Journal of A Trip to Rocky Patel Premium Cigars in Honduras
Do you enjoy an occasional hand rolled premium cigar? Have you ever thought about the craftsmanship it takes to make one of these little beauties? David Meyer, co-owner of Milan Tobacconists in Roanoke, VA, traveled with 12 of his customers on a trip to Honduras in March 2009 to see how Rocky Patel makes his Olde World Reserve, Edge, Decade, and other premium cigars. The travelers included David's dad Bruce Meyer, Frank Sherman, Mark "Moose" Altizer, brothers Todd and Shawn Saunders and their step-dad John Heitz and friend Sean Riley, father and son Eddie and Paul Rider, Glynn and Jill Loope and me, Tom Curling.
Our adventure began with a landing at one of the "most dangerous airports in the world." The approach to Tegucigalpa Honduras takes you between mountains with a steady banked left turn to line up on the runway just (and I mean just) before touching down. The airport is tightly stuck between the mountains and the population with very little room to spare.
We were greeted at the airport by Oscar and Gravis. They got us quickly out of the airport and into a waiting bus stocked with Honduran beer and cigars. That was a great way to begin! After all the luggage was stacked and the goodies distributed, we were off on a 1 and a half hour drive to El Paraiso. As soon as we left the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, we knew we would be in for an adventure. The "highway" was washed out in several spots with 200 foot drop-offs. We were told that this was the result of the monsoons a couple of years ago. The landscape had a high sierra kind of feel with ragged mountain passes and scrub pines. When we got closer to El Paraiso, we entered the lush valleys that contained fields of tomatoes, corn, and other crops. Our accommodation in El Paraiso was a small compound behind a high wall and steel door. Inside the walls were a garden, swimming pool, and basketball court, along with 6 bedrooms, a kitchen, and dining room. It was a very relaxing and comfortable place. After unpacking, we settled down to rest and start our learning process about the premium cigar industry.
The host for our three days of education and enjoyment was Christopher Mey. He is in charge of International Sales and Distribution for Rocky Patel and is based out of the company's headquarters in Bonita Springs, Florida. Chris started our discussion the first evening by questioning us on our cigar background. How much do we already know about cigars? How long have we been enjoying them? What do we like? These questions were to get a starting point.
After a wonderful Honduran dinner of grilled chicken, beef and pork with rice and beans and fresh salsa prepared by Georgiana, Chris brought out cigars for our first night tasting and discussion. Everyone discussed the flavors of the cigar. Chris used this opportunity to inform us about all the different tobaccos that go into Rocky Patel cigars and how that affects the taste. We were informed that tobacco from Ecuador, Panama, Africa, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras all make their way into different Rocky Patel cigars.
Cigar flavors are influenced by seed type, the country it is grown in, the valley it is grown in, whether it is grown in full sun or shade and which part of the plant it comes from. Seed types include Habana, Corojo, Connecticut, Sumatran and Honduran. With all of these factors, the premium cigar industry is often compared to the wine industry.
Our first morning in Honduras started with dark, flavorful local coffee, ham & eggs, beans & rice, fresh avocado, goat cheese, fried bananas and fresh juices. Fully nourished, we loaded up the bus and headed to our first tour stop at the box manufacturing factory.
Spanish cedar, grown in Honduras, is used to create the beautiful cigar boxes. This plant employs over 200 craftsmen and craftswomen who transform the raw wood by cutting, sanding, constructing, staining, lining and finishing. They make up to 4,000 boxes per day.
Our second stop of the morning was the greenhouses. This is the beginning where tobacco starts as a very small seed and eventually becomes a six to eight foot plant in the field. 10,000 seeds can fit in a thimble. Workers take a small pinch of seeds, usually six to eight, and drop them in each cup of a tray filled with growing soil. Most of the trays have 96 cups. After about 10 days, the seedlings are separated and planted in their own individual cups. The plants stay in the greenhouses for about 45 days. A few days before planting in the field, the plants are "shocked" by mowing the top couple of inches off the plants. They use a standard lawnmower mounted on a rack. With two employees at the mower and ten others either feeding or returning trays to the greenhouse, the plants are shaved to entice root growth prior to the field planting. The plants spend around 60 days in the fields and grow from 10 inches to 6 to 8 feet during that time.
We visited two fields on our trip to the Jamastan Valley, one of the most fertile in Honduras. We saw a 25-acre sun grown field and a 17-acre shade grown field. Each acre of field contains about 25,000 plants and can yield approximately 3,000 pounds. Tobacco that is shade grown, where about 30% of the sun is blocked by a cheesecloth type of material, produces taller plants with bigger, softer and less blemished leaves. Eighty percent of shade grown tobacco is used for cigar wrappers. The minimum leaf size for a wrapper leaf is 15 inches.
