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Commentary: The New Fuente Nicaraguan Cigar Factory is a Big Deal

23 May 2018

When it comes to classic, old-school cigars, few brands come to mind more than Arturo Fuente. In an era of so many brands bringing new cigars to market constantly, Fuente has never given in to that pressure of the new release treadmill, or the need to chase trends. All of which makes their recent announcement particularly noteworthy.

Yes, Fuente had a presence in Nicaragua in the 1970s prior to the Sandinista revolution that wiped out many international investors. But now it is back in a big way. Using land the Fuentes have used to grow Nicaraguan tobacco for a while, the Domincan cigar giant announced recently it is building a new cigar factory in the heart of Estelí with the name “Gran Fabrica de Tabacos La Bella y La Bestia.”

I, for one, am very excited to see what the new Nicaraguan factory can create. Fuente makes cigars that stack up well at every price point, from the bargain bin mixed-filler Curly Head to the ultra-premium limited edition Opus X releases. Fundamentally, though, they’ve always been characterized by Dominican tobaccos, especially fillers.

The prospect of an abundance of Nicaraguan tobacco in new Fuente blends sounds good to me. That Fuente brought in Felix Mesa of El Galan Cigars (maker of the Doña Nieves) to run the Nicaraguan operations is especially promising.

The announcement is also a sign of the emergence of Nicaraguan cigars.

Not that long ago, Nicaragua was third among countries when it came to importing handmade cigars into the United States, behind Honduras and far behind the Dominican Republic. Today, for the second straight year, Nicaragua has edged out the Dominican Republic, with Honduras a distant third.

Put simply: If you were starting a new cigar company today, the most obvious place to build your factory would be Nicaragua. Yes, labor costs that are lower than the Dominican Republic. But the biggest reason would be the access to Nicaraguan tobaccos.

In many ways, Fuente’s announcement is the culmination of Nicaragua’s ascendance. In short, it’s a big deal, and a sign of the where the U.S. cigar market is now.

Patrick S

photo credit: Fuente

Commentary: Time for a Little Cigar Love

14 May 2018

We seem to be living in an age of nearly constant complaint. Dissatisfied with a company? Rip ’em on Yelp. Unhappy with any political situation? Tune in to your favorite cable news channel and watch your adversaries get roasted. Angry with someone? Blast him or her in a Twitter takedown.

Well, I’m here to go in the other direction. Let’s raise a glass to cigar manufacturers and toast the quality of their work. I think the caliber of cigar-making may be the highest it’s been in a long, long time. It’s certainly seems to me to be the best since I began regularly smoking cigars more than 15 years ago.

Back then, it was not all that uncommon to run across a plugged stick. Or one that burned terribly unevenly. Or one that wouldn’t really burn at all. Other problems included things like finding a thick stem rolled in with the filler leaves or a bunch so loose the burn became both ridiculously rapid and disgustingly hot.

Now, frankly, I can’t recall the last time I had a cigar that didn’t perform at least adequately.

Of course, this is just my opinion, based on my experiences. I do smoke a lot of different cigars because of StogieGuys.com, though I have to admit my selections rarely include really cheap smokes, bundles, or bargain-basement house brands.

But even when I do try one of those, I usually find the draw and burn quite acceptable. Case in point was a recent house blend I tried from one of the major mail-order operations.

I thought it was awful. So bad, in fact, that I only smoked about a third before tossing it aside. That was because I didn’t like the flavor, the harshness, and the finish, not because its combustion properties weren’t up to snuff.

There are probably a lot of reasons for the wide-ranging improvements, and those in the trade would obviously be better able to elucidate them than me. But I can say that, to me, it is certainly a positive sign that the industry continues on an upward path.

All in all, a great reason to celebrate with a great cigar.

George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Photo Essay: A Visit to El Titan de Bronze

7 May 2018

Even if you’re not familiar with El Titan de Bronze, you likely know some of the cigars made at this small factory in Little Havana, Miami, which crafts cigars for such clients as Drew Estate, Warped Cigars, La Palina, Cornelius & Anthony, Padilla, El Primer Mundo, Cremo, and many others.

From the outside, you could easily mistake El Titan de Bronze as a mere retailer. The whole operation is only 2,200 square feet. But—unlike all the other cigar spots that dot Calle Ocho, many of which employ a window roller or two to lure tourists—El Titan de Bronze is a living, breathing factory full of rich history. It’s a must-visit for any cigar lover visiting Miami.

Once inside, you’ll notice a small display case of cigars at the cash register amidst an eclectic, compact collection of boxes, cigar molds, and rolling tables. If you visit late in the afternoon, you likely won’t see any rollers; they like to arrive early (7 a.m.) and, once they’ve made 100-125 cigars, their day is done. This quota helps with quality control.

