ESTELÍ – They may not share the same family-name recognition as Padrón, Nicaragua’s most recognized and sought after cigar.
And their history is not as storied as that of Joya de Nicaragua, which saw its cigar factory burn to the ground in the 1980s and its operations turned over to worker-run committees as part of the Sandinista revolution.
But Nicaragua’s upstart Extreme Cigars is making use of the same fertile soil as their famed competitors, and is enjoying the benefits of the growing international reputation of Nicaraguan “puros.”
What the company lacks in name recognition, it has made up for in drive. And business is good.
“In the past few months, we’ve just taken off,” said Felix Pérez, the company’s sales director, as he pointed to some 40 new employees who have been recently added to their Estelí factory. “It’s incredible.”
Started more than three years ago, Extreme Cigars is the latest entry into Nicaragua’s burgeoning industry of fine smokes. The family-run company joins a dozen other local cigar producers who have made their fortunes in the rich northern valleys outside of the north central department of Estelí, considered among the best spots in the world for growing tobacco.
The area took off in the 1960s, when a handful of Cuban exiles, including the Padrón family, resettled here after their tobacco fields were nationalized by Fidel Castro. Nicaraguan cigar makers have suffered their own share of setbacks, namely the decade-long civil war that uprooted the countryside and the chance to sell their product to the lucrative U.S. market during a crushing trade embargo in the 1980s.
But Nicaragua is bouncing back.
In 1995, only 2% of cigars bought in the United States came from Nicaragua. Now, that number is closer to 11%, and Nicaragua has been one of the fastest-growing cigar exporters to the United States, according to Cigar Aficionado magazine.
Extreme Cigars is run by the tight-knit Brione family, with the Cuban-trained Florience, or “Don Lorenzo,” acting as the master blender. Workers here all follow the same arduous tasks needed to produce a fine cigar.
The difference with Extreme is in the business approach: Where other producers have built a reputation after years of making and selling labeled cigars, the Brione family essentially acts as a middleman for other cigar resellers, letting bigger companies buy directly from them and put their own label on the final product.
Pérez says they make their money by being quicker and more competitively priced than other cigar makers.
“We hustle,” he said.
Rolling a Winner
Though Extreme has changed the marketing of cigars, it has not changed the traditional production methods of rolling a fine puro.
The key to developing a smooth, rich cigar is properly fermenting the tobacco, which can sometimes take up to two years. The fermentation burns off the impurities and “smoothens out” the flavor of the leaf, Pérez explained.
To keep the soil good for tobacco, farmers rotate fields each year, substituting tobacco for corn or other traditional crops before rotating back to tobacco.
Making a cigar does not get any easier once the tobacco reaches the factory. It takes roughly three to four months to train a highlyskilled “roller” to professionally wrap the tobacco leaf into one of several differently shaped cigars.
A top roller can put together as many as 500 cigars in a day and bring home close to $90 a week.
Equally important is the “packer,” who makes sure that the tobacco is properly distributed throughout the cigar to ensure a smooth, constant drag when smoked.
The roller and packer work as a team, and if one is absent from work, the other takes the day off, Pérez explained.
“They develop their own rhythm that makes it hard to substitute,” Pérez said.
Though mostly sold under other brand names, a number of retailers are keeping the Extreme Cigar label on the packaging, Pérez said. He sees this as a testament to the growing international reputation of their carefully prepared cigars.
Padrón, arguably Nicaragua’s most recognized brand of cigar with its special Anniversary Series, is consistently ranked as the world’s finest cigar. But a broader range of Nicaraguan cigars are also winning their due acclaim. In Cigar Aficionado’s ranking of the Top 25 cigars from around the world, 11 contain tobacco from Nicaragua.
The market is also moving from stuffy boardrooms to the bling of hip hop. Rap star Jadakiss, whose most famous lyrics link U.S. President George W. Bush to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, recently put his name behind “Bada Bing Cigars,” which are manufactured in Nicaragua.
Controversy is not about to scare off people from a good smoke, as the unrelenting interest in fine Cuban cigars can attest.And Pérez predicts that Nicaraguan cigars will continue to gain fame and market share even if the U.S. embargo against Cuba is lifted.
“Who wants to pay $20 for a cigar?” Pérez said, referring to the high price of contraband Cuban cigars. “They’re only popular because they’re illegal.”