Our cigar education continued in the fields where Chris informed us that the tobacco is sorted when harvested by seed type, growing valley, and section of the plant. The tobacco plant is divided into three sections. The top third is called Ligero, the middle third is Viso, and the bottom third is Seco. The Ligero gets more sun and produces thicker, bigger leaves and usually has a stronger flavor. As you move down the plant, the flavor gets milder and the leaves softer because they are protected from the bright sun. This same concept is why shade grown tobacco is usually a bit milder with a softer leaf texture.
The great Honduras weather supports two crops per year. One is grown on each side of the rainy season. After harvest, the leaves are taken to the curing barns. The sorted leaves are strung on colored ribbon which identifies where on the plant the leaves came from: Ligero, Viso or Seco. Fifty sets of leaves are strung on short poles and 90 on longer poles, which are then hung in the rafters. The curing process takes 45 days and is a continuous process of drying, heating, and adding water back to the leaves. The curing barns each contain two calfrisas curing rooms where the temperature is maintained at 90-95 degrees and the humidity close to 100%. The floor in the barns is gravel so that water can be easily added. During the curing process, the leaves change color and texture. The green gives way to a light brown and the texture from a lush softness to a more elastic feel.
Our first tour day was ending and we were stuffed with new information. It was time to head back to the compound. Georgiana had another great meal ready for us when we arrived. We enjoyed fresh spicily breaded tilapia, rice with carrots and jalapeños, fried potatoes, and lettuce with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. Honduras is an agricultural country and the food grown is fresh and wonderful!
Our afternoon and evening conversations were dominated by what we experienced on the visit to the greenhouse, fields and curing barns, but we also started talking about the economics of the premium cigar industry to both the producing countries of Central America and the Caribbean and to the United States customer. The premium hand rolled cigar industry is very labor intensive. We were informed that over 300 sets of hands are involved in the process of getting a cigar from seed to store shelves. Over 750,000 people are employed in Central America alone. The industry provides good jobs that help keep the economies stable.
Christopher introduced us to Gustavo on Monday afternoon. Gustavo is a Cuban native whose grandfather grew tobacco in Cuba before the revolution. Gustavo started rolling cigars at age 12. He came to Central America in 2004 and met Rocky Patel in Nicaragua. He is now in charge of quality control for the fermentation and cigar manufacturing process.
Gustavo led the conversation in the evening to prepare us for the next day's tour of the fermentation houses and the manufacturing plant. Cigars are made of filler tobacco, a binder to hold it together, and a wrapper to make it all look beautiful. All the tobaccos affect the flavor of the cigar.
As our discussion moved toward the wrapper, Gustavo informed us that the wrapper accounts for anywhere from 10% to 30% of the cigar flavor. Habana and Corojo tobacco is spicier than the other seed types and is toward the 30% flavor scale. Sumatra wrappers are smoother and sweeter. They account for about 20% of the cigar flavor. Cameroon and Connecticut leaf is milder and is in the 10% range.
Chris treated us after dinner to a very special cigar. It was a very dark cigar with a Sumatra wrapper. It was full bodied, but very smooth. Everyone enjoyed this cigar and raved about the flavors. Chris finally informed us that this was a Rocky Patel Decade. It is the highest ever rated Honduran cigar by Cigar Aficionado magazine with a 95 rating. The Sumatra wrapper is sun grown and fermented 5 years. I enjoyed my Decade with a glass of Flor de Cana Honduran rum with a key lime squeeze.
Tuesday morning we were introduced to another Rocky Patel employee, Marissa, who is in charge of packaging and final quality control. She shares these duties with our driver/escort Oscar. All of the facilities that we visited in Honduras are owed by Nester Placensia. The tobacco we have seen grown is used by many cigar makers, but Rocky Patel's relationship with Placensia gives him the first choice of the tobaccos. Rocky takes ownership after the tobacco has been fermented and is ready for cigar production. He rejects 40%, leaving him with just premium leaf. Rocky doesn't own the facility either, but 99% of the production is Rocky Patel cigars.
Our first stop on Tuesday was the fermentation center. This encompassed 16 Wal-Mart sized buildings. Each building contained two calfrisas rooms and large areas with pallets of tobacco stacked about 4 feet high. The tobacco spends the first 30 days of fermentation in the calfrisas room. When the tobacco is moved from the curing barns to the fermentation center, the leaves are taken off the poles and stacked on pallets.
