Mexican Revolution

By Mark Bernardo

Modernized growing methods, bold new blends, and a nationwide quality-control initiative have Mexico's often ignored cigar brands poised for a comeback

The first thing you notice about the Veracruz countryside, on the long, leisurely drive from the airport to the lush agricultural depths of the San Andrés Valley, is the fauna. Horses, cattle, goats, donkeys, chickens and turkeys, even a few hoof-and-horn species that I rode by too fast to recognize - they all graze placidly along the roadside, seemingly ignorant or just uninterested in the metal beasts zooming past them. In one open-air, pavilion-style roadside bar, men in sombreros sipped cervezas in the shade, while a horse stood tethered outside, like in a scene out of an old Western. This is a culture, one quickly realizes, very much in touch with the land and nature, and an ideal realm for growing and harvesting. Veracruz is one of the prime agriculture centers in Mexico, producing corn, coffee and vanilla beans, tropical fruit, cattle, and the Valley's specialty, tobacco.

While the forbidden isle of Cuba is still rightly known as the pre-eminent center of cigar making in the New World, the Mexicans have been at it almost as long. Some historians believe that the practice of smoking rolled tobacco actually originated here, with the ancient Mayans of Veracruz, Campeche, Tabasco, and the Yucatan. The Mayans would later pass on the tradition to Native American tribes, who would use the golden leaf in rituals for medicinal purposes, giving rise to the enduring image of the "peace pipe" - and the wooden Indian as an icon of tobacco. What is undisputed fact, however, is the history and longevity of this fertile valley, flanked by two towering, dormant volcanoes, as both tobacco grower and cigar producer. Cigars have been rolled here since the middle of the 19th century - decades longer than in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua, whose industries were jump-started by the 1962 Cuban embargo. Like most cigar-producing nations, however, it was the embargo that presented the ideal entrée into the United States market.

The first well-known brand from Mexico, Te-Amo, hit the States in the late 1960s, its rich, full-bodied taste filling a niche for American smokers suddenly deprived of their regular Havanas. The distinctive Te-Amo logo became ubiquitous throughout big city newsstands, drugstores, and smokeshops, and the brand sold huge numbers. Unfortunately, familiarity can be a double-edged sword - and when the cigar boom of the 1990s ushered in a flood of higher-profile, more aggressively marketed brands from Central American nations just beginning to emerge as cigar producing titans, the reliable Te-Amo seemed to get lost in the shuffle. It didn't help that Mexico, like all those other countries, offered up its share of substandard new products to cash in on the craze, chipping away at the U.S.'s perception of Mexican tobacco and craftsmanship. Today, with the boom's heyday long past, and many of the pretenders swept away, it is Mexico that seems to be struggling the hardest to rebuild its image... and fittingly, it is the country's acknowledged flagship brand that is leading the way.

At work in the curing barn...

"My father used to always tell me tobacco is like the opposite of a woman," Alejandro Turrent said, with a sly smile. "It looks its best first thing in the morning." As our Land Rover rolled through acres of green tobacco farmland, past workers plying their trade diligently in the cool morning sunlight, I found it hard to disagree - at least about the tobacco part. It's mid-April, not customarily a large growing month for tobacco farmers, but Turrent and the family business, Nueva Matacapan de Tabacos SA de CV, makers of Te-Amo, are nothing if not innovative in their approach to making cigars. They are experimenting with a new growing season, in the drier spring months, to minimize some of the pitfalls that come with Mexico's rainy summer. "Production is really year-round," Turrent revealed. "There's no activity in the fields from November through February, but there is activity in the warehouse - selection, fermentation, sorting. During the boom, we worked two years in a row straight. We planted the new crop right after the harvesting of last year's crop."

The fifth generation of his family to enter the tobacco business, Alejandro Turrent has his feet firmly planted in the traditions of the past, but his eyes fixed unerringly on the future. The Turrent clan has been growing tobacco since the 1880s, and making cigars since before the first World War, but it is the past decade or so that has brought the most changes to the family-owned company. Turrent, the picture of entrepreneurial ambition with his dark glasses and ever-present cell phone, sees them as changes for the better. To illustrate, he took me on a chronological tour through the cigar-making process. In a warehouse, a massive machine with a conveyor belt and pneumatic tubes ground away, pumping single tobacco seeds into the tiny, soil-filled individual cups of plastic planting trays. This technological achievement replaces and improves upon a long-standing tradition. "You can't grow all the seed out in the field; ants would eat it, rain could wash it away. It has to be transplanted," Turrent said, before spinning a tale of the old days: "My great-grandfather used to go out to the mountains where there was a lot of shade, and throw the seeds right on the mountainside. They didn't need any fumigation or fertilizer, and you didn't worry about too much sun. About 30 days later, he'd return and find the plants grown big enough to replant in the field. But it would take three hours to get from the mountain to here. The workers would have to start around 3:00 in the morning."

