Can age-old farming methods give a new high-end cigar a market advantage? Nestor Plasencia's latest effort to gain a foothold in the super-premium cigar segment, the introduction of the Plasencia Reserva Organica, has re-engineered the process of tobacco growing and handling, employing age-old methods updated with modern knowledge. The goal: A cigar that tastes like those from decades past.

by Dale Scott

I couldn't anticipate the watershed day last April 27 would be in my personal cigar world that morning in Esteli, Nicaragua. My destination that hot, sunny morning was the factory in which Nestor Plasencia made the Dannemann HBPR (Hand Bunched-Pressed-Rolled) premium cigars.

Plasencia is a giant in the industry. He has a huge factory in Danlí, Honduras, in addition to being part owner of this Esteli plant. His real forte, though, is tobacco. His huge land holdings in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica furnish hundreds of tons of tobacco for many of the industry's manufacturers. But, in recent years his interest has been piqued by an uncharacteristically niche project. "I'd like to grow tobacco the way the Indians did 500 years ago," Plasencia obliquely commented on a similar trip to the Jamastran Valley, near Danli, a few months earlier.

This particular morning, Plasencia's comment fell squarely into place. Ahmed Fernández, Plasencia's plant manager, met me in the lobby of the picturesque, new building. We toured the facility, which - unlike many of the dreary dungeons that pass for cigar factories - is unusually hospitable. Styled after a Spanish hacienda, it is square in layout, with colonnaded walkways surrounding a large open central atrium, complete with fountain. As we finished touring the HBPR rolling gallery, Plasencia appeared and invited us see his new rolling area.

We entered a small room, where a scant ten rollers and bunchers labored at their tables. Plasencia took me to the head roller's bench, a 60-year industry veteran named Evelio Oviedo. Like most other masters in the industry (including Plasencia), Oviedo is Cuban. Small and wiry, he is nothing less than dapper in his Mexican guayabera wedding shirt and stingy-brim Montecristi straw hat. The lavish display of gold necklaces, bracelets, and wristwatch flash even more brightly against his black skin. His enormous grin is wrapped around a huge cigar.

"Would you like to try the first certified 100% organic cigar to be produced?" Plasencia asks, flooring me. It turns out this new department only started its first work day some 15 minutes earlier. Oviedo hands me a Churchill from the end of the first five cigars on his bench, leaves his bench, and we all stroll to Plasencia's office, to smoke cigars and drink espresso. Plasencia had to rush, but before he left, he put two more Churchills in my hand. They've slept in my humidor for six months now, and after smoking them recently, they are ... well, I'll tell you later.

Marketing an Organic Cigar
This epochal new cigar is named the Plasencia Reserva Organica. The colorado maduro line presently comes in four shapes: Robusto ($8 retail), Corona ($8.50), Toro ($9.00), and Churchill ($9.50). The company may introduce a figurado and maduro wrapper this year, depending on the success of the line.

If retailer interest at RTDA is any indication, the Plasencia Reserva Organica will be a barn-burner. "Response by show attendees was more than enthusiastic," beams Bill Bock, president of Indianhead, the exclusive worldwide distributor of the Reserva Organica. "The most-reported observation was of the medium-bodied cigar's clean taste and aroma, both during and after the smoke. Show attendees bought out the first shipment of this year's projected total of 200-250,000 cigars."

Many tobacconists' opening orders exceeded the two-box-per-shape minimum order, with some even calling back to double their order after the show. Several noted retailers now stocking the Reserva Organica include Chicago's Iwan Ries and Cigar King, L.A.'s Cigar Warehouse, the Southwest's Stag Tobacconists, several Tinder Boxes, and Keith Rumbo's Club Humidor in San Antonio, Bock reports. "At the Las Vegas Big Smoke, interest was high," he said, "and we heard several comments that it was this year's top cigar."

Unraveling Organic's Implications
Plasencia is careful not to make any health claims for this product, saying only that he wanted to produce a cigar with the clean, pure taste of only the finest tobacco, untainted by chemicals. Reports from the field indicate smokers are responding enthusiastically to the concept.

A certification is no better than the certifying organization, of course, which in this case is the Organic Crop Improvement Association. Headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, it is world-recognized as the number-one governing body within the organic food world. Their inspection and certification process was lengthy, arduous, and open-ended, with renewal of the certification being dependent on passing annual follow-up inspections. The OCIA dropped in unexpectedly for months, and they observed every step of planting, growing, harvesting, leaf processing, and manufacturing. The certificate was issued on April 14, 2000, and states OCIA "visited (Plasencia's) operation, tested and evaluated the methods of production, plants, and soil, and determined they meet OCIA's strict standards for the production of organic foods."

Recently, I spoke with Nestor Plasencia, Jr., who has been intimately involved in the project prior to 1999, the year of the first harvest. "It is most interesting to me, because it combines natural techniques with modern technology, " he says. Plasencia, Jr., 26 years old, is the fifth-generation Plasencia in the tobacco industry. He is a graduate Engineer of Agronomy from the National Institute of Agronomy, near Danli, Honduras. The degree involves a rigorous four-year curriculum of classroom and slaving in the fields, and the Institute is recognized as perhaps the top school of agronomy in the world.

