2007 Rocky Patel Tour: Honduras
by Richard L. Hardesty
Thursday, October 18, 2007
I’ve been smoking cigars regularly since late 1998, and one of my dreams has been to visit a factory and see first-hand how those wonderful objects of my desire are made—from field to finished product. I had pretty much charged that idea off as unlikely, as I live in NW Montana – not exactly a hot-bed of cigar activity.
Then last year (2006), through a shared interest in the art of cigar bands, I made the online acquaintance of Doc Stogie Fresh, and soon found myself enmeshed in the doings of Stogiefresh.com to our mutual satisfaction. My life rolled on, and I, all unsuspecting, continued to keep that little dream tucked away in the inner recesses of my mind. Then in late July, I received an e-mail from the good doctor that changed everything. It is said that, “All good things come to he who waits” and that little e-mail was evidence of the truth of that saying. That e-mail was like a bolt from the blue and had me jumping up and down in joy – mixed with some disbelief, to be sure – for it was an invitation to join him and two others of Team Stogie Fresh in a jaunt to Danlí, Honduras, as a guest of the Rocky Patel company! To say that I was excited is an understatement. I called my wife right away (she was at work) and after I settled down and stopped babbling incoherently, managed to tell her what was up. I was going to Honduras!!!
The day of departure arrived all too soon, and I was still wondering if I was dreaming all this, but very shortly had to accept that it really was happening. What I did not know, but soon found out, was that we were to be well taken care of. Rocky has a great team and their care and hospitality was a large part of the whole experience. I met Eddie DeJong in Houston and together we got on the plane for Tegucigalpa, where we were to meet David Diaz (the good Doc Stogie Fresh). The fourth member of the team, unfortunately, was not able to make the trip.
Below: the author hard at work
Doc was waiting for us at the airport in Tegucigalpa, having arrived from Florida earlier. Our bags were whisked away by the waiting baggage boys (Work for tips, Señor, Tips!) to the waiting bus. Nimish Desai, Vice President of Operations for the Rocky Patel company and Rocky’s cousin, was waiting for us and greeted each of us warmly with a firm handshake. We were soon on the bus, where we joined a lively bunch of fellows (guests of Hava Cigar Shop & Lounge of Galveston, TX). A large box of RP cigars provided us with smokes, and a cooler full of beverages (Honduran beer, Coke, water, etc.) something wet, for the drive to Danlí. We were ensconced in comfort on the Rocky Patel cigar bus, headed for two and half days of cigar heaven. Our driver, Oscar, had things well in hand, and quicker than you could say “Bob’s your uncle,” we were on the highway through the mountains between the two cities.
Through the clouds of smoke, we managed to start to get acquainted, cameras clicking away. I have no idea what cigar I was smoking. I was asked “maduro or natural,” and a stick was shoved into my hand. It was a maduro something or other, but it was pretty good. Hey, I was in a bus in Honduras! It HAD to be good!
The mountain scenery was fabulous though the clouds and the occasional rain shower limited the visibility. It was Honduras, man! It seemed like we’d just gotten on the bus when we pulled into the driveway at Villa Alejandra, our home for the next few days. The villa has a great location, super view and was very well appointed for a bunch of “yanqui” cigar-smokers. We quickly got room arrangements worked out, with Team Stogie Fresh taking bunks on the lower floor, leaving the Galveston boys to duke it out over the upstairs rooms. We threw our luggage on our beds and headed upstairs. It was mid-afternoon by now, and we had the rest of the day to herf, get acquainted, relax, BS and generally enjoy ourselves. Cigars were plentiful, and the staff kept the refrigerator full.
Below: Eddie DeJong inspecting tobacco
One of Rocky’s employees, Gustavo García, joined us on the verandah. Gustavo came to Honduras from Cuba just two years ago. Like so many in the business, he got his start young, going to work in the fields at age twelve. His grandfather taught him to roll cigars when Gustavo was fourteen. He oversees product quality for Rocky Patel, checking tobacco for proper ageing, testing blends, etc. He is one of the people who made this trip so enjoyable and educational.
