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Nicaragua puffing up status in rarefied world of premium cigars

By AFP
media A worker carries boxes with tobacco leaves at a farm in Esteli, Nicaragua -- the country has significantly boosted its cigar exports to the United States in recent years AFP

From "rich and full-bodied" to "complex with hints of licorice," aficionados exhaust the lexicon to capture the essence of Nicaragua's most highly-prized produce -- not wine, but cigars, which are especially popular in the United States.

The recognition turns the vibrant green hills of Esteli, in the troubled Central American country's northwest, into a hive of activity come harvest time.

Here, 800 meters (2,620 feet) above sea level, half of the population of 110,000 is employed in the tobacco industry -- picking, drying or curing, or rolling cigars in factories.

"No one has soil as good for tobacco as Nicaragua," explains Nestor Plasencia, whose family business is one of the country's leading cigar exporters, as he sits and savors the sweet aroma of one of their creations.

Nutrient-rich volcanic soil and know-how imported from Cuba more than 50 years ago, as well as a knowledgeable workforce have set Nicaragua apart when it comes to growing flavorful top-quality tobacco.

Apart from Esteli, the two other tobacco-growing regions are the Condega and Jalapa valleys in the north, each with their own distinct soils and minerals.

Part of the lure of Nicaraguan tobacco is that "the same seeds planted in different soils and climatic regions give different flavors," Plasencia said, between spiralling puffs.

Cuban cigars may easily outsell the lesser-known Nicaraguan product in Europe, but Nicaraguan brands have taken advantage of the crippling US embargo on Havana -- in place since 1961 -- to sell to the Americans.

Nicaraguan cigar exports to the US have increased by 40 percent since 2008, reaching 140 million cigars in 2018, outstripping the Dominican Republic and Honduras, according to figures from the Cigar Association of America (CAA).

Nicaragua's industry is a young one -- it was started by Cuban exiles who fled Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. When the Central American country's civil war ended at the start of the 1990s, the industry started to flourish.

"My family started in tobacco in Cuba in 1865. Today we operate in Nicaragua and Honduras," says Plasencia, whose father hails from the Caribbean island.

- Cuban know-how -

Today, the country has 70 factories producing more than 5,000 brands, says the director of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco Producers, Wenceslao Castillo.

Karina Rivera, a quality control supervisor at Plasencia Cigars, tests an average of eight cigars a day.

"If I see that it's not at the level of quality demanded by customers, we report immediately to find out where the problem is," she said.

Smokers say a lot is going on in a cigar during puffs, tasting richness, balance and complexity -- a variety of flavors and aromas that have helped several Nicaraguan brands conquer the US market.

In 2018, American trade magazine Cigar Aficionado named seven Nicaraguan brands in the top 10 of its annual ranking.

As for the Best Cigar of the Year, the "E.P. Carrillo Encore Majestic" is made in the Dominican Republic, but with Nicaraguan tobacco, the magazine says.

"The strength of the Nicaraguan tobacco industry is our focus on quality, which is why we are today the largest exporter of premium cigars to the United States," Castillo says proudly.

- Fermentation and aging -

It's clear that in the rarified world of premium cigars, names are important. To the aficionado, in clubs and the best bars, they trip off the tongue -- La Opulencia Toro, La Imperiosa, Villiger La Vencedora Churchill...

"We believe that 60 to 70 percent of our success is due to the way tobacco is dried and the time spent on fermentation and aging -- we don't rush things," says Castillo.

"The trilogy of this success is the soils, the microclimate and the people, the care they put into their work," says Plasencia, who runs two factories in the Central American country and exports 15 million cigars a year to the United States.

The cigar industry has had to do more that resist climatic changes to survive.

It's one of the few to emerge largely unscathed from the political and economic crisis that has rocked Nicaragua for more than a year, after a violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrations left more than 325 people dead and forced 62,000 into exile.

It also put 400,000 out of work in an economy that had enjoyed annual 4.0 percent growth, according to the private sector.

"If it weren't for these factories, Esteli would surely be deserted," says 43-year-old Silvia Moreno, who has worked in the tobacco industry for half her life.

 
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