Léon – Day 1 : cigares and bus

Today we visited a cigar factory.

Don’t get too excited, these are the defects

This morning we were still in Esteli, where we visited a small cigar factory. We were only three doing the visit, us and a German woman, and the guide only spoke Spanish (which wasn’t expected), so the we were asked to translate for her. At first, we tried to translate from Spanish to German, but it was way to hard, so we did it from Spanish to English 😉 .

Aside from this linguistic training, the visit was very interesting. We started with a small course about the different types of tobacco leaves, and their usage in cigar making. So, a cigar is made from 3 parts:

  • The heart of the cigar, the most important, giving it all its aroma. The tobacco used for this part is mostly cultivated here in Nicaragua, so as to keep an eye on the quality of the product. It’s the part that needs the most quantity of tobacco.
  • The shell, wrapped around the heart so as to maintain it in a relative cylindric form. Most of the tobacco used for this part is imported from Ecuador or Mexico (where it’s cheaper to grow it).
  • The skin, giving the cigar its perfectly cylindrical external look. For this part (as also a bit for the shell), more elastic leaves are used, so that they can take a cylindrical form without cracking.
The stickers show who is the buyer, and which worker made which set

The cigar factory buys all types of leaves and then assembles different mixes for the heart (the most important), using different quantity of different leaves so as to change the aromas. The buyers (big cigar producers) then come and try a few of them, and specify the details such as type of shell or skin that should be used. Once the cigar is selected, the factory has to produce exactly the same all along the production.

To do so, the cigars are controlled at every step, and any defect is rejected. Of course, the defect cigars are not thrown away, they are crushed and mixed again as a heart. But of course, as they are heart, shell and skin, it’s a low-quality heart, which is used to make cigars that are sold cheap in the tourist shops to the uninitiated, who is persuaded he’s making a good deal (even though no connoisseur would buy such cigars!).

Sorting of the leaves

For the production steps, it starts with harvesting and drying the leaves under controlled hygrometry and temperature. When we hear the guys here talking about tobacco fermentation, it really seems to us the whole field is at least as complicated as wine making! Once the leaves sorted in different categories (depending on color, intensity, aroma…), they are brought into the main processing room.

In this room they work (impressively fast) in pairs: the man rolls the leaves for the heart into half a leave of shell, and gives it a cylindrical shape. To keep it in place, these beginning of cigars are placed into molds and pressed. Once they hold their form, the woman carefully wraps it into half a leave of the skin, giving it its final form. The cigar holds together thanks to an « organic glue » (they didn’t say more).

Half a cigar mold (the other half comes on top)

In the end, it was a very interesting tour, but the working conditions do seem harsh. The rooms are small and without ventilation (or windows) and the air is saturated by the tobacco smell. Very few workers actually wear a mask, and we really wonder what the life expectancy for them is.

So, apart from this and taking a bus to Leon at 3pm (well, we tried to get into the 1pm minivan but it was full!) we didn’t do much else. We arrived at night in the busy bus station from Leon, where we (again) had to make our way through the hordes of taxis (motorized or not) and find our hostel. So even if the title says Leon because we’re sleeping there, we actually can’t tell you much about the city for now (well, there is a really good ceviche place… yes, we spared no expense 😉 ).

P.S : small bonus, a photo from the no smoking sign in a cigar factory (with a guy lighting a cigar right next to it!