Smoking My Father: Pepin Garcia's Cigars from Seed to Ash
Even with a full, detailed tour of everything from leaf to ash, much of what occurs in Jose "Pepin" Garcia's My Father Cigars operation will remain a mystery. Of course, you'll never master the details involved in farming the tobacco (unless you're in that business already) ... and have a willingness to guide oxen through the fields in lieu of heavy machinery. As you walk through nearly every building in every room in the factory, you will still be constrained by the act that key details are hidden, even if in plain sight. Watch every step in the process used to manufacture My Father, 601, Tatuaje and several other cigar lines, and you'll never have a chance to appreciate the operation as a whole ... and there's a good reason for this.
The creation of any premium cigar always involves a dose of "secret sauce," and Pepin's business is no different. From the farm to the factory, only four people in My Father Cigars know exactly what goes into each stick. Trade secrets are portable, and this knowledge is maintained only by those who have both proven themselves worthy and have a clear business need for the information.
Yet, even if you won't be able to replicate in your basement what Pepin has created, it's still a fascinating process to watch. From La Finca Estrella to the nearby factory and out the door, Pepin's cigar business is a local affair, involving mostly the staff from Esteli, Nicaragua.
On the Farm
On a "cigar tour" with other consumers, both from Manhattan'sDe La Concha and Uptown Cigar, based in Kingston, New York, I had the opportunity to explore how some of my favorite cigars are made. And from the start, I was floored by what can only be described as Pepin's fanaticism. No link in the chain is too trivial to escape Pepin's watchful eye, and he doesn't miss a thing. As our bus pulled into La Finca Estella, one of his two farms in Esteli, I was shocked to see several people sweeping the ground – yes, the bare, outside ground. They had brooms. Eddie Ortega, whose 601 cigars are made by Pepin, just shook his head and said, "That's how he is." There was some litter on the ground, and Pepin resolved it with a substantial and immediate measure.
While this task wouldn't have any noticeable impact on the Nestor Miranda cigars I'll smoke a year or two – that's how long it can take for a seedling to become a cigar – the attention to such miniscule detail obviously plays a role in the quality of the end product. As I could tell from the look on Eddie's face, as well as that of Pepin's right-hand man, John Gonzales, this wasn't for show.
I popped a 601 Red Label in my mouth and enjoyed the tour, with Gonzales translating for Pepin and his son, Jaime. Different portions of the farm were in various states of growth, with some plots being reserved for later and others ready to be harvested. In the greenhouse near the front gate, Jaime showed us where it all begins, with tiny cups containing up to 96 seeds each. Once they sprout, they are moved to the soil, where they eventually grow up to become binder, filler or wrapper.
As we walked, the words "hecho a mano" ("handmade," an appellation one expects to find on a box of premium cigars), came to life. Pesticide was applied by an employee walking the rows between the plants with a tank on his back, and oxen were hard at work in moving the soil. A combination of economics and tradition contribute to this method, and the end result demonstrates that sometimes old fashioned does in fact deliver superior results.
Once harvested, the leaves are moved to barns, where they are dried and sorted. An intricate color-coding process is used to keep track of the plants, as the determination of which will be used in each blend begins this early. From the farm, the categorized leaves enter the operation in which the ribbons that define them will guide the bunching and rolling that eventually will turn them into a form that cigar smokers will light with glee.
My Father's Compound
Like most important buildings in Esteli, including Pepin's farm and several homes, the My Father Cigars factory exists behind a locked gate and high wall. Armed security guards are alert but not alarming, there to "keep the bad guys out," as Gonzales put it. Equipped with shotguns, their role is to protect the business that puts food on the tables of hundreds of families, not to mention cigars between the fingers of many thousand consumers.
When you step into the main building in the My Father compound, the lobby emphasizes the brand, with pictures of the Garcia family smoking the product to which they are clearly committed. After being greeted in this space, however, we were quickly shepherded across the parking lot to the "pre-industry" building, where the material from the fields first appears. Sorted (again) and stored, the tobacco his held until it's ready to be cut, bunched and rolled.
Behind pre-industry, you'll find a curious little building, from which many loud noises were emitted. It had never occurred to me that Pepin would make his own boxes. I'd always assumed that he bought them from a vendor, already in the appropriate state. Yet, inside, I saw lumber, saws and sandpaper. The boxes are manufactured on-site, right down to the slick finishes and stamping.
This is truly an integrated operation.
Of course, the main event was the final series of buildings, in which the tobacco is transformed into something every cigar smoker can recognize with ease. Quality control is ongoing, and there is more inspection and sorting before leaves are sent to become filler, binder and wrapper. Several rooms and a continuation of the color-coding system characterize this effort. Though important, it lacks the gravity of the rolling room. After all, that's when a plant truly becomes a cigar.
Occupying most of the building behind the lobby where we were greeted, the rollers sit in neat rows. Each will contribute the construction of hundreds of cigars every day, though none will know exactly what he or she is making. Colors give way to numbers at this point, with roving quality control supervisors carefully inspecting the work of bunchers and rollers. Despite some background music and the din of creation, the room is generally silent, with each employee singularly focused on the task at hand.
Unsurprisingly, the behavior we saw on the farm was present in the factory, too. Every time I passed through this enormous space, which had dozens of rows of rollers, I always saw someone wielding a broom or a mop. Aside from the flakes of tobacco you'd expect to find (though far less than I anticipated), the room was virtually spotless. I probably wouldn't eat off the floor, but if I dropped my cigar, I wouldn't hesitate to pick it up and keep smoking it.
At the front of the room, I found two rather ornate rolling stations. One bore the name of the man behind the brand, Pepin Garcia, and the other carried that of his son. With the exception of a generally incompetent effort at rolling by a few New Yorkers, the cigars that come off these two stations will belong to a limited edition that is in the works. I almost felt guilty for defiling the space with a neophyte's efforts but I sat in Pepin's chair at his insistence.
While the rollers don't know what brands their cigars will become, the predominately female group in the next room will never know the ingredients of the products they are completing. At this stage, bunches of cigars, shrouded in newspaper, are unwrapped and adorned with labels. They are slipped into cellophane sleeves, put to temporary rest in cigar boxes from the woodshop and shrink-wrapped. Finally, they'll be sent out the door, landing in Miami before being shipped to tobacconists across the United States.
From Leaf to Ash
Generally, the terminal step in this progression rarely occurs on the premises. Though you'll rarely find Pepin or Jaime without a cigar, the bulk of the employees do not smoke them. Nonetheless, there was nothing quite like sitting at the conference table with Pepin, Jaime and Eddie at the end of the tour and consuming what had been two years in the making.
A little more than a decade ago, Pepin's company began in an apartment in Miami, with many of the sticks rolled by his own hand. He first came on my radar in 2003, when his work on the Tatuaje and De La Concha Grand Reserve hit the streets. Even at that point, however, he was still far from a household name, and I once had the chance to smoke a cigar he rolled at a demonstration and store visit here in New York. He was pounding the pavement back then, investing all his time and energy into what is now a company that spans brands and borders.
So, when you smoke something that comes from the My Father Cigars complex, you're experiencing a profound outcome along two tracks – both the one that goes from seed to ash and another that has been more than a decade in the works, or a lifetime when you consider the career that began in Cuba. Every second of experience that he gathered along the way manifests itself in the cigars that come from this facility, and having seen it at work makes every draw that much tastier.
Interested in learning more? Check out these articles:
Five Reasons to Visit a Cigar Factory (Luxist)
How to Book a Cigar Tour (Gadling)