Maybe I'm kind of basic, but I don't think I've ever gotten off a plane, and had someone waiting with a sign with my name on it, which was kind of nice. More importantly, rather than wait in line for customs like usual, we were escorted to the VIP lounge in the airport, where we were given a cigar, and waited while the airport VIP staff took care of the customs on our behalf. I'm a light traveler, but they also picked up everyone’s checked baggage while we waited for the bus to arrive.
Next up was the 45 minute ride to Granada to check into our hotels, where we were given our swag kits, and had about 15 minutes of free time, since we were running a little later than expected. Some attendees are still arriving at the airport, and checking into their hotels, but for those of us who are ready, Mombacho Cigars in Granada had opened their doors for tours.
A short walk from the hotel Colonial, the beauty of Mombacho's home, Casa Favilli, is striking. Designed by prominent Italian architect Mario Favilli, and built in 1925, it's currently home to Mombacho Cigars, and is a protected historical landmark. This means that almost every aspect of the building has been restored to like-original condition, including doors and windows crafted from woods imported from Italy.
As might be expected, since it was designed as a home, Casa Favilli isn't laid out or organized like most cigar factories in Nicaragua. The first floor is where tobaccos are sorted, prepared and rolled into cigars, while the second floor houses mostly the aging and packaging portions of the process.
To say that Mombacho Master Blender and President Claudio Sgroi is passionate about the cigars he creates is an understatement. Having seen quite a few factories ranging from the tiny like Oveja Negra to the massive like Drew Estate, Mombacho has an attention to small details that is staggering. From the misting nozzles that keep the escaparate at the perfect humidity without ever creating droplets in the air, to the sandpaper(yes, SANDPAPER) that is used to ensure that a wrapper never gets applied to a cigar with a lumpy/veiny binder, to lightly cleaning every cigar with a vinegar solution before cellophaning, the details are the name of the game here.
After the tour, Claudio lead us up to the rooftop terrace, where he led a tasting of puritos of some of the tobaccos used in their cigars, to get a better idea of how a blend is created.
After the tour, we had the only "freetime meal" of the trip, where there was no dinner planned. Groups ended up breaking up of course, and heading to different restaurants. I ended up going back to my hotel to rest for a bit, and then taking a taxi to Charly's Bar and Restaurant, based on quite a few recommendations. While I'd heard of it before even arriving in Nicaragua this time, it's still surprising to see a German restaurant run by a German ex-pat on the outskirts of Granada. In addition to the standard Tona, you'll find a German-style Dunkel and wheat beer on tap. From what I've heard, Charly brews these himself, but I'm not 100% certain about that one. The food is a mix of American classics like hamburgers, Nicaraguan BBQ like beef and chicken skewers, and German classics. The Bratwurst was great, and the sauerkraut may be the best I've ever had.
Tuesday morning is when the festival really begins. After my favorite Nicaraguan breakfast of Gallo Pinto(beans and rice) and Platanos Fritos(fried sweet plantains), we headed off for a boat tour of the Granada Islets in Lake Nicaragua.
When Mombacho erupted thousands of years ago, 365 islets of varying sizes were created in Lake Nicaragua, just off the coast near Granada. Some are inhabited, some aren't. Some have a small shack on them, while some have large villas comprised of several buildings. One of the islets we passed even had a pirate themed bar and restaurant(Accessible only by boat, of course).
One islet is home to a family of monkeys, where we stopped to feed them bananas. After spending some time with Pancho the monkey and his family, we headed to Mombacho Volcano for a day of tours hosted by Cafe Las Flores coffee plantation.
About a third of the way up Mombacho volcano lies the plantation. After seeing how organized tobacco plantations typically are, the seeming chaos of a coffee plantation is surprising. Before breaking up into tour groups, we were treated to a traditional Granada meal called Vigeron. Boiled Yuca, topped with Repollo(If you've ever been to Nicaragua, you're very familiar with this coleslaw like salad) and Chicharrones(Fried Pork Skin).
The 'fields' at Cafe Las Flores are surrounded by what are referred to as "windbreaker plants"; tall, densely leaved trees which are planted to form a sort of natural fence around the growing areas, keeping high winds from impacting the growth of the coffee plants. After passing through the "fence", one might expect to see a field of coffee plants, but you might be surprised that it's closer to a jungle, with coffee plants dispersed throughout. While they are watered, and closely looked after, a casual walker down the path may not even realize that they are looking at a coffee plantation, since the plants look like they are just growing wildly in the forest.