The evening meal was ready all too soon. The staff of Rocky Patel knows how to set a good spread, and we ate like ravenous coyotes. I went through the chow at light speed. Post-dinner activities continued unabated: more cigars, more drinks (I pretty much kept to bottled water, as I’m not much of a beer drinker), and lots of conversation. There was a poker game going, too, a low-stakes game that everyone who participated seemed to enjoy. Bedtime came quickly, and though Doc and I slept pretty well, I’m afraid that our snoring kept poor Eddie awake most of the night. Sorry, Eddie!
Below: Peter Hartkamp talks about fermenting tobacco
By the next morning, the rain clouds had pretty much gone away and by the afternoon, were gone completely. The rest of our visit was treated to lovely, sunny weather, with the temperatures in the mid-70's to low 80-s. Even I found the humidity tolerable, and cool breezes made it even more so. We were treated to a thoroughly enjoyable breakfast that introduced me to a new love – fried plantain (“platanos”). This is a type of banana, and I enjoyed them so much that I fried some up for my wife when I got home. Even in NW Montana, you can buy plantain! We piled on the bus right after breakfast for the first tour of the trip: a visit to the Plascencia warehouses in Danlí where the tobacco is aged. Here we met Petrus (“Peter”) Hartkamp, a Dutchman who used to work in Indonesia. The man is a walking encyclopedia of tobacco-growing knowledge, and is a pleasure to listen to.
Peter guided us through the operation, showing us every stage in the aging and preparation of the tobacco. The one thing that immediately strikes you is just how labor-intensive everything is. It has been estimated that the tobacco has been handled by 250 people by the time it gets in the box, and much of that handling is here in the warehouses, where it is sorted, aged, sorted and re-sorted. The tobacco is sorted by quality, color, origin and type.
The next stop of the day was a short walk down the road to the old Plascencia cigar factory and a lightning run through the rolling room. The factory has a low ceiling and adequate lighting, but it gives something of a cramped feeling. That didn’t seem to bother the workers, however, as most of them were smiling while they worked. Of course, they could have been laughing at the crazy gringos.... This little side trip was made, I think, to provide a contrast with the new factory that we were to visit next. So, back on the bus we went!
A short drive took us to the new factory, El Paraiso Cigar in Danlí. The first stop was the conference room, where we sat in air-conditioned comfort as Nimish and Gustavo handed out samples of the new RP Decade for us to try. An absolutely delicious cup of Cuban-style coffee was provided and the two made for a superb combination. The Decade is a cigar well worth smoking, a delicious treat indeed. Then, on to the rest of the factory.
Doc with a “mano” of fermented tobacco
Quite frankly, there is so much going on here that it would take a small book to tell the story fully. But in brief, here the tobacco is received from the warehouse and ... sorted again! Leaf is rejected for a number of reasons: insufficient aging, imperfections, etc. Rocky is very exacting in his standards and his people work hard at keeping to them. After receiving, the tobacco is prepared for rolling. This entails smoothing the leaves, getting all the wrinkles out. If it is wrapper leaf, this is especially important. Each tobacco leaf yields two wrappers, and the cutting is done here. Maduro wrappers require extra preparation, as the leaf is quite thick and needs extra moisture to make it workable, which perforce means that maduro cigars are wetter than others and are placed in special racks that allow air to flow all around them to dry them out a bit before packaging. We saw plenty of these maduro-filled racks in the factory.
After going through the packaging area where we watched sticks being celloed, getting set up for box pressing, boxed, and wrapped, we took a short stop in the aging room. The aroma of that room is incredible, almost heady in its power. The mind begins to conjure up visions of luscious, lovely and delectable delights, slender, smooth treasures with the promise of heavenly pleasures...... Sorry, got a little carried away there. But that room is definitely delightful, and loaded with some real treasures. In addition to Rocky Patel, there are many brands made in this factory, including Indian Tabac, Outlaws (yeah, I know), and many others.
Next, we entered the massive rolling room. It is huge and has been referred to as “cathedral-like” for its very high ceiling. It is exceedingly well lit, and the workers have plenty of room. One thing that strikes you immediately is how clean this room is. The concrete floor is sealed and kept immaculate. Our attention was directed to a large table upon which a number of bags of tobacco leaves had been placed. Each of the various filler, binder and wrappers available at the factory were on the table, each in its own bag and clearly labeled. Some of us thought this was just a nifty display for our edification, but that notion was quickly dispelled. We were informed that each of us was going to create our own personal blend!
