Talking Tobacco with Nestor Andrés Plasencia

There was never a doubt that Nestor Andrés Plasencia would grow cigar tobacco. The fifth-generation tobacco man—known to many in the cigar world as Nestor Jr.—graduated from agricultural school in 1998 and days later was working side-by-side with his father Nestor, learning how to coax the magic out of every leaf.

Plasencias have grown tobacco for decades, first in Cuba and today in Central America. Nestor Andrés and his father run Plasencia Tobacco S.A., which grows more than 3,000 acres of tobacco in Nicaragua and Honduras, both sun and shade, and Plasencia Cigars S.A., a company that rolls more than 35 million cigars by hand per year for clients that include Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, Alec Bradley Cigar Co., Royal Gold Cigars, Ventura Cigar Co. and a host of others.

Cigar Aficionado’s David Savona recently sat down for a lengthy conversation with the 38-year-old Plasencia to talk about how he grew up in the business, and how he is helping bring a new outlook to an age-old industry.

Savona: I know your dad was born in Cuba. Where were you born? Plasencia: Nicaragua. When I was three, we moved to Honduras.

Q: You never had a doubt—you were always going to work for your dad.
A: Always. I remember my first cigar. I was four years old.

Q: Four?
A: I was hiding under the bed with my cousin. So we lit up a cigar, and the bed caught on fire. We ran out of there, my mom found out—and I didn’t have a good time.

Q: How long was it until they let you back into the house?
A: Like two weeks [laughs]. Then, when I was a teenager, I had a cigar with my dad. He started teaching me. I remember my dad, my uncles, my dad’s friends—they were happy people, like the people you would see in a cigar store. I remembered that. After work, they would sit and play dominoes, or on the weekends, and even though we had bad times, I remember people smoking cigars, laughing and having fun. There’s something about cigars that has those good vibes. I had a friend tell me: “This is the cheapest psychoanalysis: for $10 I can relax for two hours.”

Q: You’ve been in this business for a long time. Tell us about the start.
A: I graduated from agriculture school in December 1998 and started working full time one week after that. Organic tobacco was my first project when I got into the business full time. In January 1999 we started with the first tests, trial and error. I was learning that kind of agriculture in school. We started researching it there.

Q: I know there are people who use organic products when they grow tobacco, but you’re talking about something different—an entirely organic cigar, made solely from organically grown tobacco. Can you elaborate?
A: Growing tobacco is not an easy thing, but growing tobacco organically is even harder. We wanted to prove we could harvest tobacco in the hardest conditions. We succeeded. We made a lot of trial and errors, different tests, and we found a recipe that we had at that time, and we’ve been learning and improving.

Q: Tell me about the organic fields.
A: We have two organic fields in Nicaragua: one in Jalapa, and one in Estelí. Out of those two, we make the blends.

Q: The cigar—Plasencia Reserva Organica—contains only organic tobacco. When you first started this project, I remember you only had one field. The cigar was good, but—
A: It needed more balance. Now [with two fields] we created more balance. This is never going to be big for us.

Q: It must be more expensive to grow tobacco organically.
A: It is more expensive. It’s hard to keep in the bales, because you cannot fumigate, you have to put it in the freezer. But we’re in Germany, we’re in France—in Europe we’re doing very well with this. We started three years ago, in Europe first, and last year we started with Ventura Cigar Co. [the U.S. distributor for Plasencia Reserva Organica]. So it’s new for the American market. The way that you grow the tobacco—for me, this is fascinating.

Q: Have you taken some of the things you’ve done in the organic fields and translated them to your other operations?
A: We learned how to fight pests with biological controls, so that information we put into our other tobacco. It’s been a great help.

Q: How do you fight pests biologically?
A: There’s a little wasp. You release it on the fields. That little wasp will put the eggs on the bad insects and that kills the insect.

Q: Normally you would use pesticides?
A: That’s right. And we learned how to fight pests organically. You use garlic, for example. The bad insects don’t like the smell so they go away. The vampires and the bad insects [laughs].

