The fifth annual Nicaraguan cigar festival
By Stephen A. Ross
Despite fears over the Food and Drug Administration’s pending announcement of plans to regulate the premium cigar industry in the United States, the tobacco industry in Nicaragua, and the festival the country hosts to honor it, continues to grow at a steady clip.
The Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco (formerly the Nicaraguan Tobacco Association) hosted its fifth annual cigar festival, Puro Sabor Festival del Tabaco, in Managua, the nation’s capital, and in Esteli, where almost all of its premium cigars are made. Celebrating Nicaragua’s ever-increasing clout in the worldwide cigar market, the festival took place Jan. 12–15 and played host to approximately 200 guests from 27 countries, making this year’s Nicaraguan cigar festival the best-attended yet. For four days and nights, the festival treated attendees to almost unfettered access to some of Nicaragua’s top cigar factories and tobacco fields, exposure to Nicaragua’s colorful culture and natural beauty, and insider information about the industry’s growth and future challenges.
“We want to promote to the world what Nicaragua has to offer,” says Nestor Andres Plasencia, former president of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco. “People want to learn about tobacco growing and making cigars, and the festival is an excellent opportunity to show them the process, but it’s also a good way to expose them to Nicaraguan culture. Cigars are a celebration, and a festival is a natural way to showcase our country. Come to the festival to see where the magic starts and you will fall in love with Nicaragua.”
To be sure, growth was the key message from this year’s festival. Not only was attendance at an all-time high, but the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco’s member companies have grown as well, to 24 this year from 16 last year, with the addition of Casa Fernandez Cigars, Cigar Box Factory, Cigar Rings, Tabacalera El Dorado, Empaques 3A, Mombacho Cigars, Nica Sueno and Victor Calvo Cigars.
The growth in the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco’s membership and attendance at Puro Sabor mirrors the continued growth of the Nicaraguan cigar industry. According to figures supplied by the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco, there are currently 51 companies based in Esteli that are involved in tobacco cultivation, tobacco processing or cigar making. Other companies that support the industry, such as packaging material manufacturers, bring the total of businesses involved in the Nicaraguan tobacco industry to more than 140.
“Nicaragua is to cigars what California’s Napa Valley is to wines,” says Dr. Alejandro Martinez-Cuenca, owner of Joya de Nicaragua. “It is an important industry for our country. During Nicaragua’s occupation by the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, there was prohibition of Nicaraguan tobacco. Augusto Sandino recognized that tobacco could help people improve their lives, and he asked the government to rescind the prohibition. Since then, Nicaragua’s tobacco industry has fought against poverty in our country. It has created jobs and improved living conditions.”
According to the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco, the industry directly employs 33,000 people in Esteli. Multiplying the number of employees by five, the average number of people in a Nicaraguan family, it estimates that the cigar industry supports more than 160,000 Nicaraguans, providing jobs, access to health care and other benefits.
Tobacco cultivation has more than doubled in recent years, growing from 6.2 million pounds grown in 2007 to 12.5 million pounds cultivated in 2014, the most recent year the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco cited. The industry brought $91 million to Nicaragua’s economy in 2009. In 2014, that figure rose to $169 million, and the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco estimated that in 2015 the number would rise to nearly $190 million. While European distribution is growing, the majority of Nicaragua’s cigars, 80 percent, are exported to the United States. Understandably, there is some concern about how FDA regulation of cigars will impact Nicaragua; however, the industry remains confident that it will survive.
“People will not stop enjoying cigars,” says Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco president Juan Martinez. “There are challenges to the tobacco industry all the time, and we are not afraid of those challenges. Nicaragua is unique because of our focus on the quality of our tobacco, our cigars and our people. There will be some pain, but it will be temporary. The industry is vibrant, and we will survive.”
Nicaragua’s vibrant cigar industry was on full display during the festival, which kicked off Jan. 12. Most guests arrived that day and were transported from Managua’s Augusto C. Sandino International Airport to the Crowne Plaza hotel, where they registered and received gift bags that held a host of goodies, including the official festival guayabera shirt and a colorful box of 32 cigars, which included two cigars from each of the sponsoring cigar companies.
Those who arrived at the hotel in time could elect to take a festival bus to Granada, one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere, to enjoy a tour of Mombacho Cigars. The day ended with a cigar and cocktail cruise on Lake Managua, during which the festival organizers unveiled the first “Cigar Moment,” in which the same cigar was passed out to everyone at the same time to encourage discussion about the cigar among attendees.
The second day included a 2 1/2-hour drive to Chinandega for a tour of the Flor de Cana rum factory. After the tour, the festival moved on to the Cortijo el Rosario for lunch, a cigar and rum pairing, and an equestrian show. Festivalgoers then traveled back to Managua for the Puro Humo cigar event, where each guest was able to visit a booth staffed by each of the participating member companies and receive two cigars.
The festival moved on to Esteli on the third day to begin two solid days of cigar factory and tobacco field tours. After lunch at the Tavicusa tobacco farm, the festival groups broke up into smaller groups to tour the cigar factories of AJ Fernandez, Drew Estate, My Father Cigars, Padron, NACSA and Plasencia. Festivalgoers gathered together again that evening in the center of Esteli for the now-traditional White Party, at which guests wore their event guayabera shirts. Throughout the evening, dance troupes entertained the guests with a series of traditional Nicaraguan folk dances. Early in the evening, the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco recognized Gilberto Oliva Sr., from Oliva Cigar Family, for his contributions to the Nicaraguan cigar industry.”
The festival’s last day began with tours of the AJ Fernandez, Padron, My Father Cigars, Plasencia, Procenicsa and NACSA farms, followed by tours of the Joya de Nicaragua, PENSA, Oliva Cigar Family, Procenicsa, Scandinavian Tobacco Group and Tavicusa factories. Following lunch at the PENSA factory, the festival hosted a press conference and question-and-answer session covering diverse topics such as Nicaraguan tobacco history, market trends and the impact of the premium cigar industry on Nicaragua’s economy. The session ended with the official signing of an agreement between the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco, financial institution Banpro and the Nicaraguan government to create a trust fund dedicated to the preservation of the Esteli River Basin.
The fifth Puro Sabor Festival del Tabaco drew to a close on the evening of Jan. 15, with a gala dinner outside of Drew Estate’s year-old tobacco processing center. A charity auction during the event raised more than $10,000 for Nicaraguan scholarship funds. Guests enjoyed seemingly unlimited amounts of cigars and spirits and danced their way well into the early morning hours of Jan. 16. Many left Nicaragua the next day, eagerly anticipating next year’s festival. For its part, the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco took a few days off before starting to plan for next year’s festival. What the Nicaraguan cigar industry will look like a year from now is anyone’s guess, but Martinez promises next year’s festival will be one to remember.
“Nicaragua is an authentic country that is resilient,” he says. “We have overcome challenges in the past, and people are happy and prospering. The festival is a reflection of that. Nicaraguan cigars are the only top Nicaraguan export that proudly bears the phrase ‘Hecho a Nicaragua.’ Our cigars positively present our country to the rest of the world. That’s worth celebrating.”