Among those 100-125 cigars per day, each roller makes each cigar from start to finish. This is contrasted from many other factories, where teams will focus just on bunching, wrapper application, etc. El Titan de Bronze employs about 8-10 rollers.

El Titan de Bronze does not ferment or age raw tobacco on premises. It acquires ready-to-roll tobacco based on production needs. Here, tobacco from the famed Oliva Tobacco Company awaits its turn to be made into fine cigars.

Once rolled, cigars sit in the El Titan de Bronze aging room for at least two months before being shipped to their respective brand owners’ facilities—where many undergo additional aging.

Master blenders will come to El Titan de Bronze with specific instructions on how to construct their cigars. Willy Herrera is a good example of this. Often, however, brand owners will have a concept and rely on El Titan de Bronze to realize that vision. Here, Cremo Figurados rest in the aging room.

In addition to making cigars for other companies, El Titan de Bronze has a half-dozen house blends (which are the only cigars you can buy on-site, and are also sold on the El Titan de Bronze website). I haven’t tried all of these yet; reviews are forthcoming. What I have tried is both impressive and cost-effective.

There’s a lot more to El Titan de Bronze (especially in terms of history), so I would encourage you to check out their website, try their cigars, and—by all means—pay the factory a visit if you’re in the area. When you walk in the door, don’t be surprised if you’re greeted by a warm smile and a serving of Cuban coffee.

Patrick A

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: What the FDA’s New Nicotine-Reduction Proposal Could Mean for Cigars

21 Mar 2018

FDA-cigars-large

Last week, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced the start of a new comment period on proposed rules regarding how the agency regulates tobacco products, including possibly cigars.

Through June 14, 2018, the FDA is accepting public comments relating to a new proposal for reduced nicotine cigarettes. The strategy is part of the agency’s new harm reduction approach to regulating tobacco products. Cigarette regulations were mandated by the Tobacco Control Act (TCA), which was signed into law by President Obama in June 2009, and the FDA formally expanded tobacco regulations to include cigars in May 2016.

Although the rule largely deals with cigarettes (the primary target of FDA regulation under the TCA), the new rulemaking could have a significant impact on cigars. The Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making asks for comments about creating regulations that would reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes on the grounds this would make it easier for those who want to quit smoking.

Harm reduction as a whole has drawn praise from many who see it as a more scientific approach than the FDA under the Obama Administration, which focused on stopping new products from reaching the market. Still, the nicotine reduction approach has its critics, including those who say mandating reduced nicotine cigarettes would result in black markets and international smuggling.

Part of the rulemaking notice addresses the potential impact on premium cigars and how they should be treated under a nicotine reduction approach:

Some suggest that large cigars and those cigars typically referred to as “premium” cigars should be regulated differently from other cigars, asserting that they are used primarily by adults and their patterns of use are different from those of regular cigars (81 FR 28973 at 29024). FDA requests information and data on whether large and/or so-called premium cigars should be excluded from a possible nicotine tobacco product standard based on asserted different patterns of use, and whether large and/or so-called premium cigars would be migration (or dual use) candidates if FDA were to issue a nicotine tobacco product standard that excluded premium cigars from its scope. FDA also requests data and information on whether and how there is a way that, if FDA were to exclude premium cigars from the scope of a nicotine tobacco product standard, FDA could define “premium cigar” to include only unlikely migration or dual use products and thereby minimize such consequences.

In response, Dr. Gaby Kafie, president of Kafie Trading Company, LLC (maker of Kafie 1901 cigars), responded with an open letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, whose appointment by President Trump was supported by many cigar industry groups. Kafie, a physician, addressed the issue of nicotine in handmade cigars and why cigars are fundamentally different from cigarettes and many other tobacco products:

It is known throughout the premium cigar industry (cigar factories) that our tobacco products do not cause addiction. Addiction is directly related to nicotine levels absorbed in the process of smoking. Unlike cigarettes, the tobacco used in premium cigars is fermented for long durations of time (6 – 18 months or longer). The fermentation process is done to specifically remove ammonia from the tobacco. This removal of ammonia from the tobacco reduces nicotine absorption by cigar connoisseurs.

I have always had certain beliefs about premium cigars, tobacco, ammonia, and nicotine absorption and efficacy in humans. I have always known that premium cigars are a poor nicotine delivery method to humans.

The last part of that passage is key to the opportunity this new FDA approach provides to handmade cigars who have been uniquely restricted by FDA regulation, since thousands of new cigars have been introduced every year, unlike cigarettes where new products are relatively rare.