Q: You should make an Italian restaurant next to your fields [laughs].
A: Also, black shank. You take this fungus called trichoderma, and you put this into the root system of the tobacco plant, and it works like a shield. It won’t let black shank get into the root. It also improves the water retention and the nutrient absorbtion. The biggest challenge that we have is fertilization, because tobacco is a heavy eater. You see how fast it grows in 60 days; it needs a lot of fertilizer. So we use earthworm castings, called hummus, and you compost cow manure, potatoes, different crops, and you give it to the earthworms and they produce this beautiful fertilizer. Still, you never get the same yieds. The yield is 20 to 30 percent less. [Organic tobacco] is a very small percent of our production—about 2 percent—but there’s a lot of pride. I’m very proud to have that. What we’re putting on the box is del suelo al cielo—from soil to heaven. In English it doesn’t sound very well, but in Spanish it sounds good. It’s not a full strength, but it’s full-flavored cigar.

Q: Before school, before working with your father, do you have memories of growing up around tobacco?
A: Yes, mostly with my grandfather. He was the one who took me to the fields.

Q: And your grandfather’s name was?
A: Sixto Plasencia. Because my father was always working. We were switching from Nicaragua to Honduras when I was three years old so my grandfather took me to the fields. And I always wanted to be like my dad—my dad studied agriculture, so I went to agriculture school.

Q: You grow tobacco—did your family grow other things?
A: Before the boom, my father used to grow watermelons and some vegetables. But the boom came, and it was all tobacco.

Q: If you were doing a split of your time, tobacco growing compared with cigarmaking, what’s the split?
A: My father spends most of his time in the fields, and I spend most of my time in the cigar factories. But I go to the fields once a week, and he goes to the factories as well. So we know what is going on. When I started, I started in the tobacco fields. Now I’m in charge of the cigar factories. But it’s not just my dad and I, it’s a big team.

Q: How many employees do you have?
A: Six thousand people between Honduras and Nicaragua. You cannot do everything yourself, you need to have people who know what they are doing. We have talented people. What I’m doing right now, I take all the ratings for the cigars we have and put them in the [rolling] room, so they are proud about them. They feel powerful. And you have to retain the talent.

Q: Let’s talk about the cigarmaking aspect of your business. Tobacco growing came first.
A: Tobacco growing is the thing our family has been doing for five generations. My father started the cigar factory in 1985. Blue mold destroyed all the crops; he started making cigars in Danlí, Honduras.

Q: So if not for blue mold, maybe you wouldn’t have started making cigars?
A: Maybe. I remember, I was working in the factory at the time. There were only five pairs in the factory.

Q: You started with five pairs of cigarmakers?
A: Yes.

Q: And how many people do you have making cigars for you now?
A: We have 700 people just making cigars in Honduras and Nicaragua.

Q: How many cigars do you make a year?
A: More than 35 million.

Q: From a couple of thousand cigars a year to more than 35 million.
A: Yes, we are blessed to work with beautiful people in this industry who trust us to make their blends. What we can offer them is one of the biggest tobacco inventories in this industry, and also access to tobacco from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Cameroon, Indonesia—you name it.

Q: Do you make more cigars in Honduras or Nicaragua?
A: We make more cigars in Honduras. But the fastest growing is in Nicaragua.

Q: What’s the split?
A: About 60/40.

Q: You make some good cigars in Nicaragua—you got a Cigar of the Year out of that factory.
A: We’re very proud of the Casa Magna [Robusto, Cigar Aficionado’s 2008 Cigar of the Year], with a beautiful family, the Quesadas.

Q: What’s a bigger part of the business—cigarmaking or tobacco growing?
A: It’s more or less the same. The only way you can make great cigars is with great tobacco. In the cigar industry, they don’t allow us to change the blends—the consumers want the cigar to be the same every year. Every year, you have to make little adjustments to the blend. And we’re blending solids.

Q: Is there one leaf that’s the magic leaf that seems to go well with everything? If you have a tough client, is there one leaf that works better than anything else?
A: For me, Jalapa [in northern Nicaragua] works with everything. It has sweetness. In Estelí [in central Nicaragua], you have strength. In the middle of those two, you have Condega. Ometepe [in southern Nicaragua], it has a lot of strength—you have to be careful. It can be dominant.

Q: How big is your tobacco-growing operation?
A: We grew 1,650 acres on our farms last year. And we also have 1,500 acres that we finance with small growers.

Q: So 3,150 acres under your control, half of which you own?
A: Yes.

Q: That’s a lot of tobacco.
A: It’s a lot of tobacco, and the only way you can do it is with a great group of people.