Cafe Las Flores has very tight tolerances for what they'll allow into a bag of their Mombacho-grown coffee. After harvesting, any berries that do not meet the color and ripeness expectations are rejected, and sold to other companies to use for instant coffee, before even removing the bean from the berry. Acceptable berries are run through a pulping machine to extract the bean, and then the husk is removed from the bean. The beans are machine sorted by size, before finally being sorted by hand to ensure that only top quality beans make it to your cup. Once the final sorting is complete, the green beans are sent to Managua for roasting and packaging.
After lunch at the plantation, some of us opted to go on the hiking tour around the peak of Mombacho. A quick ride up the side of the mountain brought us to the heart of the cloud forest, which is created by a combination of the heat from the volcano, and the humidity in the air from the forest. From afar, the peak of the volcano is always surrounded by a cloud, even when the rest of the skies are clear. From inside the cloud forest, it's sort of surreal. A thick fog that is always present, and even though it rarely rains, the cool humid air causes a heavy dew on everything in sight.
After hiking through the cloud forest for about half a mile, the landscape changes dramatically. The temperature increases, the soil becomes totally dry, and there's a noticeable change in the type of vegetation. At the peak, we were lucky enough to catch a break in the clouds, and get a brief look at Granada from almost 4500 feet above. Around the peak, there were quite a few steam holes, where you could feel the hot air that lies just below the surface.
The final tour of the day was to Masaya volcano. The Masaya volcano is oddly mesmerizing. Simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, the road leading to the crater is built alongside what was once a molten river of lava. Leading up the to crater beyond the river of lava is a surreal landscape of volcanic rock and ash, upon which almost no trees have grown in several hundred years, but is instead populated densely by a tall thick grass.
At the summit is where the landscape is almost impossible to believe. The crater is around 500 feet across, and 1500 feet deep. At the bottom of the crater, the edge of a turbulent lake of molten lava can just barely be seen. Sometimes called "The Mouth of Hell", the lava flows and splashes, glowing brightly as the sun begins to set. Once the excited voices of the onlookers settle down, a deep, distant roar can be heard from the bottom of the crater.
We returned to Granada for the official welcoming dinner at La Polvora, a fort built in 1748 to house gunpowder for the forts protecting the city from pirates. Many of the participating cigar factories were in Granada for the opening dinner, which was opened with welcoming speeches from Juan Martinez of Joya de Nicaragua cigars, the Co-Director of the Nicaraguan Center of Tourism, and the mayor of Granada.
After dinner, there was some live instrumental music, and the I joined a few others at Ciudad Restaurant and Lounge in the center of Granada. Steak, cigars, and some old Flor de Cana made for a great end to the evening.
On the morning of day 3, we set off for Esteli. Oddly, we had a Cigar Moment at the beginning of the almost 4 hour ride, which we weren’t able to smoke until we arrived at our “rest stop” in Sebaco, about 40 minutes from our destination in Esteli, where our next Cigar Moment was. After the rest stop, we headed for the Plasencia Family farm for lunch, with live music for entertainment.
After lunch, we broke up into our individual tour groups for the first time. Each guest selected their group before the trip, based on the scheduled tours. First up for our group was Padron. Originally, we had been scheduled to tour only the fields, but when we arrived, Jorge let us know that he planned on rushing through the field tours a little, so that we could get a quick tour at the factory.
Now, one might think that once you’ve seen a factory, you’ve seen them all, but the thing that never gets old is seeing how every manufacturer has their own unique processes, and Padron is no exception.
Padron is one of the only manufacturers in Esteli that is almost 100% vertically integrated. Other than the Ecuadorian Connecticut Shade wrapper on the Damaso, all of their cigars use 100% Nicaraguan tobacco, most of which is sourced from their own farms. Rather than talking about the latest and greatest seed hybrid is being used, they refer to all of their tobacco as “sun grown from Cuban seed in Nicaragua”. While it may simply be a method of keeping their special sauce a secret, it comes off as very humble.
We visited two of their three farms in Esteli, both of which are in the very early stages of the 2017 growing season. The first farm had 2 crops growing, which were planted in December, while the second was just being planted for the upcoming season. Jorge noted that the weather this year had been abnormal, so they are only expecting a 60% yield compared to a typical crop.
Arriving at the factory, the most surprising thing was how understated it was. Many of the larger factories are almost palatial, with high ceilings, large rooms, and lots of wide open spaces. At the Padron factory, you’ll find none of these things. The entire complex is the size of a single block in Esteli, surrounded by a simple wall, and packed with buildings of varying sizes, all of which is painted yellow, inside and out.
