When I was a kid growing up in North Carolina, my parents took my brothers and me on a tour of the R.J. Reynolds cigarette factory in Winston-Salem. While I don’t remember much of the experience aside from the fact that we all got lousy brown ballpoint pens with the company logo on them instead of candy gum cigarettes to take home with us after the tour was over, what I do remember is the sweet smell of fresh tobacco that permeated the air. To this day, the aroma is oddly comforting. So it’s a given that I was very much looking forward to getting a behind-the-scenes look at Nicasa, one of Esteli’s most-renowned cigar factories. Turns out, you can just show up at the gate and someone will show you around for free. The experience proved to exceed my highest expectations.
Immediately upon entering Nicasa’s grounds, we were met by Ernesto, a vibrant and affable cigar-smoking young man who was to be our guide for the morning. As he shepherded us from room to room, he not only delivered a superbly thorough and engaging presentation, but he did so with a genuine smile, like he was imparting some sort of great tradition . . . and he was. In fact, everyone in the factory seemed to be proud of their respective job—and rightly so. Constructing a cigar from scratch isn’t like rolling a spliff. It’s a highly specialized craft and one that takes patience, precision, and a steady hand.
A bit about the process (we didn’t get a chance to visit an actual farm, so the following information is factory-only. Although, we did learn that after the tobacco crop is harvested each year, farmers plant beans and various vegetables in its place in order to keep the soil fertile) . . .
Unlike many of the other cigar factories in Esteli, Nicasa only buys tobacco leaves from tabacaleros who use pure Havana seeds when planting their crop. They are also pretty strict about following organic guidelines. After the plant is harvested and dried at the farm, it is then transported to Esteli in huge crates to be sorted for the first time. With all dirty or molded leaves discarded, the crop is gathered into a huge block (pictured to the right) and left to ferment for seven months to a year. As the block ferments from the inside out and the leaves turn from green to yellow, it must be flipped from time to time so that each side has sufficient access to air. In order to monitor its progress, a large wooden thermometer (seen on the top of the block) is inserted into the center of the heap every week or so until the fermentation process is complete. While a year might seem like a long time to wait, patience pays off in the end. When smoked, a cigar made with amply fermented leaves will turn ashy white. If it turns black instead, the tobacco gives off an unfortunate bitter taste, hindering the smoking experience.
Once fully fermented, the leaves are then rehydrated in order to make them more pliable to work with during the deveining process. They are rinsed with water, stretched out, and covered with a burlap sack for four to six hours. Interestingly enough, in the rehydrating area, workers are careful not to wear any fragrances or bring any food or drink into the room with them, as damp leaves are prone to adopting the smell of whatever’s around them. Smoking a cigar that smells like hamburgers just isn’t that appetizing, apparently.
The deveining room is where women rule the roost. Walking into the fray, I felt as though I’d stumbled upon a quilting bee. Women of all ages, laughing and chatting away, surround a large table where piles of leaves are laid out to be deveined. In a flick of an eye and in one fluid motion, they pick up each leaf, fold it, and yank out the center strand (watching their skill made me wish I could be as dexterous with swiss chard!). Piles of discarded veins, later used as fertilizer back on the farm, adorn the floor. Any leaves that are torn in the process of deveining are either discarded (if they’re irreparably dirty) or saved for use elsewhere.
The deveined leaves are then transported to the production room where 40 or so people (again, of all ages) sit in rows in front of rolling machines. They work in teams: one person cuts the leaves while the other rolls the tobacco into molds and places the newly formed “tubes” inside a wooden box where they are compressed into cigars and left to sit for 10 to 15 minutes.
The process doesn’t end there, however. After the cigars are complete, there are still more people who inspect each one to make sure it’s perfectly uniform. If part of the cigar is too weak or too stiff, it’s thrown out. The ones that make it past inspection are then tested for humidity and pull, using the machine to the right. Once through, they’re sorted into groups, wrapped in newspaper and stored in a climate-controlled room for up to two weeks. Finally, they are checked once more before being wrapped in plastic, and packed into hand-constructed, hand-sanded, and hand-painted boxes for shipping.
It’s quite a marvel to watch this process unfold. On average, a Nicasa employee working regular hours (they are allowed to set their own shifts) can produce 250-300 cigars a day; some roll as many as 500. Others specialize in rolling different types of cigars as there are upwards of 50 different varieties. The three pictured at the left are examples of the most eclectic (and expensive) types one can buy. But whatever the size, shape, and price, Ernesto assured us that all of Nicasa cigars are top of the line. After taking a few puffs of one, Mark happily agreed.
It’s goofy to say, but I never actually thought I’d find a tour of a cigar factory so darn fascinating. So much to learn and take in! A few other interesting tidbits? There are three types of tobacco: fine, medium and strong. The lightest, finest leaves are used as cigar wrappers; the medium leaves are used as filler; and the darkest leaves are saved for the middle of the cigar because of their smooth, rich taste. Also? The cheaper the cigar, the smaller the leaves. Lastly (and Ernesto was pretty adamant about this), the secret to a tasty cigar is never blending leaves from the same farm; always use a mix of different soils to diversify the taste.
Nicasa produces its own brand of cigars called Nica Libre. They also manufacture cigars for over 100 different companies in countries across the globe. Care to guess which U.S. company recently signed on as one of Nicasa’s esteemed clients? Shockingly . . . Starbucks. In the end, Mark bought a small box of Nicasa’s original blend. He hasn’t tried them yet, but I have a hunch that they’re tasty. Rich, deep flavor. Full strength. Tantalizing—but not too intrusive—aroma.
A great story! Thanks for sharing your trip to Nicasa. When you get back why don’t we smoke a few of those cigars and wash it down with a little kings county bourbon?