Perdomo Factory Tour 2010
our the Tabacalera Perdomo factory in Esteli, Nicaragua. I jumped at the chance and completed the tour earlier this month. It was a fantastic trip, so I thought I’d share some of the highlights and impressions from the tour. There are a few photos under the “Photos” icon if you’d like to see some of what I experienced.
The first day was essentially a travel day, flying from Atlanta to Miami and then to Managua. It was about 30 degrees in Atlanta when I left; it was almost 90 degrees in Managua when we landed. After clearing Immigration and Customs without a hitch I met up with the other guys who were there for the trip. There were three of us from Atlanta, two from Portland, two from Nashville and one from Allentown, Pa. We were greeted warmly by Perdomo representatives Cora and Helsi, who kindly herded us on the bus for the drive to Esteli. Cora is the receptionist at the factory and spoke enough English to make us all feel comfortable. Helsi, as we later discovered, is in charge of the sorting of finished filler tobacco and wrapper leaves that are distributed to the rolling teams. She doesn’t speak English but came along to keep Cora company on the slow ride up the Pan-American Highway to Esteli. It’s slow because the Pan-American is a busy two-lane highway with few opportunities to pass, especially in the old school bus we were in.
Nicaragua is a third-world country, which became obvious as soon as we left Managua. To describe the structures that people lived in along the highway as shacks would be overstating it. Many of them were patchwork, consisting of cinder blocks, rough boards, bricks, railroad ties or sometimes a combination of these materials. Roofs ranged from tarps, clay tiles, tin or sometimes straw. Makeshift clotheslines and outhouses were a common sight, as were scrawny dogs, cattle and horses. Roadside produce stands lined the highway in the smaller towns we passed through and occasionally you’d see a young boy standing by the side of the road, holding an iguana by its tail over his head, offering it for sale to passing motorists. The landscape reminded me of Northern New Mexico or Southern Colorado, sort of a high desert with mountains rising in the distance. The trip carried us up into those mountains, the St. Nicholas range, which surrounds the Esteli valley at an elevation of about 3,000 feet. One of the trucks we passed, hauling concrete blocks, was struggling so slowly up the hill that children on bikes were holding on to the back of the truck for a free ride, adding to its strain. While it was obvious the natives lead hard lives there, it was not without play. We saw several impromptu baseball games and one formal youth soccer game (they wore uniforms, one team in blue, the other in red).
We finally arrived at our home for the trip, Hotel La Campina, on the outskirts of Esteli. It was very nice compared to what we’d seen but also substandard by American standards. Dinner was nicely done by the staff, BBQ chicken, flank steak and wonderful fried plantain chips. Afterward, as was the case for subsequent evenings, we gathered in the courtyard for conversation and cigars.
Day two was when the real education began. After a quick walk-through of the factory, we started the tobacco journey from seed to cigar. Criollo seeds are tiny specks but man, do they grow into plants that turn into great cigars. They are seeded and grown in several greenhouses, or, as the workers call them, “tobacco tunnels,” for the first five weeks. Once the plants have sprouted, they are painstakingly thinned by hand to give each plant the best chance to flourish. We’re talking about thousands of plants tended daily, by hand, for several weeks until they are transplanted to the rich soil of Perdomo’s tobacco fields between 35-45 days old.
From there, we followed the trail to the fields, a rough ride down one of the many unpaved roads in Esteli. At the end of the dusty, bouncy path suddenly emerges a lush valley, green with tobacco plants in various stages of growth, surrounded by the St. Nicholas Mountains. Very picturesque, indeed. Field workers were busy doing their thing, some cultivating recently transplanted young plants, either with hoes or with the help of oxen-pulled plows; others were irrigating midsize plants and one crew was taking the second priming of mature seco leaves (taken from the middle of the plant, these leaves provide the flavor in cigars) from another section of the field. The weather was perfect, sunny, mid 70s with a light breeze. Most of the plants are “topped,” meaning they are not permitted to flower, which forces more nutrients to the leaves. A few dozen plants are allowed to flower to produce seeds for subsequent crops. We saw these tops hanging under a shed to dry, covered in paper sacks to catch the seeds. Overall, the fields are tough work. Most of the workers were young and small, able to spend much of the day bending over to work the soil and plants. The primings were gathered under a shade tree for later pick up for transport back to the factory. The sun and warmth were a welcome break from the winters we had all experienced and made for a very enjoyable morning.