When touring the rolling rooms, there’s no mention of how some of the finest cigars in the world are being rolled. Instead, the focus is on how happy the employees are, in particular, a man who has been working in the factory for 40 years, along with his wife.
Most of the space we saw was occupied by the pilons. Pallet-sized stacks where the tobacco ferments for months, sometimes years, being rotated frequently to keep the fermentation even. For a couple members of our group who happened to be smoking, Jorge actually took a leaf from a pilon, and wrapped their burning cigar in it, so that they could taste the difference between the final product and an almost fully fermented leaf.
After Padron, we headed to the Victor Calvo factory where the first dinner in Esteli was held. Dinner was opened with welcome speeches from members of the Nicaragua Chamber of Tobacco, including Juan Martinez, Nestor Plasencia, and Omar Ortez, followed by a welcome speech from Esteli’s mayor. There were plenty of cigars, the rum flowed, and the dance floor was packed well into the evening.
After breakfast, we headed immediately to the My Father Cigars factory. We were greeted by Don Pepin and Jaime for the tour, where they offered refreshments including crackers, cookies, but most importantly, coffee grown on the My Father plantations. The coffee was prepared in the classic cuban method of adding sugar to the coffee during brewing, and was fantastic as expected.
After settling in a bit, we started the tour. While not vertically integrated quite to the degree of Padron, I was surprised to learn that My Father grows almost all of their filler tobacco, and wrappers for some of their lines. FIrst, we were shown the pre-fermentation sorting rooms, where tobaccos of the same varietal are graded, and sorted by thickness before starting the fermentation process.
The fermentation room at My Father is almost spooky. I’m not sure that it’s always like this, but the combination of the temperature and humidity created a fog downstairs that was so thick that you couldn’t see through to the other side of the room. The low light, and black plastic walls that really added to the atmosphere. The fermentation building is 2 floors, with all of the wrappers on the upper floor, and all of the fillers fermenting on the lower floor.
Another surprise for me was that My Father has their own box factory. As consumers, we all think about the boxes our cigars come in, but we don’t always put much thought into where they come from. Every cigar that is manufactured at the My Father factory in Esteli goes into a box that’s been crafted by hand within the compound. It’s worth noting that the US made cigars are packaged in boxes that are manufactured by the same company in Miami that has always made them, which has a very interesting story.
Pete Johnson, of Tatuaje Cigars, mentioned that they found him in Miami because he had gained a reputation for making boxes for fake cubans. After he started making boxes for Tatuaje in Miami, he ‘went legit’ and is now has a successful box manufacturing business, making boxes for many of the well known Miami-based factories.
One of the main focuses in the My Father factory is quality control. After the typical quality control before packaging, the bands and cellophane are applied and the cigars are boxed. The final quality check is actually to remove every cigar from the box for inspection before finally re-packing them, and applying the My Father factory seal sticker, before being boxed up for shipping to Miami.
After a little more coffee, we headed off to My Father’s Finca Estrella farm for lunch. After lunch, there was a coffee and cigar pairing hosted by Master Sommelier Yamir Pellegrino. While the organization of the pairing session was a little lacking, it was very interesting to see exactly how a Master Sommelier proceeds in a tasting. Yamir also showed off the Spirit Aroma Taster. A simple looking glass device that is used to infuse cigar smoke with the essence of a spirit, so they can be smelled together. I had a chance to try it, and the results were pretty impressive. I’m definitely interested in picking one up so I can experiment further.
Once the pairing session was wrapped up, there was a short press conference about the formation of the Nicaraguan Trust Fund, which is in place to protect the Esteli river basin, where most of the cigar industry in the area is based. The program’s current projects are working to reforest 2,000 acres of land in the Esteli area, and educating 500 Nicaraguan school teachers in sustainable practices. Though details were unclear, there will be a limited edition box of cigars released to commemorate the fund at some point in the future.
Following the announcement was a marketing and packaging panel featuring Jessi Flores of Subculture Studios, Albert Montserrat of Cigar Rings, and Jose Antonio from Empaques 3A, who manufacturers cellophane for cigars.
The final panel of the day featured Eric Newman of J.C. Newma Cigars, Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust, and Christian Eiroa of CLE Cigars, and focused on growing a brand from 3 very different points of view. Once the panels concluded, we went back to our hotels for a little rest before the evening’s white party.
The white party was held in the square in between the Esteli LIbrary, and the Municipal Museum(where El Brujito rock is displayed). After dinner, The Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco presented Omar Ortez(who currently runs J.C. Newman’s PENSA factory) with a lifetime achievement award. After the award, a live band played while attendees smoked, drank, and danced. To close out the evening, there was a performance of the “El Gueguense” play, which I half expected to lead into the introduction of Nick’s cigar of the same name as one of the Cigar Moments for the evening, but it was fun to watch anyway.