Handmade cigars, because of their artisanal nature, the techniques used to make them, and the costs associated with them, are an inherently inefficient way to deliver nicotine. Unlike cigarettes, traditional cigars are produced to achieve flavor and combustion qualities, not  manipulated for nicotine levels.

While handmade cigars do contain nicotine since they are made of 100% tobacco, adults who choose to smoke handmade cigars do irrespective of their relative nicotine content. In fact, as Dr. Kafie observes, the production techniques that make premium cigars attractive to smokers tend to reduce cigars’ ability to deliver nicotine.

This is compounded by the fact that, when used properly, cigars are not inhaled, which also reduces nicotine absorption.

In the coming weeks, we’ll have more on what consumers should include in their comments to the FDA about this new proposal. In the meantime, know that this new FDA approach represents both a threat and a possible reprieve for handmade premium cigars.

Should the FDA more forward with its nicotine reduction proposal without exempting cigars, it would create massive compliance costs that could further reduce the introduction of new cigars, which largely use the same production techniques as cigars have used for hundreds of years (and therefore effectively the same levels of nicotine). Subjecting handmade cigars to nicotine reduction regulations would crush the creativity that drives the premium cigar industry and leave what little new cigar production that could survive such regulation in the hands of scientists and bureaucrats, rather than master cigar makers with skills handed down through generations.

Meanwhile, the upshot is the new proposed reduced nicotine regulations seem to recognize the regulatory framework that might make sense for cigarettes can’t and won’t work for cigars, especially under an FDA regime focused on harm reduction. The cigar industry should embrace the opportunity to point out again (as it did when the FDA created the current framework for cigar regulation) that cigars are a unique, handmade product, and that cigar smokers don’t smoke cigars for their ability to deliver nicotine but because they appreciate the unique aspects of this artisanal handmade product.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XXV)

22 Jan 2018

In this edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, I remember an old foe, lament the health of the industry, and ponder how social media is changing cigar marketing.

Actually, It’s CHIP Now, Not SCHIP

Remember SCHIP? All the news about a looming government shutdown—as I am writing this, the House has passed a bill to keep the federal government funded for another four weeks, but the Senate doesn’t look poised to reach an agreement—has brought back memories of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), formerly known as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Just search “SCHIP” on this site (our search bar is in the upper right-hand corner) and you’ll find dozens of articles, mostly from the period of 2007-2009. This January 2009 article was published and updated on the day the SCHIP tax increase was announced (the cap is, and was, 40 cents per large cigar). As we reminded you on Friday, although CHIP’s “funding” would expire if a government funding deal isn’t struck, the tax on tobacco will remain either way. Fantastic. One silver lining: If and when CHIP’s tobacco tax funding is restored, we can once again claim to be “smoking for the children.”

And the Winner Is… Nobody

As you may have seen at Halfwheel.com, the site is not issuing an award for best new cigar company in 2017 because, well, there really wasn’t one. “We’ve given the award each year since 2013 alongside a host of other awards; that will change this year and there’s a good chance that change will be for good,” wrote Charlie Minato. “Due to a variety of reasons, chief amongst them the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulation of premium cigars, there simply aren’t many new companies that would be eligible for the award.” We should all be alarmed by this. Creation, innovation, and new blood are signs of a rich and vibrant industry. This is evidence that burdensome regulations and taxes are taking their toll. For those who would stroll the aisles of the IPCPR Trade Show and cite the volume of booths and displays as an indication of industry health, I say this: Think about all the booths and displays that aren’t here. Think about all we might be missing, especially in the form of limited edition smokes. Looking to the horizon, absent major policy changes, isn’t it fair to expect more cigar company consolidation and closures, and fewer new operations?

What Is Skip Martin Eating Today?

Thanks to social media, the way in which the cigar smoking public connects with cigar makers has changed drastically in recent years. In the past, if you wanted to converse with your favorite cigar maker, you’d need to attend a huge gathering like Cigar Aficionado’s Big Smoke, or wait until he hosts an event at a retailer in your area. Today, you can simply log on to Facebook to trade comments, messages, photos, etc. Many cigar smokers even tag the cigar maker when they’re enjoying one of his cigars. The savvy cigar makers are embracing this trend, using Facebook to update their many followers about what they’re smoking, blending, working on—even eating and drinking. In this fashion, social media becomes a powerful tool to constantly stay top of mind with your most loyal customers. It also allows the cigar makers to bypass more traditional media options—like industry magazines, press releases, and, yes, blogs—and take messages directly to the masses. If you doubt this trend, just follow Skip Martin of RoMa Craft Tobac and Steve Saka of Dunbarton Tobacco & Trust on Facebook; they’re constantly posting (some might say marketing). I am surprised more cigar makers don’t wholeheartedly adopt this approach.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Cigar Smoking Competitions Are Absurd

8 Jan 2018

Last Wednesday, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal about “competitive slow smokers,” or cigar enthusiasts who compete to keep a cigar lit as long as possible. Yes, that’s a real thing.