Q: What’s the split between Honduras and Nicaragua?
A: Of what we grow ourselves, Nicaragua is about 700 acres and 900 in Honduras. Out of the 1,600 we have 850 acres of shade and 800 acres of sun grown. Shade grown is very hard, with a big investment required—you have to buy the poles, and the cheesecloth, and it’s more labor-intensive. Out of the 1,500 acres we contract, we have 1,300 in Nicaragua, and the rest is in Panama and Costa Rica.

Q: So you contract nothing in Honduras.
A: No.

Q: What is Panamanian tobacco like?
A: Thick, big, a lot of flavor.

Q: Is it wrapper?
A: Filler.

Q: You get some wrapper from Costa Rica?
A: Yes, and it’s very rich.

Q: Tell me about the quality of your recent crops in Central America.
A: Amazing. Last year’s crop, we just finished the harvest three weeks ago.

Q: That would be the 2012/2013 harvest?
A: Yes. It’s an amazing crop. The weather has been very helpful for us. It wasn’t raining during the soil preparation, and the rainy season started late. Amazing crop. High yield and high quality.

Q: And that’s in both Nicaragua and Honduras?
A: Yes. It’s a very good thing.

Q: When will that be made into cigars?
A: Most of that, three years from now.

Q: You grow a large variety of wrapper types right now. Which one of them is in the highest demand?
A: Habano from Jalapa. Grown under shade.

Q: I know you focus on wrapper in Nicaragua and Honduras. Do you grow any filler there?
A: Yes, in Estelí. We’re trying to be creative. We’re trying to have some innovation in the business. Every crop is different. And what you can do with that tobacco is amazing. My dad always said, there are two challenges in the fields: in the field, and in the curing barn.

Q: You’ve been one of the pioneers outside of Cuba incorporating the calfrisa system of controlled, mechanized heating and humidity systems inside tobacco curing barns. Can you talk about bringing new technology to an old business?
A: We were learning about how we can increase our wrapper yield, and we started reading and seeing what people were doing in Cuba and Brazil, and we went to Brazil to learn how the system works. What you need during curing are three things: temperature control, humidity control and air movement. When you can control those without worrying about what’s going on outside the curing barn, you can do amazing stuff with the tobacco. Some people think [the calfrisa is] an artificial process that changes the flavor, but no. The first 15 days in the curing barns, you get the color that you want. But the central vein is still green. In the end, it’s not that you’ve sped up the process, but you have a better, even color. In the curing barns we have four sections. Two sections are with the calfrisas [the temperature and humidity controlled systems] and the two sections in the middle are without the calfrisas. When the tobacco has 15 days in the calfrisa, we move it to the other section. You’re just helping the leaves.

Q: Are those first 15 days the most delicate times for the leaf?
A: The first five days. They are the most important days. When you harvest tobacco leaves, they are about 85 percent water. You need a place to release that water. If you don’t, the tobacco can rot very fast. You can lose the best tobacco in one day if you don’t pay attention.

Q: What percent is it when it is done?
A: About 25 percent. You need to manage the leaves. You don’t want to take the leaves out too dry, because they will break. Then you make the pilóne [a large pile of tobacco leaves for fermentation]. And now, with the wrapper, we have made some changes. We put it into mulling before fermentation. We used to have pilónes of 2,000 pounds, and the weight made little water spots on the leaves of the tobacco at the end, because of the humidity that it has.

Q: On the bottom level of the pilóne?
A: Yes, so what we do this year, we took 100-pound boxes, and put the tobacco into mulling for three months, just three months. Because it releases a lot of essential oils, and that moisture and weight made you see water spots on the leaves. So we put it in the mulling for three months, let it release excess moisture, then put it into the pilóne for regular fermentation.

Q: So even after all these years, generations of doing this, you are still making changes in the way you do business?
A: It’s learning. If you say I know everything about tobacco, I won’t speak to you anymore. Tobacco is a beautiful thing, and you’re always learning. We are five generations in the cigar business, and we are just beginning. We are motivated. This is a beautiful industry.

Q: What about the sixth generation?
A: I have two sons and one daughter. I hope one of them will join us. We have tobacco in the blood. The beautiful thing is my father never forced us. This is very demanding. A lot of hours, a lot of time away from your family. You have to love it.

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