2014 Procigar Festival: Santiago, Dominican Republic
by David "Doc" Diaz
Thursday, March 20, 2014
[Note: To see all the photos of the tour, visit the 2014 Procigar Festival photo album.]
Festival of Dreams
There is no greater experience for a premium cigar enthusiast than to travel to one of the cigar countries of the world and to visit the farms and factories of any of the multitude of wondrous cigar brands on the market. But if visiting one manufacturer is a great experience, then attending the Procigar Festival in Santiago, Dominican Republic, has to be the quintessential experience.
Over the course of 4-6 days (depending on your schedule), festival participants can choose to visit at least 3 (and perhaps more) of the member factories from a list that reads like the veritable “Who’s Who” of the cigar industry: General Cigar Factory, La Aurora, Matasa (Quesada), Tabacalera de García, Tabadom (Davidoff), Tabaquisa S. A., Corporación Cigar Export, Tabacalera Fuente, Tabacalera La Alianza (EPC Cigars), and La Flor Dominicana. [Photo at right is Henke Kelner, Master of Tobacco at Davidoff]
But factory visits are just part of the overall experience of Procigar Festival, which also includes cigar educational opportunities, entertainment, leisure activities, and loads of premium cigar smoking. This unique event allows cigar manufacturers, retailers and consumers to interact and enjoy each other’s company in an unprecedented way.
Starting in the luxurious resort of Casa de Campo, located in La Romana, on the southeast coast of the island, the attendees can relax at the beach under the tropical sunshine, play golf, tennis, or enjoy any of the numerous free-time activities.
The first evening the attendees dined at the Beach Club Restaurant. The next day they chose between a relaxing day of activities at Casa de Campo or a sailing trip to Palmilla Sand Bar and Saona Island.
On Tuesday, attendees visited Tabacalera de García, the worlds largest cigar factory, before departing for Santiago de los Caballeros, about 160 miles from La Romana, for the meat of the cigar festival. [Photo at left: Monumento de los Heroes de la Restauración in Santiago]
Santiago’s highlights included cigar factory and tobacco field tours to General Cigar, Davidoff, Matasa, La Aurora, Corporación Cigar Export, Tabacalera La Alianza, La Flor Dominicana and the Fuente Foundation. Other spectacular activities like tours to Cayo Arena Island, sailing on a catamaran along the north coast, educational seminars, a poker tournament for charity, merengue lessons, and more were also offered.
My own schedule was based on the fact that I have attended Procigar Festival 4 times and have visited the Dominican Republic a total of 7 times. Stogie Fresh team members, John and Christina coordinated their schedules with mine so that, together, we could bring back the best and most comprehensive information available on the Procigar Festival 2014.
Even though I have seen many factories and some of them multiple times, there are still factories that I haven’t visited and I made my schedule to be sure and see two of them: Tabacalera La Alianza of Ernesto Perez-Carrillo and his EPC Cigar brands and Litto Gomez’ La Flor Dominicana. I added Davidoff to this mix (even though I have visited the factory and farms several times) because they always impress me with the changes they make to their tours. Just like when they make cigars: they are never satisfied and continually want to improve their performance. And they do.
Tabacalera La Alianza Factory Tour
Ernesto Perez-Carrillo (seen in photo at right) has been known for many things in his 43-year career in the cigar industry. He was one of the first to popularize the trend in full-bodied cigars with La Gloria Cubana and he was the first to manufacture and sell a 60 ring gauge cigar. But even with his great experience and past successes, he is particularly happy to see that in the past 6-months, business at Tabacalera La Alianza has been steadily increasing.
It seems somewhat ironic that the La Alianza factory is located in the Dominican Republic (est. 1996), since Ernesto has been well known for making full-bodied smokes. But, Ernesto says they are finding ways to get more strength and flavor out the Dominican tobacco. He also loves Ecuadorian Sumatra, which he feels is the tastiest and best wrapper tobacco (though perhaps not the prettiest and well rounded tobacco). Ernesto is looking into working more with Nicaraguan Wrapper leaves.
Ernesto says he is very enthusiastic about the future of the Dominican industry. Last year his factory made 2.2 million cigars, but the pace has picked up this year and at 55,000 cigars per week, they estimate they will produce 2.8 million in 2014.
Ernesto chooses to produce cigars using a unique style of bunching called the Entubado style. The Entubado style is a process where each leaf of the filler blend is rolled individually and then put into the bunch. This is a traditional Cuban style of bunching the filler tobacco and one that is more difficult to learn and that takes longer in many cases. Though the process takes longer than other forms of bunching, Ernesto feels it’s worth it and a pair of experienced rollers will produce about 300-350 cigars a day.