Curing and fermentation is the process of removing the potassium, nitrogen, boron, and magnesium that the tobacco has picked up from the soil while growing. The fermentation leaves the leaf with just the plant flavors. While curing takes just 45 days, fermentation is a much longer process.
The longer the fermentation, the smoother the cigar and it can be smoked to the end without getting harsh. Rocky Patel ferments his tobacco up to 12 months at the fermentation house and another 3 to 12 years at the plant. Fermentation is a continuous process of drying and adding water to the tobacco. Each pallet has a thermometer in it and as the temperature reaches 130 degrees, the pallet is rotated. Each batch of leaf is rinsed with water, shaken and restacked. This can happen many, many times over the course of years. The building smells very fresh and sweet.
Our final tour stop was the factory. This factory employs up to 600 people. Rocky Patel cigars are made in 5 factories, two of which are in Nicaragua and three in Honduras. Different types of cigars are made at different factories. Our visit was to the largest facility where up to 55,000 cigars can be made each day.
Gustavo first showed us where the additional fermentation is done. After the first additional month of fermentation, the tobacco is again sorted by size and quality of the leaf. Only the best is used in Rocky Patel cigars and thus 40% of the tobacco is rejected and sold by Placensia to others. The remaining 60% becomes Rocky Patel tobacco and goes back in for more fermentation.
When the tobacco is ready for production, it is sorted again for size and color. The process continually adds water. As it dries, the leaf becomes more and more supple. The first production step is deveining the leaf by hand. All during the process, the tobacco is identified by seed type, country of origin, the growing field, whether it is sun or shade grown and section of the plant. Most cigars are made from three types of fillers, a binder, and a wrapper. The blending of these five tobacco types is what determines the character of the cigar. Some very premium cigars may have up to five fillers.
Good cigar rollers are hard to find and require much training. There were 150 rollers at this plant. The back two rows were for the apprentices and the front rows were occupied by the best rollers. Rolling cigars is an art form of sorts. At this factory, the rollers work as a team. One person prepares the tobacco, combines the fillers, and wraps it in the binder. The other applies the wrapper and trims the cigar. It takes the best rollers to roll torpedo shaped cigars. An experienced team makes 250 to 300 cigars per day. They could roll up to 500, but by limiting the production the quality of the rolling is maintained.
After each cigar is made, it is checked for blemishes and ring size. The edges are inspected to make sure there are no tears or breaks. Then each cigar is draw tested to verify it is not rolled too tight or too loose. Another sort occurs before packaging. The same cigar can have slightly different color hues, so the cigars are grouped in 20, 25 and 50 cigar bundles of the same colors to ensure the presentation in the box is beautiful. The cigars next enter the packaging area. Rings are applied, cellophane is added and then the cigars are bundled. The bundled cigars are sent to an aging room for two weeks before being put in a box. Some cigars are also "box pressed" to square them. This is a five day process of rotating and squeezing the cigars. The last step is to actually put the cigars in the box and apply the seal.
Chris surprised us at the end of the tour with a chance to be our own cigar blender. A table was laid out for us with 15 or so fillers, 6 binders, and 6 wrappers. We applied what we learned over the past three days to create a cigar (hopefully) to our individual taste. We were presented five cigars that evening freshly rolled with a ring bearing our name.
It was now time to head back to the compound for another wonderful meal. This time it was skewers of beef, chicken, peppers, and tomatoes served with rice with carrots & jalapeños, salad, and plantains (smashed bananas with a meal breading, fired crisp on the outside, but soft on the inside).
The afternoon was spent relaxing by the pool, showers, and rum. A few of us took a walk through El Paraiso to shop for Honduran coffee to take home.
Christopher hosted another cigar tasting before dinner. This one featured the Edge Maduro. It was spicy and bold with a nutty chocolate flavor.
The final surprise for us was a dinner party. All of our hosts joined us for a great dinner of Cuban meat balls, black beans with dark rice, yucca with garlic, lettuce with green beans & carrots, and caramel flan. After dinner the music and dancing started. We were treated to a 10-person band. There were three female singers, one male singer, two keyboards, a synthesizer, drums, bongo, and bass. Besides singing, the ladies also danced with us. It was a great evening to round out the trip.
Wednesday was getaway day, so there was no wasting time. After a breakfast of rancheros, refried beans, avocado, goat cheese, fried apples and bacon, we loaded up and drove the hour and a half back to Tegucigalpa.
Thanks Rocky, Chris, Gustavo, Oscar, Marissa, and Gravis for taking such
good care of us!
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