee. I arrived at the Foster Family Farm in Connecticut at around 9:15am where I saw Sam Morales and KMack who directed me to the parking lot. While registration was slated to begin at 10am, I was surprised to see a good 30 or so cars already there and people were already checking in!
I park my car, light up a Dirty Rat, strap my laptop to my shoulder, and go to check in. At the check-in booth, I'm greeted by Walkin Chin, Matty Rock, Peter Totaro and Dave Lafferty. I see Walkin, Matty and Peter every few weeks or so, but I haven't seen Dave in 3 or 4 years. We exchange a few pleasantries and he hands me a bag with a box in it that contains a BarnSmoker hat and several cigars including an A, a Velvet Rat, a No9, a T52, a Ratzilla, an Undercrown, a Nica Rustica, and an ACID Toast - all of which are made with CT Broadleaf.
I depart the registration booth and walk a trail through a wooded area that leads me to the tobacco field and a giant tent. Along the way, I see Willy Herrera and Mike Garcia chatting in a small tent (that I would later realize was a stop on the tour) and I say Hello before making my way to the main tent. In the main tent, I immediately run into Sam Morales (again), Johnny Brooke who I haven't seen in 3 or 4 years but still keep in regular contact with, and Derek Stewart who is now VP of Cigar Cartel, but who I have known through Reddit Cigar Reviews for several years. We talk for several minutes and even pose in the BarnSmoker Photo Booth before we all go our separate ways.
Its still not even 10am, and I light up my 3rd cigar of the day - a UF-13 - as I run into Jay L who I hadn't seen in several months. Jay is acting as official photographer of the event and we check out the Cigars For Warriors booth together. The booth is selling raffle tickets with several amazing items being raffled off including a 100-count humidor designed by Subculture Studios filled with Undercrown Flying Pigs. As I'm taking some pictures and talking to the CFW team, I accidentally bump into someone. After introducing ourselves, I realize that the person who bumped into me is FedHead Justin who I had never met before but had planned on meeting at the event. I eventually go sit with him and his brother at a table and relax for a little while as we smoke cigars, talk about cigars and beer amongst other things, and listen to the hip hop that is blasting through the speakers.
Around 11:30 or so, JD arrives and immediately takes the stage to officially kick off the day's events and introduce his team. After introductions, the 600 or so attendees are broken up into four groups and the tour begins. The tour consists of four stops, and I think the order I went was ideal. First stop was with Pedro Gomez discussing the seeds used and the initial growth of the plants. The second stop was with John Foster whose family owns and operates the farm since the 1700s where he discusses the machinery used in the farming process. The third stop is with Willy Herrera and Mike Garcia in discussing the leaves themselves and the process of farming the leaves out of the fields. The final stop is with JD in the barn where, in typical JD fashion, he goes off about numerous topics all somewhat based around the initial curing process until the leaf is sent to the factories.
Being on Cigar Safari, I can acknowledge that Drew Estate has done all they can to bring that experience to the US with this BarnSmoker event. You obviously cannot get the factory experience in Connecticut that you will get in Esteli, but this is the same experience for the most part you get in the fields in Nicaragua. Its really a fun event that I will urge others to go when they have the chance as its as close as some may get to experience Cigar Safari.
Around 2:00pm, lunch is officially served courtesy of Bear's Smokehouse. If I had to knock Drew Estate on anything that went down in this first class experience, the lines for lunch were up to an hour long, but this was something the company acknowledged and promised to fix in future events. And, to be fair, the food was well worth it as I pigged out on Pulled Pork, Brisket, some amazing BBQ Beans, some cheesy Mac & Cheese and some cornbread - ain't nothing wrong with that! During lunch, Kyle Henderson of Angel's Envy brought several bottles of Angel's Envy for attendees to sample. After lunch, I contemplated a nap, but instead I lit up cigar #4 of the day - a Barrister Cigars Tienda Exclusiva.
As lunch wrapped up, JD took the stage again to thank everyone for attending and bringing special attention to Kyle Henderson of Angel's Envy, the Bear's Smokehouse team, John Foster and Cigars For Warriors. Pedro Gomez then took the mic to talk about Cigars For Warriors. As Americans, we can all appreciate the work that Cigars For Warriors does for our soldiers, but to hear Pedro, someone who grew up during the Nicaraguan Revolution, talk about how lucky we have it in America due to the sacrifices of our soldiers really highlights the great work that Cigars For Warriors does. Pedro announced that the Barn Smoker event raised over $22,000 for Cigars For Warriors - the single biggest day for the organization. The raffle then occurred, and, unfortunately, I didn't win anything. As soon as the raffle ended, everyone took a group picture and the event ended. During the raffle, Willy Herrera and Steve Saka sat down next to me and were discussing business that I occasionally tried to interject myself into. I could write an entire blog post on that conversation as, in typical Saka fashion, I learned more in 30+ minutes talking with those two than I've ever known before, but I'll save that for later. Several of us hung out for another 45 minutes or an hour talking and saying our goodbyes. I lit up a No9 Pig and wrapped up the day and set off for the 3 hour journey home.
JD highlighted during his closing remarks that he believed this to be the largest single manufacturer cigar event in history, and I'd be hard-pressed to think of another event that could match it. Very few brands in the industry can command the sort of cult following - the traveling circus - that Drew Estate can. As I sat there throughout the day, the hip hop music blasting in the background, the bear mascot in the front, clowns all around me, I kept running into people I've encountered over the years at other cigar events, and even for a few moments, it was like we had been lifelong friends who had just smoked together the day before. That is the draw of Drew Estate...that is why so many fans were up-in-arms when Drew Estate was bought by Swisher...there is a connection that the consumers have with the brand where we all feel like we are part of the company. Just like Phish is almost as much about the parking lot experience and the "phans" as the music, Drew Estate is as much about the traveling circus - the experience, the movement, the family - as it is about the cigars! This isn't Cigar Safari, but its as close as you can get in the US and its one I'm already planning on attending next year...and it will be just like we had all done this before a few days prior!