Tobacco and Beyond

The New York-based maker of America's most popular premium cigar has made a point of "giving back" to the Dominican Republic even as it pushes its tobacco production techniques into new territory.

Story and Photos by Richard Carleton Hacker

The route from bustling Santiago to the rural community of Mao is indicative of the Dominican Republic itself. From Santiago's crowded streets, Highway 18 stretches to the northwest and transforms into a narrow road through fields and past shacks without plumbing or electricity. And yet, like the road, the Dominican Republic is changing.

"You see that school?" my traveling partner, Daniel Nuņez - formerly General Cigar's executive vice president of Caribbean region operations who has since been named president, c.o.o. - points excitedly to a small white stucco building as our SUV passes by. "Many of our workers' children attend there. We are now repairing the broken doors and walls, and funding a soccer team." It is not the first improvement General Cigar is making in a country that produces many of their world-famous brands, which include Macanudo, Partagas, Cohiba, Diablo, and La Gloria Cubana.

General Cigar currently sponsors no less than five schools. They are also building affordable housing for families of their workers. And those workers now include industrial engineers and agronomists in addition to farmers, rollers, and bunchers.

In the Santiago factory, workers proudly wear color-themed shirts with the General Cigar logo, which imparts a feeling of family and belonging, as evidenced by these bunchers. In the foreground: dark and oily Partagas Black Label Piramides, the result of the Medio Tiempo technique.
Nothing like this has happened in the region before, even though Mao is one of the oldest tobacco growing areas. While the biggest tobacco regions are Santiago, Villa Gonzales, and Navarrete, it has only been in the last 50 years that Mao has had its own identity. And in Mao some of the changes being made by General Cigar are dramatically evident.

As we pull into a field, its red soil muddied by a recent thunderstorm, huge upright poles portend of curing barns being erected for tobacco grown and harvested on land purchased by General Cigar. In the past, the company has placed much reliance upon contract farmers for tobacco grown under General Cigar's guidelines and supervision. But an increased need for more tobacco to meet growing demands has been complicated by a shortage of land, a surprising problem for a rural country.

Although residential growth and poultry farming is encroaching to some extent, tobacco's biggest competitor is organic banana farms, which require the same well-drained, nutrient-rich soil as tobacco. Currently, the Dominican Republic is one of the world's largest banana-growing nations, producing crops especially coveted in Europe - and consequently very profitable for farmers in the Dominican Republic. But in order to thrive, tobacco needs soil with a perfect balance of potassium, magnesium, and nitrates. Mao has a very balanced soil, and the wide Mao River provides an abundant supply of water, which makes this area especially attractive to farmers of both bananas and tobacco. With the growers of organic bananas in direct competition with tobacco farmers for this limited acreage, General Cigar is buying up land to insure the quality of their crops - and ultimately, their cigars.

"Besides, this island is not going to get any bigger," observes Nuņez wryly. "Whatever flavor we get from the cigar comes from the flavor of the leaf we put in the cigar. So the quality of the finished product equals the quality of the leaf we produce. That is why we are putting so much effort into growing our own tobacco."

Daniel Nuņez (L.) and Richard Carleton Hacker (R.) discuss a hand of tobacco leaves they are examining from one of the open tercios.
It is also why General Cigar is relying less upon chemical fertilizer, and investing more in organic fertilizers, combined with older, slower growing techniques.

"For a long time we have talked about the flavor from the soil," says Nuņez. "Tobacco people talk about this all the time. So if we expand that thought, we realize that the more chemical fertilizer we use, the more we are adding foreign flavors to the soil, and consequently, to the (tobacco) leaves. So we stay away from chemical fertilizers and make the plant work harder to seek out the natural nutrients that are deeper in the soil."

That doesn't mean chemical fertilizers are not being used, even though the program to wean tobacco fields from chemicals - a slow, intensive process - began as far back as 1994. But by dramatically increasing the amount of organic fertilizers, the plant becomes stronger and more flavorful. By that same token, the philosophy that Daniel Nuņez developed a few years ago, Medio Tiempo - keeping some of the leaves on the stalk half again as long as normal in order to increase nutrients (flavor) - complements his agricultural program. General Cigar is also investing heavily in enlarging its curing sheds to provide better air circulation.

"If we look at the leaves that make up the wrapper, binder, and long filler," says Nuņez, "the difference is how much we care for it. So we are trying to treat the long filler the same way we treat the wrapper."

