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Eternal Flame

Cigar-making has changed little in the past 150 years. It remains, for the most part, a conservative industry. But even the more staid brands seem as fast-moving as Silicon Valley startups when compared with Padron Cigars. While most cigar manufacturers introduce at least a couple of fresh formulations each year, new Padron blends arrive about as often as U.S. presidential elections. Instead of experimenting with recently popular tobaccos from Africa or South America, Padron uses sun-grown tobacco from its farms in Nicaragua. And the companys bands and packaging would look right at home in the smoke shops of the 1960s.

How can such a tradition-bound enterprise survive in a business climate that often rewards constant innovation? Jorge Padron-president of the company and one of two sons and two daughters of company founder Jose Padron-addresses this question during a tour of the business factory and farms in Nicaragua. "New products and line extensions are intended to get more shelf space in the stores, and to captivate the customers," Jorge says as he walks through one of the warehouses, inspecting the condition of the aging tobacco. "But we feel that you captivate the customers by producing a quality product. If you have a quality product, why change it?"

As Jorge surveys his familys operation, the handsome 40-year-old executive attracts no attention, despite the contrast between his business-casual attire and his employees T-shirts and aprons. He and his father-an 82-year-old man, with a grave expression but a ready smile, who smokes cigars almost nonstop from the moment he wakes until well after supper-split their time between Padrons Miami headquarters and its Nicaraguan facilities, so both are fixtures at the factory in Estelн and at the companys farms throughout northern Nicaragua. "Our customers know that when we come out with something new," Jorge says, "its not just a gimmick or an attempt to create enthusiasm for our brand."

This is one of those rare occasions when the company has come out with something new: the Padron Serie 1926 80 Years, better known as the 80th Anniversary. Padron had planned to release the cigar two years ago, to mark Joses 80th birthday, but, Jorge says, "it took a little longer than we expected." The late-2007 introduction is Padrons first significant new cigar since 2004, when the 40th Anniversary commemorated the companys four decades in business.

Each 80th Anniversary cigar is box-pressed into a rectangular profile and tapered at each end to form a perfecto. Padron has assigned production of the cigar to one particular buncher and one roller, both of whom were selected because they possess the experience and training to overcome the challenges presented by the cigars unusual shape. The former collects the filler leaves and sheathes them in a binder leaf, and the latter applies the wrapper.

Although the cigar is priced high, at $30 retail, it contains no exotic tobacco from, say, Cameroon or Ecuador. All of the leaves come from Padrons farms in Nicaragua. "Its simply the best tobacco we have from our 12 or 13 farms-all aged for five years," Jose says.

Despite using tobacco from only a single country, Padron makes cigars with remarkably balanced flavors. One of the companys many fans is Kendrick Meek, a Democratic congressman from Florida, who has long been a devoted Padron smoker. "I had my first one 10 years ago," he reported during a recent visit to Padrons Miami office, "and its been my exclusive cigar ever since. I began with the original Padron series, but now my tastes run almost across the board, from the [Padron series] 5000 to the Serie 1926 to the 1964 Anniversary Series.

"I do an event every September in Washington, D.C.," Meek continued, "and we have plenty of cigars, but everyone always asks, ‘Where are the Padrons?"

Both Jose and Jorge Padron say the company can achieve such balanced flavors because Nicaragua yields an ample variety of tobacco. "We have farms in all three main tobacco-growing areas of Nicaragua: Estelн, Condega, and Jalapa," Jose says. "Each region produces a different flavor of tobacco, and within each region you have different farms, each of which produces a different flavor of tobacco. Two farms right next to each other will produce different-tasting tobacco."

The flavors differ primarily because the soils in which the tobaccos grow differ. On the Padron plantation in Jalapa, a handful of light-brown earth sifts easily through the fingers, its relatively rough and rocky texture mirroring that of the surrounding low mountains. The Estelн area-about a 90-minutes drive from Jalapa on a twisting, livestock-crowded country highway-is covered in dark, dense, lush loam that originated in volcanoes lying to the regions south. The contrast is as palpable and dramatic as are the differences between the soils of Colorado and Mississippi.

