Or better yet “Day 5.”
This post is two things. First, it’s the final part of our daily coverage of Puro Sabor 2020, the Nicaraguan cigar festival. Because Patrick Lagreid and I were in separate groups, we visited separate places and we figured it would be better to give you views on more factories than fewer.
Second, I’ll have some parting thoughts on Puro Sabor 2020.
THE NEW TABOLISAS
My Friday morning started at Tabacalera Oliva de Nicaragua S.A. (TABOLISA), Oliva’s recently remodeled main factory. And after 90 seconds inside TABOLISA, we were told that we needed to get back into the bus to go visit a school funded by Oliva and setup primarily for the children of workers at Oliva’s factory.
I’m guessing that this was a pretty exciting week for the school children, a week full of foreigners coming to see the children on a near-daily basis. It is a primary school that Oliva funds, part of a number of significant investments made by Oliva’s owner J. Cortès in Estelí. It uses a Montessori philosophy, something that is important to Oliva as at least two of the students have learning disabilities.
After a few songs, we gathered for a quick picture outside and then got back into the bus and headed back down the road to TABOLISA.
Amongst major factories in Estelí, Oliva was the least accessible to visitors. It’s not that the Oliva family was unfriendly, they just never really understood why people would want to come visit a cigar factory. They also thought—correctly—that the factory didn’t need the distraction of cigar tours. Getting a tour at Oliva for most people, even those in the cigar industry, was neither easy, nor common. In fact, I’d imagine more people visited Padrón than Oliva, something that seems likely to change going forward.
The Oliva family was divided about their approach to expanding in Nicaragua. Some wanted to invest more and build a bigger factory, others were conservative. That meant that I’d often visit the factory and walk into a room that used to be a storage area and find that there were now a dozen pairs rolling NUbs.
Cortès, which bought Oliva in 2016, has taken another approach: there’s a new box factory, a second factory—TABOLISA II—and then a full revamp of the original factory. It’s hard for most to understand just how different the revamped main factory is because most never walked into the old place.
I told Fred Vandermarliere, owner of J. Cortès, that it’s surprising they just didn’t knock the whole factory down, because the changes were significant enough that those who visited the factory pre-renovation would be hard-pressed to find a room that hasn’t been completely redone.
There’s a new facade on the outside, but that’s perhaps the smallest change. The main rolling room has been expanded in just about every way. At various times Oliva had three or four areas where cigars were being rolled, now it’s two areas. The main room has new LED lights, new floors, new rolling tables, more artwork and a lot more space for people to work. And Vandermarliere tells me they aren’t done.
Tobacco processing is now moving into the 21st century. The thing you see above is a temperature sensor that is placed inside each pilone. Heat is applied when needed to produce the optimum results within each pilone, all of it now automated and monitored. If a pilon gets too hot, the sensor sends out text messages to the people that need to know so they can come in and take care of it immediately. Furthermore, the humidification system is being upgraded so it too can be automatically adjusted depending on the needs of the pilones.
Beyond that, there’s a massive new generator and solar panels are being installed soon with the idea that Oliva will be completely off the grid, partially to dodge power outages that occur too frequently for a facility such as this.
While this room might just look like another room, it’s probably the swankiest room for moistening tobacco in the world. It’s also the complete opposite of what the Oliva factory used to look like.
Marble, stone, LED lights, new water tanks—all laughable at TABOLISA just a few years ago. It’s also emblematic of the overall changes throughout: new floors, new lights, new walls and technology where it can be used. One of the more impressive additions—though, something that doesn’t translate to photographs—is an air purification system in a tobacco drying room that removes ammonia from the air. It’s one of a number of things added to improve the experience for those working inside what can be a less than hospitable space.
There are new processes in place too. When a buncher or roller is out of materials, they now have a paddle that they raise and the replacements are brought to them by someone else instead of them having to get up and retrieve it themselves. Watch long enough and it looks a bit like an auction with much more sporadic bidding.
While workers might miss the built-in social hours they used to get waiting in line for more tobacco, there are a number of positive changes.
In addition to the upgraded work areas, there are various rest areas for workers like the one above, with customized tables. Oliva also redid and expanded the break areas, now featuring new microwaves, plural. On a much more important level, the factory now houses its own in-house clinic, something that is becoming more and more popular throughout the world.
For you, all of this should result in more cigars. The main factory will be able to produce 90,000 cigars per day, up from 55,000 pre-renovations. Add the 25,000-cigar capacity at TABOLISA II and Cortès has easily double the production of Oliva. All of those cigars will need to go somewhere and the company has expanded cigar storage by 17 times, including massive new coolers that were storing about 10 million cigars during our visits.
One thing I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before: a conveyor belt. Once the boxes are complete—cigars, packaging and protective plastic—they are then placed on a small conveyor belt where they are moved to an employee who sorts them for packing.
Despite the innovation, there are some reminders that sometimes the best method isn’t SAP, like this Nicaraguan accounting system.
Or this pressing method at Oliva’s box factory.