After lunch we returned to the factory to see the next step – the drying barns. These are huge, primitive buildings, each about 300 yards long. Inside, the primed leaves are strung on poles and hung in rafters from floor to ceiling to dry. Again, this is all done by hand under close supervision. The leaves will dry for about four weeks, changing color from green to yellow to brown. When deemed ready for fermentation, the leaves are tied in bundles of about fifty leaves and placed in “pilones,” which are bunches of leaves stacked in precisely arranged layers for the fermentation process. There were about 200 pilones in one barn, where they are constantly monitored for temperature and periodically flipped to ensure even fermentation throughout the stack. This process takes about a year, longer for maduro leaves, and is all under the watchful eye of Arestides, a 77-year-old Cuban who uses his eyes, nose and touch to know when the tobacco is fermented properly and ready for aging. He repeatedly pulled a bunch from deep inside the pilones, shook it loose and then shoved his face right in the middle of it to smell the chemical changes going on in each leaf of the stack. He never allows the temperature in the pilones to go over 120 degrees, ensuring a slow, even fermentation. Some companies allow temperatures to reach 150 degrees or higher in an effort to rush the process but Perdomo’s quality control is second to none. No tobacco is baled for aging without Arestides’ blessing. He’s quite a character and his dedication is obvious. And, after smoking Cuban cigars for 40 years, he’s now convinced that the Esteli valley produces the best tobacco in the world, when processed properly. After fermentation, the leaves from the pilones are sorted by size, priming and grade. This is another labor-intensive process done by dozens of people. This is currently done in one of the barns but a new modern building was under construction specifically for this process. After sorting, the leaves go through one last drying process. They are placed on screen racks in a sealed room with a large dehumidifier. The ammonia smell in this room was overwhelming to me. Within 48 hours the leaves are removed and pressed into bales. The bales are then stored in a huge aging room to “sleep.” There, they age until needed for production. Perdomo keeps five to six years worth of tobacco on hand to offset any bad growing seasons, so they are some of the most well-aged cigars you can buy. Nothing is rushed and quality is very consistent.
The next day we saw the production side of the process, beginning with the box shop. Perdomo makes some of the more elaborate cigar boxes you’ll see and each one starts from raw cedar logs harvested from Northern Nicaragua. For every tree Perdomo harvests, they plant two. The rough lumber is milled at one station after another until it becomes components for each box. There are about 40 steps involved in the construction of each box, again, all done by hand. The air is thick with the dust of sawing and sanding. David, our tour guide, spoke very good English and enjoyed not only his work but sharing the process with us. He personally makes Perdomo’s fanciest box, the Silvio box, which uses mahogany and strips of cedar shavings, and is appropriately proud of his work. We were all impressed, once again, with the attention to detail put into every step of creating these works of art.
Next to the box shop is what was Lot 23, the field where all the tobacco for that line was grown. It’s now used as an experimental growing field. There are a couple of goats that hang out around this part of the property and when they heard and saw Chris Harper, the national sales manager and our guide for the tour, they ran and hid in the tall tobacco. I’m just sayin’…
Next, we moved inside the main factory building where cigar production takes place. Leaf sorting, cigar rolling, banding and boxing takes place here. We learned that Perdomo has been aging wrapper leaves in oak barrels for years, way before another company came out with a “Barrel-Aged” line. Perdomo even trademarked the name but chose not to go after that company when they began using it. That’s unlike some companies, who file lawsuits over the use of a fleur-de-lis. Anyway, it was interesting watching the workers remove the large vein from the middle of the wrapper leaves. The rolling room is a large, open area filled with tables for 80 rolling pairs, each producing 400 cigars per day. That’s 32,000 cigars rolled every day! Each cigar is closely inspected by about 10 more sets of eyes and hands before the box is closed and sealed for shipping.
After watching some of the rollers work it was our turn. We got a brief demonstration from Sara, who trains and oversees the rollers. She used to roll Montecristo No. 2s in Cuba years ago. After cutting my wrapper to size, I managed to roll it pretty well (Sara was impressed with my technique) but, like everyone, I had some issues finishing the head. But, enough glue covered up my inexperience and I was pretty proud of the finished product. It’s all for show, though, as they weren’t wasting any good tobacco on us, so, I’ll show it off but never smoke it at Chris’ suggestion. That was essentially the end of the tour but the most entertaining part of the trip was still to come.
That night Chris brought Arestides, Tony Perdomo, factory manager Miguel and assistant manager Silvio to the hotel, where we all played Cuban dominos in the courtyard and drank Flor de Cana, a fine Nicaraguan rum. While we were new to the game, those guys were old hands and watching and listening to them trash talk each other was hilarious. Arestides and Tony got very animated, especially when playing against each other. At the same time, they were very gracious when playing with a bunch of amateurs. By the end of the night, another Atlanta shop owner and I dominated the pair from Portland. So much so, that my greeting to them at breakfast the next morning went something like, “Buenos dias, my Cuban domino bitches!”
The last day was uneventful travel back home. Overall, this was a great trip. If you have any interest in how a cigar makes it into your hands, I highly recommend visiting a manufacturer when you have the chance. It’ll definitely enhance your appreciation of premium cigars and the people who make them.