I woke up fairly early again, around 6am. This morning I finally heard the Esteli sirens going off to wake people up. I lit up a cigar and walked around taking in the Estate and the artwork around the area.
Since most people weren't up I was able to capture a really nice panorama of the mural wall along with the landscape off of the main courtyard area.
Once everyone was up we had a really great breakfast, JD came over and sat at our table to socialize for a while. It was truly an amazing experience to be sitting and chatting with him as if we had all been friends for years.
Jessi came by as we were having breakfast and presented us with our shirts, traveldors and various other pieces people had asked to have decorated . The shirts turned out amazing (I will have proper photos up soon, I promise). I sincerely wish I had been more prepared and had a chance to get one of my traveldors painted as the artwork was clearly something people were going to treasure for a very long time.
After breakfast we all piled onto the bus, Pedro was keeping us tight to our schedule as he knew we had a very full day ahead of us.
We drove out to some tobacco fields, the operation there was about 50-70 acres. Jonathan told us that in a typical date of rolling they can go through an entire 70 acre field of tobacco.
Jonathan spoke at length about the growing operations and how they pick the leaves and tend to the plants. While he was talking the field manager came out to speak with him and Pedro.
From there we walked over to the big curing barns. The interesting thing about the curing barns is that the humidity levels can swing quite a bit. If the humidity levels get too high they dig holes in the ground throughout the barn and set up fires to cook out the humidity.
We walked over to the next barn which was an area where the leaves are hung in pairs. What really stood out for me was the number of people involved in the overall operations. The barn was full of people working all day long, and this was just the initial stage of tobacco production.
We hopped into the bus and headed back into Esteli where we saw a fermentation warehouse. The tobacco is stored in giant bales that weigh 100-220 lbs. The tobacco is wrapped and thermometers are placed in the bales to monitor and make sure they're not too high. Temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees Celsius.
We walked into the dedicated fermentation room and the smell and heat was almost too much to take. My eyes immediately started to water and I began to cough. I was tempted to leave the room but I didn't want to miss out on any of the information that Jonathan was giving us.
We got to put our hands in one of the bales to feel just how hot the center of the bales got. The wall had a large chart where they tracked the bales and rotated the bales around the room to make sure that the humidity and temperature levels were in the optimal range as much as possible. JD mentioned he was looking forward to unifying the facilities under a single factory. Right now the operations are spread out among multiple buildings.
We headed back to the Estate for lunch, some beverages and some down time to socialize with everyone.
The tour of the factory was just a quick walk down the street. We walked into the administration offices and took a tour of the administration area. From there we met the CFO.
We walked into the main factory area and were presented with a 5 pack of limited and pre-release Ligas. I'm really looking forward to reviewing those at a later date.
We took a tour of the acid facilities where they were being rolled and banded. We walked into the completed storage area and the smell was heavenly. Some questions were asked about the infusion process and JD just smiled. It was obvious he wasn't going to reveal any trade secrets. He showed us a tool that measures ambient temperature and humidity using a laser.
Next up was the box and band storage area. The bands are kept under close scrutiny as someone could take the bands and use them on a knock off product which would not only take sales away from Drew Estate, but would also hurt the image of the company if someone were smoking a counterfeit product.
Then we saw the preparation area where leaves were being sprayed down and then the center vein was being removed. Attached was another room where leaves were being hung and dried.
From there we went over to the bale storage facility. Here tobacco was kept for on hand production. When you realized that the room we initially walked into was only the entrance way it was like walking into the Tardis. The warehouse just went on as far as the eye could see with bales stacked to the ceiling. JD mentioned that they were looking to significantly expand their storage area to have at least several years of tobacco available in reserve. When you consider the steps that it took to get to this stage and the amount of money in each bale it's a staggering amount of money sitting in inventory.
We walked into the Liga rolling floors and the amount of people in each area was impressive. Each room had 600+ rollers and the intensity with which they were working was apparent. Even though each person was working with great urgency you could tell they were still having fun.
Their top roller did a rolling demonstration and two people got to smoke a Flying Pig blend without a wrapper.
We got an extended session in the quality control area. Operations and quality control are constantly at odds. Operations is looking to maximize production and quality has to ensure that the production still meets very strict guidelines. Charts on the wall (and throughout the factory) were constant reminders of where production and quality were at for any given day of the month.
One of the highlights of the day was up next. A private blending session with JD and Willy Herrera. Along the far wall were boxes containing all the fillers, wrappers and binders for all the tobacco available from Drew Estate including the new and unrelease KFC. The fun didn't stop there as JD presented us with a special gift. One of the CATs members had brought a special German cigar mold as a present, and JD had taken that mold and each of got a one of a kind 13.5" x 38 Liga Krump. We spent the next hour or so making our way through the various leaves trying to come up with the perfect blend.
Back to the Estate for yet another impressive meal. Once the meal was finished we were told to head upstairs for more surprises.
We were given a special Safari shirt to commemorate our trip. Then we were lead into the poker room and lights were flipped on. On the table was each of our personal blends of the Drew Estate cigars as well as the Joya de Nicaragua cigars. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying cigars, beverages and great conversation.
I packed everything the night before because I knew that the morning was going to be a bit of a blur. We were to get a tour of Jessi's art facilities, Subculture Studios, prior to heading back to the airport on the bus.
We rapidly made our way through breakfast and headed on into the art area. What I wasn't aware of is that Jessi's team is responsible for the screen printing of every single box. That seems impressive and then you realize that each box has to be prepared multiple times on multiple faces before it's ready. All the work done by hand. I wish we would have had several hours to take it all in, but we had to catch our flight.
Back out to the main courtyard where we said our goodbyes to those who were heading back into Managua to spend an additional day. We thanked Jessi and JD for the incredible experience.
I spent the ride back to the airport and the flight to Houston reflecting on all the experience. I was left wishing we had at least another day or two, but I know that even then after additional time I still would have been sad departing.
The 2014 tour dates will be announced in June, and I can assure you that I will not hesitate to book as soon as I'm available.
Thanks to JD and his lovely wife Marielos for being such great hosts. Pedro for all his hard work and keeping us moving along. Willy Herrara for taking my tobacco knowledge to a whole different level. Each and everyone one of the CATs members that attended I now call friend, and to all the Reddit /r/cigars people I hope will be able to make a 2014 reunion Safari.