For guests, there are two notable additions.
At TABOLISA, the original factory, there’s a new high-end lounge that sits in front of the rolling room. It has one of the more impressive espresso machines in Nicaragua as well as state of the art air purification.
I cannot stress this enough: this small lounge represents everything that TABOLISA wasn’t just a few years ago. If this was 2015, this room would be used for rolling Cain Fs or storing tobacco. The factory didn’t have the luxury to waste space like this.
At TABOLISA II, the company has created an upstairs clubhouse of sorts, complete with a board room and this impressive rooftop deck that provides views of Estelí and the mountains.
While pretty much everyone that visited was thoroughly impressed—Oliva also gave each guest a humidor with their name on it—this is halfwheel and I have one complaint: chicken wings.
One of my favorite parts of visiting TABOLISA, beyond the fact that the factory was a maze bursting at its seams, was that they served chicken wings. The chicken wings weren’t something spectacular, but I do miss them for reasons I can’t really explain beyond nostalgia and hunger.
JOYA DE NICARAGUA
If you have to take one tour in Estelí, the tour you should take is amongst the least flashy. It’s Fábrica de Tabacos Joya de Nicaragua S.A., the country’s oldest factory. Joya is making really good cigars, it produced back-to-back #1 cigar of the year winners from halfwheel, but that’s not why.
Joya de Nicaragua’s tour has the best approach to explaining how cigars are created: start to finish. It’s one of the few places where the process is explained in a logical step-by-step manner and it’s done at more of a 150-level, as opposed to some of the Cigars 101 or Tobacco Processing 325 type courses you get elsewhere.
While Joya de Nicaragua’s cigar-making is evolving, its tour is pretty much the same as it was five years ago—and that’s more than fine.
It starts with a 30-minute presentation on Joya de Nicaragua and cigars in Nicaragua. As boring as sitting around a conference room table and listening to a speaker might sound, there’s video and graphics that are helpful. More importantly, few people know most of the story, remember the Nicaraguan embargo?
After that, it’s time to see how cigars are made. There’s a demonstration about the different types of tobaccos—both regions and primings—and the different techniques on how to bunch a cigar. You are told how tobacco is sorted and prepared for rolling.
Then it’s back downstairs to see where the cigars go next: an aging room. Like the cigars, you are then brought to packaging.
Typically, this would be followed by a blending seminar, but Joya opted to skip that step for my visit—though one earlier in the week did the full seminar—and instead brought in Flor de Caña and Twin Engine Coffee to provide some special pairings with its cigars. I had some of Twin Engine’s Coffee Berry Tea—I would recommend buying some of that.
Joya did allow visitors to have a cigar or two rolled for them on the spot, though it wasn’t the full-on process where you got to create your own blend which was then rolled in the factory. That being said, by Friday afternoon, I think everyone was more than content to drink coffee and rum.
There are a lot of ways to judge an event like this, but if it only came down to one: I never saw anyone who didn’t look like they were having a good time.
That was not always the case with Puro Sabor. For those that hadn’t been there in the early years, or even as recently as 2018—Puro Sabor used to be like a Ferrari dealership managed by people who had driven a car once. The factories, the fields, the cigars, the people—those were excellent; the organization was anything but. The former more than made up for the latter, but there were simple things that could have made the event a lot better.
It starts and ends with running (remotely) on time. People—many of whom probably are normally on time or early to most events in their lives—got to Nicaragua and quickly understood that nothing would ever run on time. So that 8:00 a.m. bus ride, well why should I be there at 8:00 a.m. if the bus won’t be there until 8:15? If that’s the attitude to every event on the schedule, it’s going to be a long three days. Disclaimer: I should be clear, I was one of those people who would occasionally run late, but I was “working.” But then there were times in which the buses left early, and then I got to go to Condega in the back of a police car.
Some of that was complicated by another issue. Puro Sabor wanted to show off as much of Nicaragua to guests as possible. The number of events in Estelí used to be double what they were for 2020. What was once a day that included two different visits before lunch, lunch, a post-lunch activity and one more factory/field visit became one visit in the morning, lunch and one post-lunch visit. Sure, three hours is a lot of time to fill at certain places; but at pre-2020 Puro Sabors, I would guess that most events started more than 15 minutes late.
Rather than visiting tobacco fields on Friday—when nearly everyone is sleep-deprived and nearing the point of processing too much about cigars—Puro Sabor smarty moved those to Thursday.
Those three changes—all quite obvious and most not very complicated—made a huge difference. I left Nicaragua this year feeling like I was attending an event made for guests, not an inconvenience for the factories made for banking partners.
There are plans to make Puro Sabor larger and grander. I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. Puro Sabor worked in the format it presented in 2020, and it would work with 100 or so more guests, but a seven-day festival sounds miserable.
People ask all the time, which of the three festivals would you go to? I think you should go to all three—the other two being Cuba’s Festival del Habano and the Dominican Republic’s Procigar—but if you want to go to the one where you can best get to know the people who make your cigars, there’s no question: Puro Sabor.