She sun-grown leaves that swath all Padron cigars are dark enough to intimidate some would-be customers, prompting the question of whether the family is tempted to broaden the brands appeal by using lighter-color wrappers. "No," says Jorge. "Cameroon and Connecticut wrappers are too fragile to hold up to the processing we do."

For most of the companys history-which began in 1964, three years after Jose emigrated from Cuba-Padron sold most of its cigars in the Miami area, at Cuban cafes and tobacconists, and made some available via mail order to customers in other U.S. locations. Although the brand has grown considerably since Jorge first took the companys cigars to a trade show in the early 1990s, expansion is not a priority for the family. Padron counts its total production at about 5.5 million cigars per year; a typical larger brand might deliver four to six times that quantity. "The more cigars you make," Jorge notes, "the more difficult it would be to make cigars the way we do."

When asked how Padrons tobacco processing differs from that of its competitors, the company founder responds forcefully, "Mas tiempo! Mas tiempo!" ("More time! More time!"). Jose refers to the fermentation process, which takes place after the leaves have dried for several weeks in large, airy barns adjacent to the fields.

Fermenting involves stacking bundles of tobacco leaves in pilones-piles that measure a few feet high, a few feet deep, and several feet across. Each pilon contains thousands of leaves. Heat builds up within the stacks as the starches inside the leaves become sugar. When the leaves reach a certain temperature, the pilon is disassembled and restacked; leaves formerly on the outside of the pilon are moved to the inside. Padron keeps the stacks together longer than other cigar makers do, allowing the piles to reach a higher temperature. According to Jorge, many types of tobacco cannot weather such heat.

Padron spends mas tiempo waiting for the tobacco to reach the higher temperature and rotating the pilones over and over. Fermentation times in most cigar factories are measured in weeks or months; in Padrons factory, the process often takes much longer. "We have pilones here that are three or four years old," Jorge says.

According to Jorge, the additional fermentation dramatically affects the taste of the tobacco. "When you ferment the tobacco for as long as we do, it doesnt have that bitterness or bite that many people associate with cigars," he points out. The goal is to produce a flavor that is potent yet smooth, with few if any of the peppery overtones that characterize most heavy-bodied cigars. "When we process our tobacco, we eliminate that spice in the flavor," he continues. "Often that spicy taste indicates that the tobacco is not fermented to the degree that it needs to be. A cigar that tastes spicy and bitter-thats not fermented properly-can upset your stomach."

Jose draws a culinary parallel to the process. "When youre curing tobacco," he says, "its like cooking food: You cant overcook it or undercook it." Coming from a family that first began growing tobacco in Cuba in the late 1800s, he should know.

Except for the seemingly endless rows of pilones with fermenting tobacco, the Padron factory appears similar to other cigar-making facilities. Tobacco is sorted, bunched, and rolled by hand; the only machines in use-belted devices that strip the center veins from the wrappers-look as if they date to the early 20th century. At the end of the process, however, true distinctions surface.

Most manufacturers place fresh-rolled cigars into capacious cedar-lined aging rooms for one to six months. In these rooms, the flavors of the various leaves used in the cigars mingle and mellow. In the Padron factory, however, the room in which cigars are stored after rolling is no larger than a walk-in closet, with space only for about a days worth of production. It does not have to be roomier because Padron sorts, packs, and ships all of its cigars shortly after rolling them.

"The tobacco in our cigars is already fermented and aged when we roll it," Jorge says. "It doesnt need to be aged any longer. One advantage of this is that the flavor of our cigars doesnt change much after you buy them." At this point, to my surprise, he reveals that all of the many cigars I have smoked during my visit to the factory were rolled only a few days before-yet the taste yielded no clues that the cigars were recently assembled.

Most cigar makers, in addition to procuring tobaccos from a variety of sources, sell tobacco and finished cigars to other companies. Not Padron. "We dont buy tobacco, we dont sell tobacco, and we dont make cigars for others," Jorge says. "It would be especially difficult for us to use outside vendors because our processing takes so long. The longer fermentation requires us to keep several years worth of tobacco on hand, so its not practical for us to sell any of it. We also limit our production to maintain stability in the blends; we have to have the right types of tobacco on hand at all times to keep the taste consistent. And if the cigars do not turn out as we expect, we dont sell them."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Source: Cigar Advisor

Eternal Flame