Above: “Bunching” the filler into the binder
Below: “Torcedor” rolling a cigar
Well, slap me up alongside the head and call me goofy! That was the last thing I had expected. After a few instructions among which was that our nose was our best blending tool, we were turned loose. We each had a form upon which to record our choice: three fillers, one binder and one wrapper. There was a goodly selection of fillers, but for the life of me, I cannot remember what I picked, other than that I skipped ligero completely, and two of the fillers and the binder were some type of Habano leaf. For the wrapper, I picked Mexican maduro (aka San Andrés negro, Morrón, etc.). Gustavo reviewed my choice and verified that I was looking for a medium body and said it was a pretty good blend. Not a killer blend, to be sure, just a pretty good one.
As soon as all had concocted their blend, we were taken back to the conference room for lunch and more smokes. While we were chowing down, our blends were being assembled, each individual selection of leaves into its own bag. After our post-prandial break, we were shepherded back to the rolling room and our infant cigars (still just leaves) were assigned to various rollers. The rollers here work in teams of two, a buncher and a roller. The buncher bunches the filler (as you kinda worked out for yourself, right?) and applies the binder then passes the semi-cigar to the roller who finishes it by applying the wrapper and the cap. Entranced, I watched my team work their magic, transforming a bunch of leaves into a cigar. The roller folded the ends of the wrapper into a pseudo-cap, then quickly cut and applied two additional caps, the second smaller than the first, and Voilá, I held in my hand a cigar, made of my very own blend! The only question was, “What is this thing gonna taste like?” and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to know! I mean, how good can this quickie blend by a total tyro be? I wasn’t expecting much. We were told to either smoke them today or tomorrow or wait a couple of months. I decided to wait until evening, after supper, to give it a go.
Below: Doc in a field of dreams... Corojo tobacco
We were given leave to wander around the rolling room and take all the pictures we wanted so long as we did not interrupt the work flow, and we spent the next hour or so doing just that, but finally, we were loaded back onto the RP Bus, Oscar at the wheel, for the return trip to the Villa. We took a slight detour into Danlí and spent about an hour wandering about the town. Danlí is not much of a tourist town and that, to me, is a plus. The spirit of free enterprise is healthy there, with lots of booths and stalls selling everything you can imagine, but despite that, Doc couldn’t find the T-shirt he was looking for in his size. Well, you can’t have everything.
Our diversion over, we headed back to the Villa for another relaxing late afternoon and evening. The pool was quite inviting and several of the guys made a beeline for it. Another delicious meal, more camaraderie, herfing – another pleasant evening. I lit up my personal blend cigar with some trepidation. Well, it was nothing to write home about, rather mild with a hint of sweetness, but that’s all. Oh, well, maybe with a few months..... On the other hand, Doc was quite enchanted with his concoction and kept admiring it while smoking it, grinning like a Cheshire cat the whole time.
The next day, perfect weather again greeted us, and after breakfast, we loaded up and headed into town for a quick tour of the Plascencia box factory. Okay, unless you’re interested in box making, this might be something of a bore, but it was a very fascinating place. These workers have been making boxes for a long time, and they work very quickly, turning out all kinds of boxes, from simple wooden crates for Mocambo to some pretty fancy varnished boxes for several brands, including Rocky Patel. You do get used to the sawdust in the air, for it is ubiquitous as should be expected with so many saws in use. One thing I found particularly interesting is that some of the box lids are actually printed letterpress using a platen press. I’ve seen the results many a time, but always assumed the printing was done via hydraulic stamping press, which would likely be the method used if this was in the U.S. I actually prefer the older technology. There is something about the sound of an operating platen press and the smell of printer’s ink that stirs the blood, even if the object being printed isn’t paper, but wood.
After making our way on out of the box factory through the varnish-drying porch, we loaded back up on the bus for a trip to the nearby Jamastrán valley to visit the tobacco fields and curing barns. The drive to Jamastrán was a pleasant jaunt through the mountains along a good paved road that eventually turned into a decent dirt road. A short drive down an interesting rural lane brought us to the curing barns. Here, the tobacco from the fields is hung to cure. The leaves are sewn together in pairs, the pairs draped over a pole until it is filled and then the poles are hoisted manually high into the upper parts of the barn, lower levels being used as the higher ones are filled until the tobacco fills most of the barn. Again, the amount of manual labor involved is extensive, as everything is done by hand.