At events from “Chicago to Croatia,” these devotees use tactics like “gentle puffs, moist palms, [and] strategic ashing” to prolong their cigar experiences to the point of near impossibility, all with hopes of prizes and recognition within the (apparently) growing community of competitors.

The rules for these competitions seem as simple as they are laughable. After each contestant receives his or her cigar—each five inches in length—they have exactly one minute to cut it any way they like. They then have one minute to light, with no re-lighting allowed thereafter. Contestants may not put their cigars down, nor blow on them. And, according to the article, “competitors must also refrain from talking during the first five minutes to maintain a proper air of decorum.”

Wondering about the world record? Look no further than Tomasz Żołądkiewicz, a cigar smoker from Poland. It is said Mr. Żołądkiewicz made a robusto last three hours and twenty-six minutes. This is “an achievement many in the slow-smoking community speak about with the same awe that others have reserved for the great athletic benchmarks of the past century, like running a mile in under four minutes.” Oh, brother.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard of these competitions before—usually when a once-every-so-often article runs profiling a “winner” of a particular event—but otherwise pay them little attention. But I don’t recall a higher profile news placement than this recent Wall Street Journal piece (and accompanying video). So I feel compelled to share my thoughts on the matter.

As I wrote a decade ago, it’s important to smoke slowly. Cigar enjoyment is not a race, and there is no prize for finishing first. Additionally, in order to “cook” the tobacco at the right temperature, you should try to limit the frequency of your puffs to prevent the smoke from becoming too hot or harsh. When you puff, you’re caramelizing the sugars in the tobacco to bring out the unique flavors; it’s important to not overheat the oven.

That said, personally, I just don’t get these cigar competitions. The very concept seems to run against everything a cigar is trying to achieve—relaxation, enjoyment, flavor, camaraderie with fellow cigar enthusiasts, etc. I look to cigars to help me escape from stress; I’m not expecting to win anything, other than my own enjoyment.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a ban of these voluntary events. If you host, participate in, or enjoy following smoking competitions, be my guest.

But I have a right to call these competitions absurd. And, yes, they are absurd.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: José Orlando Padrón, RIP

6 Dec 2017

Yesterday, José Orlando Padrón, scion of the Padrón family of cigar makers, passed away at the age of 91 surrounded by his family. In many ways, his life was the quintessential Cuban-American cigar success story.

Born into a Cuban family with long ties to tobacco, Padrón left Cuba after his family’s farms were taken following the Castro revolution. He eventually ended up in Miami where he worked as a carpenter (using a now famous hammer given to him by a friend) to raise $600, which he used to start making cigars in 1964.

From those modest beginnings he founded a cigar company, now run by his descendants, that is known worldwide for its classic, handmade Nicaraguan cigars. The company moved into Nicaragua long before the country became a powerhouse for cigar making, and weathered the political upheaval of the Sandinista Revolution along the way.

I’ve met his son Jorge, who has run the day-to-day operations of the company for awhile now, but, if I ever met José Orlando Padrón, I don’t remember it. If I did, it was at a cigar trade show where I briefly would have shaken his hand and told him how much I’ve enjoyed his cigars over the years. (Then I probably would have stepped away so the next person in line could shake his hand and tell him the same thing.)

But what’s great about cigars is you needn’t have met a cigar maker to have a personal connection with him/her. My connection with José Orlando Padrón goes back nearly two decades to when I first started smoking cigars.

I don’t remember exactly what my first cigar was, but I’m certain it was either a Padrón or a CAO, probably based on either the recommendation of a cigar shop owner or a rating in Cigar Aficionado. And I can say with confidence I’ve smoked at least one Padrón every year since then, thanks to José Orlando Padrón.

Padrón Cigars makes excellent cigars at all price points. I frequently recommend their classic, affordable regular line to new cigar smokers. Many times, I’ve turned to their more premium cigars (particularly the 1926 line) to celebrate a special occasion.

Over the years, guided by José Orlando Padrón’s leadership, Padrón Cigars has cut its own path. While many companies pushed new releases every year, Padrón focused on its core offerings, often going many years without anything new. The result has been a core offering that hasn’t declined in quality or importance despite minimal changes in over a decade.

Leaders set the tone for the success or failures that follow. José Orlando Padrón undoubtedly set Padrón on its course for success and, in many ways, the successes of the cigar industry as a whole. For that we all owe José Orlando Padrón a debt of gratitude.

Patrick S

photo credit: Padrón Cigars