This results in richer colors and an oilier sheen. The increased use of organic fertilizers also prepares the tobacco for a lengthier, more normal fermentation at lower temperatures, putting less strain on the leaves. Additionally, leaf size is being redefined, as larger leaves tend to have more veins, through which more of the nutrients (i.e., flavors) are diluted over a greater area. Slightly smaller leaves are more concentrated in nutrients, yet still remaining large enough to produce a churchill.

Not yet fully mature, this tobacco leaf already is thick in nutrients, the result of organic fertilization and rich soil.
But it is not just tobacco and schools in which General Cigar is investing. It is also the people. Farms are being planted with crops such as onions, yucca, sweet potatoes, beans, and corn, and stocked with pigs, sheep, and goats. The goal is to provide an inexpensive food source for workers.

"That is another reason we are growing tobacco in Mao," says Nuņez. "Not only is it for the quality and flavor of tobacco, but it's also an area where we can do something for the people, which we believe is our main asset. As is the situation in any Third World country, food is a problem that cannot always be solved with salaries alone. So we are trying to develop an infrastructure where we can produce top quality tobacco and, at same time, beans and corn and other foodstuffs that can be sold at cost to employees. We grow tobacco one year, then plant edible crops for two years, giving a resting period (for the tobacco)."

Nowhere did I find this more evident than at another newly developed General Cigar farm, in Jima Abajo, a fertile area southeast of Santiago. Here, vibrant fields are covered with shade-grown tobacco, and newly built enclosed curing barns harbor candela wrappers. Thatched sheds are reserved for air-cured Connecticut shade. Yet in the open fields, wild beans are grown to provide natural fertilizer for the soil. Driving up a hill, we pass newly planted stands of mahogany and cedar trees that will someday become boxes for cigars. The road tops out at a gazebo that overlooks a vast panorama below. Ducks swim in a manmade lake, and in the distance are tangerine, grapefruit, lime, lemon, and orange trees. And yes, banana trees, too. The gazebo is surrounded by pineapples, plantains, and cashew bushes, all soon to feed the workers and their families.

You can also see changes in the sprawling General Cigar factory, located in one of Santiago's free zones. Here, the old Cuban method of curing tobacco in barrels is being revitalized with a Dominican twist. Tobaccos for the Partagas Cifuentes Blend and Spanish Rosado, plus Diablo, are aged in cedar for 21 days, then aged in Cognac barrels for another 21 days. But first the barrels are sprayed with Dominican wine (for some, this is the only legitimate use for Dominican wine!). This curing process releases ammonia more rapidly (in fact, a pressure cap must be opened for 30 minutes every morning) and imparts a toasted-spice flavor.

Felix Gonzales places the lid on a wine-misted Cognac barrel used to age tobacco for Partagas Cifuentes Blend, Partagas Spanish Rosado, and Diablo cigars. Venting holes in the center of each lid allows the release of ammonia vapors from the leaves.
Additionally, in one of General Cigar's warehouses, one discovers over 16,000 tercios, air-tight bales of tightly-wrapped palm leaves used for aging wrappers, binders, and fillers. Again, an old Cuban technique, but one of General Cigar's best-kept secrets (they have been aging tobacco in tercios since 2000). Although other companies also use tercios, General Cigar is the only one aging Connecticut broadleaf in tercios, in addition to Connecticut shade. Regarding the latter leaf, of which General Cigar is one of the largest growers, Edgar Cullman, Jr., outgoing president and c.e.o., of General Cigar Company, Inc. told me, "After all, it's the finest tobacco in the world, so why not treat it that way?"

Three years of tercio aging produces slower, air-tight fermentation with no buildup of heat. This results in a richer aroma and flavor. At the warehouse, we unwrapped three tercios and I smoked a cigar, rolled on the spot, from leaves of the three primings - Volado, Seco, and Ligero - all from General's first tercio-aged crop of 2000. The strength varied according to the priming, but in all cases the flavor was noticeably more mellow and deeper. Some of these first tercio-aged cigars may be coming out within a few months after you read this.

General Cigar is hardly a newcomer to the Dominican Republic. Having first arrived here on June 30, 1975, this year marks the 30th anniversary of a company that is giving back to the land and its people. In a way, it's "financial ecology." Tobacco is planted, harvested, fermented, and made into cigars, which are sold. Now General Cigar is taking a large percentage of that money, and reinvesting it not only in the land, but in its people.

"Tobacco growing has always been a traditional business," says Nuņez. "What we are trying to do is educate the new generation of workers, increase their lifestyle, increase the technology, and bring it to the next level."

SMOKESHOP - June, 2005