The final day of the festival was mostly focused on factory tours. In the morning, our group toured PROCENICSA, Oliva Tobacco Group’s pre-industry facility in Esteli. Even after seeing the pre-industry side of things in a few factories over the years, the scale on which Oliva Tobacco processes their raw tobacco is pretty impressive. Shortly after the tour started, Angel “Trey” Oliva joined the group to lead the tour. Trey’s passion for tobacco and the pride he has for the product he sells really shows when he’s giving the tour.
One of the highlights of the tour for me was the tobacco “drums”. Invented by Julio Eiroa, tobacco is attached to the outside of the drums, and then the drums rotate in a steam room for around 4 hours to evenly re-hydrate the leaves in preparation for fermentation.
Watching the leaves spin by is strangely relaxing in an almost hypnotic way.
After lunch in one of AJ Fernandez’s curing barns, we went to PENSA, where we were greeted by owner Eric Newman and general manager Omar Ortez. PENSA is a different factory for these tours because it’s the only factory we saw that focuses primarily on short filler cigars. Quorum, which is the best selling bundle cigar in the US, takes up about 80% of the production in the PENSA factory, while the long filler brands including Brick House and Perla del Mar occupy the remaining 20%. I hadn’t given it much consideration before the tour, but short filler cigars take considerably less time to make than long filler. One of the bunchers making the short filler product was able to roll 3 cigars every 40 seconds.
One of the most interesting pieces of equipment in the factory is the leaf strippers. While most stripping is done by hand, they are still using automated stripping machines that were manufactured in 1910. After a quick tour of the long filler rolling portion of the factory, we got the opportunity to roll some cigars.
I’ve been shown how to bunch before, and given it a try, but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to actually put a bunch into a mold, rather than trying to put a wrapper on a fresh bunch. Honestly, I’m pretty terrible at the bunching part. Of the 5 cigars I bunched, I ended with one that was too short, and all 5 were overfilled near the head. Luckily, I had a professional standing by to fix my terrible bunching job before they went into the mold.
After about 10 minutes in the mold, my cigars were ready for their wrappers. There was quite a bit of giggling on the part of my professional teacher, but I managed to get all 5 wrapped, and by the end, he said that I could definitely have a future as a rollero. I immediately lit one up and though it was a little squishy since it was so fresh, it actually smoked pretty well. I’m excited to see how mine stack up against a real Brick House after they’ve had 6 months or so in the humidor to dry out.
Rather than purchasing cellophane for their cigars, PENSA actually manufactures their own cellophane wrappers. This machine actually turns a large roll of cellophane into the individual cellophane wrappers we’re all familiar with. It’s got adjustments for length and ring gauge, though I didn’t ask specifically what the size limitations are.
Once the tour concluded, we returned to the front of the factory where a few groups of chairs were set up so that we could take a rare opportunity to just relax and smoke for a few minutes before heading back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.
The final evening’s gala dinner was held at the cafeteria area of Drew Estate’s pre-industry facility, known as DE2. As far as I could tell, with approximately 600 guests, almost the entire Nicaraguan tobacco industry was represented, from the smaller factories like Oveja Negra and Nica Sueno to the massive factories like AJ Fernandez and My Father.
While most of the evening events throughout the week were primarily a celebration for the cigar industry, this one was aimed towards them even more. The evening’s live band didn’t speak any English, but really got the Spanish speaking portion of the crowd involved and dancing. After the band was finished around midnight, an act that I can only describe as a Nicaraguan equivalent of the Blue Man Group(I regrettably didn’t catch the name of the group) performed. They started off by marching out to the sound of pounding drums, and gave a very interesting performance of quite a few songs, and even had their own dancers.
After the first set of songs, we were warned to abandon our table up front, and 3 of the performers did the old “water on the drum” act that Blue Man group made famous in the US a few years ago. As the night wound down, closing out the festival, some guests went back to the hotel, and some convened at after parties.
If you’re planning on going to Nicaragua, I’m not sure there’s a more experience-rich way to do it than Puro Sabor. You’ll be busy enough that you never have a moment to get bored, but by the last day, you’ll be ready for some rest in your own bed, which is exactly how a vacation should feel, in my opinion. While the experience may not be as intimate as some of the smaller cigar tour experiences available, and you probably won’t get to know all of the attendees, you’re almost guaranteed to make some new friends before you leave.