By Frank Seltzer
Aganorsa Leaf is the new name for Casa Fernandez. The company, in making the change, is paying homage to its strength, the Nicaraguan Aganorsa tobacco for which it is known throughout the industry. In addition to its own lines of cigars, Aganorsa makes cigars for Illusione, Warped, HVC, Viaje, Sindicato and Foundation Cigar Company.
The name change came about because of Max Fernandez, the owner’s son, and the company’s new vice president of marketing and sales, Terence Reilly. Reilly previously worked for S.A.G. Imports and the Quesada family, to whom he is related. When Reilly came in last December, Fernandez was already thinking about making a name change, but then with Reilly on board, he decided to speed things up, and by the end of April 2018 the new name was official.
Says Reilly, “It is a brand we are proud of, but it does not highlight what makes us unique and different. I think there are three types of companies: Some companies are a cult of personality where the brand is very much related to the owner’s personality and charisma; there are lifestyle companies that tie the brand into a particular image and way of life; and then there are product-based companies that focus on the product itself and what makes it unique and different, and that’s what we are doing—focusing on the unique tobacco we grow.”
The leaves themselves are the passion of the company’s founder, Eduardo Fernandez. Although Eduardo was born in Cuba, his passion for tobacco came to fruition much later in life.
Eduardo left his homeland as a child at age 10, moving to the United States with his family and settling in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a year and a half after Fidel Castro took power. Like most expats, the family thought they would soon be going back. That was not to be. So Eduardo graduated from high school in the U.S. and then went to the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, getting his bachelor’s degree. He soon found himself working in New York in the international banking field. The work was good, but Eduardo had an entrepreneurial itch, as did his brother Leopoldo. “We lived through the whole process of fast food in the States when it was just beginning, you know Burger King and McDonald’s in the ’60s, Pizza Hut and all that. Spain was just beginning that process, and we saw the opportunity, so I left the bank and we were successful from day one.” The opportunity the brothers saw was not only the pizza but adding a twist of using scooters to deliver the pizza around Madrid.
Their efforts were wildly successful, and by 1997 Eduardo sold his shares and retired. But not for long. “I was young, still 48, and I am a workaholic and an entrepreneur, and I like to be creative, so I said, ‘What am I gonna do for the next stage of my life?’ I wanted to look ahead. I want to be involved in agriculture because I always had an interest in agriculture.” He began looking around.
Costa Rica seemed nice, but it was too long of a drive to the ocean for Eduardo. He could not go back to Cuba, but then he found Nicaragua had a shorter drive to the ocean and knew it was the place for him. “Because of the revolution and the communist regime, land was still cheap …. Normally when you don’t inherit land you have to buy, and it is very expensive. So while in Nicaragua, I looked for agricultural projects, and that’s where I found tobacco to be something very special in Nicaragua—it is world-class. So I started tobacco as a farmer just growing the leaf in 1997.” Aganorsa was born. Eduardo says the soil is what attracted him. “We have about 1,100 acres in Jalapa, Condega and Esteli,” he says. “We have some of the best land. The original Joya de Nicaragua land that Somoza had, La Mia is what they called it, was one of our first acquisitions. The land in Jalapa is very similar to the Vuelta Abajo region of Pinar del Rio, where the best Cuban tobacco is grown.”
Not being an experienced farmer at all, Eduardo knew he needed help. He was able to visit Cuba and found farmers in the Vuelta Abajo region who had been growing tobacco all their lives, and he brought them to Nicaragua. One of his first hires was Arsenio Ramos, who had just retired as the head of fermentation for Cuba Tobacco and was a wealth of information on how to grow and ferment leaves the Cuban way. Eduardo’s goal was to grow tobacco in that style and process it using the old methods. He chose Corojo ’99 and Criollo ’98 to be his seeds, and to this day they are the only two varietals he grows. At Aganorsa, Eduardo says, everything is done with care. “We do things the old-fashioned way and pay a lot of attention to detail and give the tobacco what it needs in terms of time and process without rushing it at all. It is all low-tech, just adding a little bit of moisture when the leaves tell us they need it.”
Selling the leaf initially was a little tough. No one knew Eduardo nor his product, so Pedro Martin, of Tropical Tobacco, helped him sell the leaves. “As he got older and wanted to retire, he called me and said, ‘Eduardo, you’re the man to take this business.’ It really is not my thing. I like growing the leaf, and he said, ‘No this is what is missing. You have to do this, and I want you to take my legacy forth.’ I bought Tropical in 2002, and he stayed as an advisor.”
With a factory now, TABSA, he needed help, and that came from a Cuban who was already working for Aganorsa, Ramos. While still working in the fields and barns, Ramos took on a new role as blender. His intimate knowledge of the tobaccos was a huge help. Ramos developed blends and trained others with his knowledge. Sadly, after 20 years with Aganorsa Leaf, Ramos passed away in September at the age of 83.
Today, Eduardo’s son Max runs the factory, working not only on logistics—making certain the right products are made at the right time to constantly fill the pipelines—but also working on designs and blending. Says Max, “I always loved the leaf from the time I was young. I love the aroma of our tobacco, and I want our cigars to capture that aroma perfectly. When our customers smoke our leaf, they are always impressed by its unique flavor and aroma.”
Eduardo says the company grows about 13,000 bales of tobacco every year but only uses about 2,500. That gives the company a great depth of inventory for aged tobacco. And Eduardo is a stickler for details, saying, “We sort and select all our tobaccos carefully. We classify all the tobacco. We know what cutting it is, what seed and in terms of the origin it is from day one, but the actual selection is done after the fermentation. And then we go through the bales nearly every day to take a leaf and smoke it to ensure it is the best.” Max says there is a special reason for this: “To make sure everything is first-class because you really notice it in the smaller ring gauges. We have the sweetness of the Corojo and then all the elegance and refined flavors. You don’t want any dry aggressiveness affecting the taste.”
While Aganorsa Leaf makes large ring gauge cigars, its JFR Lunatic topping out with an 8 x 80, the company also makes many of the traditional Cuban sizes, which Max says is a bit more difficult. While the market has tended to go for the bigger cigars, Aganorsa Leaf continues to make smaller sizes for Warped and Illusione, among others, realizing, says Max, “It takes education. The traditional sizes give you a better appreciation of the leaf.”
Both Max and Eduardo want the company and its leaves to be known for their high quality and their great flavor and aroma. “Aganorsa Leaf is Nicaraguan tobacco with a clear Cuban influence,” says Max. “The aroma of our Corojo cover leaf has an incredible aroma, and it’s truly unique. When someone lights up a cigar with our tobacco, you will notice it right away.”
Although the company has changed its name, it will continue to promote the brands it has built. Casa Fernandez remains a brand, along with the JFR and Guardian of the Farm—which was the first cigar for which Max had full control of the process. At this year’s IPCPR trade show, the company introduced a rebranded Aganorsa Leaf Connecticut, the Buena Cosecha (which translates in English to “good harvest”), its new Aganorsa Signature line and a special Aniversario line. The special Aniversario was a limited edition of only 250 boxes of the 6.25 x 52 Perfecto produced by one roller at the company’s Miami factory.
“It’s exciting to build enthusiasm for Aganorsa Leaf,” says Max. “We have been producing some of the most sought-after tobacco and cigars for a long time, and it’s now our moment to bring attention to our own brands. This is just the beginning.”