It is always a learning experience when walking through a factory tour, but it is even more special when the brand owner or manufacturer is the one leading the tour. Ernesto was a delightful and gracious host and we all enjoyed the tour immensely.
Davidoff Farm Tour
Though I have visited the farms and factories of Davidoff several times, I still wanted to tour again this year because it is always such a great learning experience. I always say that Davidoff takes a very “cerebral approach” to cigar making because they portray all their processes in very analytical terms. This suits me fine because I live for learning and enjoy the educational approach to a cigar tour. That’s not to say that the other tours weren’t educational: they definitely were. But I still feel that Davidoff is more analytical in its approach, but I guess you would have to experience it for yourself to decide… [Right: Davidoff farm in Jicomé]
We traveled by bus through the countryside to the Davidoff farm in Jicomé. There are several well-known tobacco growing regions near Santiago including, Navarette, La Canela, Villa Gonzalez and others.
It takes an incredible amount of effort to bring tobacco from seed to smoke. All of the processes to produce a handmade cigar are done manually. There are 170 individual steps and over 300 manual operations to achieve the whole process of making a premium handmade Davidoff
Below: Demonstrating how seedlings are planted
The Davidoff farm is situated in Jicomé, which is about 23 miles from Santiago, or about 40-minutes by bus. In this region, Davidoff grows only filler tobacco and only one crop a year, starting in October and harvested by March or April. This was a difficult growing season in Jicomé and Davidoff lost 15% of its tobacco crop due to a tomato virus that wiped out a large plot of tobacco. There are a variety of tobacco blights from bugs to viruses and mold. Blue Mold, which can be prevalent in the years where it is cooler and a lot of rain, can quickly ruin the tobacco crops. Undaunted, they planted a secondary crop in an adjacent field to try to shore up some of this year’s loss.
Our leisurely walk through the tobacco fields and barns provided plenty of opportunity. Opportunity to learn and ask questions, opportunity to pluck a few leaves off the tobacco plants, and to experience the sights, sounds and smells of curing barns.
Smoking a premium cigar will never be the same once you’ve tread where the tobacco has been grown. The experience of touring the farms and factories is visceral. You feel it on a different level and with all your senses. When the tobacco leaves are harvested from the plants and taken to the curing barns, you use your sense of sight to see the colors of the leaves as they and change from bright green to yellow to brown. Your sense of smell is your guide in understanding that many off-putting and harmful chemicals in the tobacco are “sweat” out of the leaves during curing and fermentation. You can feel the texture changes in the leaves, first hand and you can feel the humidity on your skin that also keeps the leaves moist and undamaged.
Below: Klaus Peter Kelner, son of Davidoff Master of Tobacco, Henke, leads part of the field tour
Besides walking the fields, we were shown how the seeds are planted and we saw plants at every stage of development from seedlings to mature plants. We also saw the baling and aging process for the tobacco. The Davidoff factory keeps approximately 50,000 bales of tobacco aging in their warehouse. They want to have about 4.5 to 5 years of tobacco in stock. That is, if they were to stop harvesting tobacco tomorrow, they would be able to continue making cigars for another 4.5 to 5 years.
Last, but not least, we were treated to a cigar tasting seminar with Henke Kelner, the Master of Tobacco at Davidoff. Henke believes that, by controlling all processes from seed to smoke, you can best control consistency in your cigars.
The Davidoff Company strives to produce cigar blends that will give each cigar smoker a well-balanced smoke. This goal is achieved by tobacco selection and by blending technique. We learned about the different types of tobacco and what they add to the flavor profile by smoking small cylinders, or individual puros, made from just one type of tobacco. The three tobacco types were Piloto Cubano, Olor and San Vicente and we were able to see how each tobacco type influenced different areas of our tongue and palate.
Henke explained that Davidoff cigars are always with a cellophane sleeve to, 1. Keep them protected. You do not have to remove the cellophane wrapper when you put cigars in your humidor, because cello a wood product is like Swiss cheese and has small holes in it. 2. The cellophane also is for hygienic reasons; to keep other people’s fingerprints (and nose prints) from touching the cigars in the stores and, 3. The cellophane also keeps in the oils, which carry the flavor and aromas of the leaf, thereby preserving the great tastes and smoking experience that we’ve come to expect from Davidoff.