A more recent method had its own drawbacks: planting the seeds in a separate, small bed, covering them up for sun protection. Not only did this method require much irrigation and fertilization, but when the plants were removed for transplanting, part of the root would inevitably break, and loose soil would fall off, leaving the plant insufficient nutrients to thrive after being re-planted. Hence the tray method: the root takes hold more strongly in the packed soil, making for an easier transition to the soil in the field. In addition, the machine's pinpoint accuracy assures one tobacco seed per cup, assuring consistency in the field. Turrent sprinkled a few tobacco seeds in my outstretched hand, and I was again reminded of the plant's natural wonders. It was difficult to believe that from these tiny, reddish, sandlike granules a five-odd foot stalk would spring. I remarked that I may be holding in my palm an entire box of cigars.

Turrent quickly corrected me: "Oh, no," he said. "Here is about 25 boxes."

As we rumbled out, past the Tunnels - the hooded greenhouse areas where the tobacco seeds germinate in the trays before replanting - and into the verdant heart of the growing areas, another aspect of Mexico's evolution became apparent: namely, its successful development of new types of tobacco. It's a fact, albeit seldom acknowledged by the premium cigar elite, that what Mexico has in common with Cuba is its soil's versatility: wrapper, binder, and filler tobacco all grow ideally here, a primary reason why most Mexican cigars, up until relatively recently, were made solely with domestic tobacco. "The San Andrés Valley is the best area to grow tobacco. It is the Pinar del Rio of Mexico," Turrent stated matter-of-factly, referring to Cuba's legendary tobacco-growing heartland.

Tobacco bales are labeled and seperated by color.
The Valley today grows three major types of tobacco: San Andrés Negro, a dark, spicy leaf used primarily for filler in Te-Amos and for maduro wrapper; a silky Sumatra, used as wrapper for Te-Amo; and Habana seed, of which two strains are cultivated: Habana 92 and the reddish, blue-mold- resistant Habana 2K, used as wrapper on the Te-Amo Anniversario line. Turrent explained that it was a combination of factors, including climate necessity, that has driven this pioneering approach to leaf growing. "(The blue mold) was a big reason why we changed growing from the rainy season to the dry season," he said. "For five years we've been developing a strain of Sumatra that is more resistant to it. It's why we're growing the Habana 2K, which is more resistant, and we're still experimenting with Cameroon seed. We're still in the process of developing it so it keeps its own flavor."

"In this area there are three different types of soil," Turrent pointed out. "One is like clay, very sticky and heavy; one is very sandy and light; a third is a mixture of the other two. The Negro grows best in this mixture. The Sumatra grows best in the sandy soil. The Habana is best suited to the dark, reddish, clay-like soil which is most similar to Cuba's." The consistent quality and adaptability of Mexican leaf is evident by the fact that the Turrents' own factory only uses 20% of the tobacco grown on their farms. The rest gets shipped out to manufacturers, often in other countries, to use in their various blends. San Andrés Negro - used as binder in cigars like Macanudo - is quite popular as a maduro wrapper. But such is the still-wounded reputation of Mexican tobacco that its quality often goes unsung. "Many people love the maduro wrapper from San Andrés," Turrent stated cryptically, "even if they don't realize it. Many brands in the U.S. claim their wrapper is Nicaragua or Connecticut broadleaf, but it is actually from Mexico." I pressed him to name me a few of the U.S. brands in question. Chuckling, he shook his head. "Sorry," he said. "They are customers, after all."

We wound up the tour at the Turrents' factory in San Andrés Tuxtla, in the steamy bustle of the rolling room, where dedicated torcedors, each sporting a bright yellow T-shirt with an A. Turrent logo, plied their ancient trade. The Turrent factory turns out around 20,000 cigars per day, with one roller customarily making from 150-200, depending on the size and degree of difficulty rolling the shape. As in most factories, the most skilled rollers are assigned to the most difficult shapes. Turrent and I paused to witness one of these artisans creating a Te-Amo Habana No. 2 - a torpedo shape based on the popular Cuban Montecristo No. 2 - before reaching the cigars' final stop before being boxed and shipped out: the inventory room, a cavernous storage space with all-cedar walls and the look of a wine cellar. Upwards of 3 million cigars languish here at any given time before they reach their intended destination. The standard Te-Amo line generally stays for two to three months. The new A. Turrent cigars - a family-named brand slated for U.S. export later this year - stay for longer than four. When asked if the room's purpose was to develop aged cigars, Turrent quickly clarified: "The room's purpose is not to store cigars a long time, but to dry them, to get rid of excess moisture. Plus, the cedar imparts nice hints to the aroma." Scoffing at manufacturers who use aging cigars as a marketing ploy, he quickly cuts to the chase: "The real aging is in the tobacco, not the finished cigar."

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