Plasencia, Jr. describes the workload for organic farming as "just about double that for regular tobacco, beginning before the seeds go into the ground." All farm equipment, implements, and containers needed to be dedicated to the organic operation, to avoid contamination by chemically-laden soil or crops from other areas. "We needed a plot of land that had not seen chemical fertilizers or pesticides for at least four years," he explains. "The 160 acres we chose has been uncultivated for much longer, last being used for grazing cattle. Their manure ensured the soil would be extra fertile."

The Plasencias grow each year's crop on 40 acres, and leave the other land fallow for rotation. The first harvest was in early 1999, the 2000 crop is sleeping, and they're just now planting for 2001. "At present, we grow only Habano Criollo," notes Plasencia, Jr.

Interestingly, the Plasencias are blending all their tobacco from this single strain, on this one farm. To get the balanced blend of different flavors, they mix tobaccos from the different soils found in different areas of the farm. The wrapper is shade-grown Habana Criollo from the farm. Thus, this cigar is as puro as you can get.

Farming Norms Turned Upside Down
"The season prior to planting the tobacco, we planted organic legumes [beans]," says Plasencia, Jr. "These absorb the 78% nitrogen in the atmosphere. We then plowed the mature crop under, which enriched the soil with nitrogen." Nitrogen is especially important in the tobacco's early growing stage, creating rapid growth and a strong stalk structure.

"We continue to grow legumes while the tobacco plants are growing, to provide foliar fertilization. This process involves stripping the leaves of the bean plant, and macerating and soaking them in water overnight, which releases the nitrogen bound in the leaves." The next day, the nitrogen-rich solution is sprayed on the leaves of the tobacco plants.

A major natural fertilization effort involves the use of earthworms to convert manure from Plasencia's nearby cattle farm into nutrient-loaded humus. "We fabricated many 4 foot by 10 foot containers, and periodically fill them with manure, some harvested peanut plants, and earthworms," says Plasencia, Jr. After six months of the worms chewing their way through and leaving behind their castings, the finished humus goes into the tobacco fields as fertilizer, and the earthworms are separated to start on the next batch of manure. "They are very hard workers," laughs Plasencia, Jr.

Once the soil has been readied, the seeds have germinated, and the tobacco plants are clawing toward the sun, it's time for pest control. The first line of defense is a fence of sorts, consisting of wooden sticks, impregnated with garlic juice. Flying insects hate the smell of garlic, and it may mask the enticing odor of succulent tobacco. These organically-approved sticks are driven vertically into the dirt, with 8 inches projecting above ground. These sentries stand guard around the periphery and between the rows of the growing fields. In addition, farm workers analyze the prevailing wind currents and areas of heavy infestation, and concentrate more sticks in these areas.

A specialist walks the rows of tobacco continuously, watchful for outbreaks of pests or disease. The traditional method of picking leaf-eating caterpillars by hand still occupies much of the field workers' time and efforts. A new-technology defense is also quite effective - the introduction of parasitic fungus. "Dusted on the soil, it attacks the digestive systems of larvae," says Plasencia, Jr. "We also use a parasitic fungus to attack another fungus that infests tobacco."

Other controls include a plant that workers extract the juice from, dilute, and spray on the tobacco plants as a pesticide. They also introduce a beneficial insect that attacks hawk moth larvae, dreaded by tabaqueros. A final weapon is a virus dust they apply to the plants, which infects the larvae.

After being harvested, the curing and fermentation of the tobacco leaves runs about the same course as regular tobacco. The only real concern is keeping the two tobaccos separate during those treatments. Post-harvest infestations of tobacco beetles are the main problem, but chemical pesticides and fumigation are forbidden. So, they freeze the leaf for three days at zero degrees Fahrenheit, in huge walk-ins freezers. The subsequent 120-130ľF fermentation temperature toasts any errant beetles, in any of their four stages of growth. Through to the finished cigars, all other steps are ordinary, just isolated from other tobacco and cigars. The cigars are frozen once again, then aged three months at the factory.

A Matter of Taste
Plasencia, Jr., speaks for himself and his father, when he says they want the smoker to "reach the flavor of the past." If, as we surmised, the beginning of cigar production utilizing chemicals dates back to around World War II, very few of today's cigar smokers have ever enjoyed the taste of pure tobacco.

On two successive days, I smoked the remaining Reserva Organica Churchills to refresh my memory. A pre-smoke sniff of the wrappers brought back the memory of cigars my father smoked in decades long past - was this meaningful? I chewed on the clipped-off cap for a while, and that same essence was evident. Then, I put fire to this pure product of sun, air, and water. I took pen in hand, as I puffed the graceful Churchill to life, the blue smoke curling skyward - in order to record and report the total experience for you. The flavor and aroma of this 100% clean cigar were ... no, this should be your own personal discovery. The Plasencia Reserva Organica has redefined "super-premium" cigars.

SMOKESHOP - December/January, 2002