Above: Traditional dancers perform (left), White Night participants had a great view of the city of Santiago
Below: Two photos of the final festival evening celebration
La Flor Dominicana Farm and Factory Tour
For our last official tour of the festival, we hooked up with Litto Gomez (in photo at right) to see his La Flor Dominicana Farm and Factory. Since none of the team Stogie Fresh members had made previous visits to La Flor Dominicana, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Litto Gomez, apparently, recently joined the Procigar group and this was the first time for him to have busloads of people touring his factory and fields.
Our destination was his farm in the La Canela region. When we arrived, Litto and his son Tony greeted us and we all gathered under the porch of this quaint little building that was like a small house. Litto invited us to walk to the fields together and to explore the curing barns.
Litto began by explaining that he purchased the farm in 1997 but had been making cigars there since 1994. He knew that Dominican tobacco was known for being a milder tobacco, but he bought his farms with the intention of growing a fuller and bolder tobacco. He felt sure that there must be a way for him to kick up the strength of the tobacco, but wasn’t sure how he could do that. He began to tour other countries that were growing tobacco and made his way to Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil and Ecuador. He learned various new processes while abroad and he came back home and decided to put some of the new processes to use.
Below: workers place cujes of tobacco up into the curing barn
We listened as Litto explained the methods used in the farms and why he grows all his wrapper leaves under shade canopies. Basically, he wants the leaves to remain clear and pristine-looking to the consumer.
Litto talked about his curing barns and why he built them differently for his filler leaves versus his wrapper leaves. The filler-curing barns have a long roof that comes down almost to the ground and the sides are shorter than on the wrapper curing barns. They are completely covered with palm leaves and they must be rebuilt about every 5-6 years. In each type of curing barn, the tobacco is handled differently.
The wrapper curing barns are a combination of tin and palm leave and have ¼” of insulation in them with a tin roof. In the wrapper curing barns, the leaves are sewn together by twos and are attached to sticks called a cujes. These cujes are hung from floor to ceiling and rotated so that all the leaves are cured at the same rate. They will put about 60 pairs of leafs and a total of 120-130 leaves on each cuje.
In the filler curing barns the leaves are hung on poles but not on cujes. Instead they hang the leaves in sartas, a style where they make bunches of 3–5 leaves and string them on one string, which are draped so that they hang down off of the pole in a slight “U” shape.
The filler tobacco will remain curing in his barns for 45 days. The sartas in these barns are not rotated from top to bottom, as are the cujes in the wrapper curing barns.
Below: Pigs roasting for luch at the La Flor Dominicana Factory
After touring the farm, the greenhouse and the curing barns, we returned from La Canela to Santiago to tour the factory. We had worked up quite an appetite by then and Litto did not disappoint. As we arrived at the factory, there were a couple of pigs roasting over an open pit and they were perfectly ready by the time we got there. The factory courtyard is quite beautiful with lush greenery and a palm-covered smoking area (92). It looks very much like a botanical garden.
Litto visited with each table during the course of lunch. He was curious what we thought of the tour thus far, since this was only his second tour, the first tour being just the day before.
After lunch, Litto led us into the fermentation rooms where they stack the tobacco leaf into piles called, pilones. Fermentation is the process of heating the leaves to rid them of ammonia and to reduce the amount of nicotine. Thermometers are placed into the center of each pilon. Temperature is monitored and the pilones are deconstructed and reconstructed based on the temperature. Leaf thickness will often determine how many days and to what temperature they will allow the tobacco to reach.
Below: The La Flor rolling gallery
Once the leaves are completely fermented, the tobacco is packed into bales. Litto prefers the old Cuban style of packing wrapper leaves in bales of Palm called, tercios. These tercios trap the moisture within the bales so that the tobacco slowly ages.
We finally ended up in the rolling gallery and beheld a sight that you will rarely see in the cigar industry: all of the rollers were men. It is common to see 75% women rollers in the factories and sometimes 100% of the rollers are women, but this was the first and only time I have seen all male rollers in any factory. Regardless of who rolls them, La Flor Dominicana is home to some great cigars of all shapes and sizes.
All in all, Procigar Festival 2014 was a huge success and I was thrilled to have returned again to an event that has few, if any, equals. It remains to be seen if I will return once again to the hallowed ground of cigar nirvana, but one thing is for sure, I will always regard my best cigar memories as having occurred in the Dominican Republic in general and, in specific, the Procigar Festival.
About the Author
David "Doc" Diaz is the publisher and the editor of the Stogie Fresh Cigar Publications. He has served as an educator, researcher and writer and has taught in the Health Education and Health Science field for over 30 years. He possesses an earned doctorate from Nova Southeastern University. Doc is a Certified Master Tobacconist (CMT), having received this certification from the Tobacconist University and is a member and Ambassador of Cigar Rights of America (CRA)blog comments powered by Disqus