A short ways on down the same road took us to the greenhouses. Here, the almost microscopic tobacco seeds are planted by hand (of course), several seeds per tiny peat pot. A few days after they have sprouted, each seedling is transplanted into its own pot. In order to maintain a uniform height in the field, seedlings are sometimes “mowed” to remove excess growth. And they use a lawn mower to do the job! It is rigged in a most ingenious way and a crew of four or five walk along the rows of seedlings, merrily lopping off the extra growth. It is a rather startling sight!
On down the main road a bit further on, another side lane took us to a large field of Corojo in all its glorious green majesty. We got out of the bus and walked along the field’s access road and were able to walk out into the field and get among the green tobacco plants, some taller than we were. I can’t say it was a transforming experience, but it was certainly very interesting. Some of the guys took off down the access road to find the workers who were harvesting, but I opted to mosey along, looking at the insect life, of which there was abundance. I even managed to get a few photos of some butterflies, and some leaf-cutting ants, but the latter didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped… having to use an 18-55mm zoom lens may have had something to do with it! It doesn’t do close-ups very well.
All too soon, we were back on the bus and headed for Villa Alejandra for our last night in Honduras. Where had the time gone? It seemed like we’d only just gotten there and here we were, looking at our impending departure. But, that was tomorrow, and sometimes it is best to just take each day by itself, and there was still plenty of day left!
Back at the villa, the usual late-afternoon and evening activities were begun, but this time, we had a treat in store for us. Kris Kachaturian and Abdel (Joseph) Fernández of Tabacalera Fernández in Estelí, Nicaragua, had stopped by bearing gifts. This tabacalera is making the Indian Tabac 10th Anniversary cigar for Rocky, and Kris and Joseph brought us some samples to try, which we wasted no time in doing. Don’t ask me for tasting notes, because by this time, my tongue and palate were pretty well hammered and subtleties were lost on me. I do know, however, that I enjoyed that cigar very, very much.
Joseph doesn’t speak English much, so Kris, who was born and raised in New York City, did most of the talking, translating for Joseph when necessary. Joseph is a nephew of Nestor Plasencia, but is, according to Kris, the only one of Nestor’s family who doesn’t work for him. He’s got his own gig and loves it.
Left to right: Kris Kachaturian, Joseph Fernández and Nimish Desai
Tabacalera Fernández is preparing to release its own line of cigars in the coming months, and Doc and I were given the opportunity to try one out. I got a very dark torpedo. It was well constructed, burned beautifully, had a very firm ash and was a bloody good cigar. It blew past my burned out palette with some wonderful sweet, cinnamon mixed with cedar and left me wanting more. Keep your eyes out for these guys! They’re a couple of great guys and they make an awesome cigar.
Kris and Joseph finally left the Villa, and then a bus pulled in and a bunch of guys and two chicas piled out and started to unload some equipment. The band had arrived! Yes sir! Rocky Patel provided a live band to entertain us that last evening and they were pretty good. The two ladies sang and danced with the guys and everyone had a blast. Eddie’s tall, blonde good looks made him a target for the two singers, and they kept pulling him out to dance with them. He was a good sport about it and had a good time, as did everyone.
I, however, ran out of steam: The two nearly sleepless days of travel to Honduras, two restless nights in a strange bed (it usually takes me about three days to get used to a new bed) and the exciting and hectic days had finally caught up with me and I just sat there in my chair, practically unmoving. I finally gave up and turned in, leaving the rest of the gang to their fun. I hit the bed gratefully, and slept better than I had before.
Breakfast the next morning was dampened by the realization that it was time to go home. But our time with Nimish, Marissa, Oscar, Gustavo and the house staff had indeed come to an end and we loaded our luggage onto the bus and said goodbye to Villa Alejandra.
We brought back with us many, many memories – of tobacco fields and curing barns, of lovely mountains; friendly people and relaxing conversations; the warehouses and cigar factory, with its huge rolling room; good food and great cigars. We brought back memories of Honduras.
Team Stogie Fresh wishes to extend our gratitude to Nimish Desai and the staff at Rocky Patel, whose hospitality made this trip possible and very, very memorable.
Acknowledgments: Some photos contributed by Skip Martin, Joseph Amos, Eddie DeJong, Richard Hardesty and Doc.blog comments powered by Disqus