The Nicaraguan cigar industry is doing better than ever, despite worldwide tobacco regulations, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) oversight of premium cigars in the United States and the European Union’s Tobacco Products Directive. That happy fact was evident during the seventh annual Puro Sabor Nicaraguan Cigar Festival, which took place in Granada and Estelí from Jan. 22-27.
The Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco (CNT) hosted 200 international guests from 29 countries for a five-day celebration of Nicaragua and its cigars. For the second consecutive year, the festival kicked off in the colonial city of Granada. Established in 1524, Granada is one of the oldest mainland settlements in the Americas. Many of its buildings exhibit Andalusian and Moorish architectural influences brought over from Spain by its colonists.
Culture and Cigars
While the Puro Sabor Nicaraguan Cigar Festival’s main attraction is Nicaragua’s cigars and tobaccos, since its inception the festival has also always been about introducing elements of the country’s culture and history to its guests.
“The Puro Sabor Festival has become a way of showing our cultural, historical and traditional wealth,” says Anielka Ortez, president of the CNT. “We want our friends and clients to learn more about our country, enjoy it and let themselves be seduced by Nicaragua’s natural charms.”
Volcanoes, two of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, pristine beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, tropical rainforests and a diverse ecosystem provide plenty of natural charm, but Nicaragua’s cigar industry does so as well. After two days in Granada, the rest of the festival took place in Estelí, the heart of Nicaragua’s cigar industry. Last year, Juan Martinez, president of Joya de Nicaragua and former president of the CNT, reported that there were more than 140 companies in and around Estelí that had something to do with the cigar industry. Cigar industry exports from Nicaragua totaled more than $200 million in 2016. This year, those numbers are even bigger, as a seemingly endless supply of new cigar companies and companies that supply the cigar industry with boxes, cellophane, cigar rings and other peripheral necessities are springing up everywhere.
“I see new brand owners all the time,” Martinez says. “New factories are popping up, and I am surprised that every year I meet more people. It’s impressive to see the love and attention that Nicaragua is now getting.”
The growth has raised a few problems, however. The once-quiet Estelí streets are now frequently clogged with traffic. Real estate prices have soared, making it difficult for companies that want to expand to find the space to do so. And, in a city where virtually anyone who wants a job can get one, competition to find enough workers is fierce. According to Ortez, the number of people directly employed by the industry grew by more than 10,000 since last year and has now surpassed 40,000. Ortez also states that Nicaraguan cigar exports grew 18 percent in 2017, with most of the exports going to the U.S.
To match the amazing growth of Nicaragua’s cigar industry, the CNT also continues to grow. There are now 29 members of the CNT with the addition of Estelí Cigars, the company founded by the late Kiki Berger and continuing operation under his wife Karen’s ownership, and La Corona, a factory owned by Omar Gonzalez Aleman that makes Hirochi Robaina cigars. The companies that welcomed guests for factory or field tours or hosted lunches included: AJ Fernandez, ASP Nicaragua, Casa Fernandez, Drew Estate, El Galan, Esteli Cigars, Joya de Nicaragua, La Corona, Mombacho Cigars, My Father Cigars, Nicaraguan American Cigars S.A. (NACSA), Nica Sueno (RoMa Craft), Oliva Cigars, Padron Cigars, Plasencia, Procenicsa (Oliva tobacco processing facility), Puros de Estelí Nicaragua S.A. (PENSA), Scandinavian Tobacco Group, Tabacalera RC, Tabacos Valle de Jalapa S.A. (TABSA), Tavicusa (Rocky Patel) and Victor Calvo Cigars.
Nicaragua’s current growth can be traced back to the pioneers who struggled to establish cigar factories and tobacco fields in the country approximately 50 years ago. Two of those pioneers—Jose Orlando Padron and Gilberto Oliva—passed away in December 2017. During the traditional “white party” on the festival’s fourth night, the entire audience stood and paid homage to both men in a moment of silence.
“Interest in Nicaraguan cigars is increasing everywhere, and that has been reflected by the attendance at this year’s festival,” Ortez concludes. “For the first time, we sold out [of] all of our available openings. The festival is all about hospitality, and we welcome everyone who wants to see our manufacturing processes. They are open, and there are no secrets. In addition, all of the owners of the factories come here for the festival so that they can talk to the people who attend it. Guests come here, they learn about our history, culture and cigars, and they experience a bit of what makes Nicaragua and its cigars so different.”
This story first appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Story by Stephen A. Ross, senior editor of Tobacco Business Magazine