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The Favorite Wrapper

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We don’t have much sun and that’s the main reason for the elasticity and the shine of our wrapper. – ENRIQUE LOPEZ

It’s mid-afternoon at La Paulita, one of Oliva Tobacco Company’s farms outside of Quevedo in Ecuador. The assistant operations manager, Henry Lopez, is demonstrating the quality of the tobacco leaves hung up to cure in a barn. “We first enter in the dark, so we don’t see the color of the tobacco, we just smell it,” he explains to me. “If there’s a sweet smell, it’s doing fine, but if it smells bad, like a sweaty T-shirt, it’s too humid. You can also feel the humidity on your body, just like you do when you enter a sauna, or if it’s too hot. After that, we turn on the lights and look at the color. Does the yellow color look nice or not? Is it turning into the color of coffee, as it should? After that, we touch the leaves, again to make sure it’s not too dry or humid. Based on all this we make a decision whether to open the windows and increase the heat to let some humidity out, or close them to preserve the humidity.” It’s a challenge trying to keep up with Lopez’s knowledge. He produces fact after fact after theory on what makes the perfect leaf, because that’s why I’m here: to find out what makes the Ecuadorean wrapper so popular among tobacco manufacturers around the world. “During the night, we won’t add heat, but the leaves where you can still see a different color around the veins need some heat to dry up,” he says, showing me some coffeecolored leaves where the area around the veins is yellow or sometimes even greenish. “Once they feel dry, we let them rest and wait for it to soften again, and so on until the vein is dried up.”

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The wrapper heard of around the world in its natural state, before curing and fermentation

Nine out of the top 25 cigars of 2017 chosen by the readers of Cigar Journal have an Ecuadorean wrapper, including the top three, and, later during my stay, David Pérez, CEO of A.S.P. Enterprises, the other big tobacco grower in Ecuador, will tell me that about 8 out of 10 factories use his product. So what is it that makes it so popular? “I like the elasticity, the burn, the color and the flavor of the Habano,” says Oscar Valladares. “They’re very professional in Ecuador, everything from preservation to fermentation, and it’s not easy with wrapper,” Carlo Corazza, owner of Brun del Ré maintains. “Ecuador also has the right climate, altitude and soil for good-quality wrapper. Then we have the taste, of course.” And Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of EPC Cigars says: “We started using the Ecuadorean Sumatra for its taste, color and consistency. And the Connecticut from Ecuador is easier to cure and age.” When Henry and I leave the barn, we meet up with Enrique Lopez, operations manager at Oliva and also Henry’s father. “The secret is the climate,” discloses Enrique, and points to the sky. “We don’t have much sun and that’s the main reason for the elasticity and the shine of our wrapper. The shade makes the leaf thinner, more stretchable, and more elastic.” And there it is, the well-known secret everyone talks about when it comes to Ecuadorean wrapper: the shade. With only 500 hours of sunshine a year, the climate is apparently perfect for wrapper, but with so much else, it’s a combination of things. “You’re dealing with humidity, and in Ecuador it’s more pervasive with that constant cloud cover,” John Oliva Jr., secretary at Oliva Tobacco Company, explains further. “It creates a kind of microenvironment. It doesn’t contribute anything to the flavor, but it gives us better control of the curing process. You can get the tobacco to where you want it by opening and closing the doors until it’s done. Tobacco’s got to be stressed in the barn all the time; you’re wetting it and drying it back and forth constantly. “Without the humidity,” he continues, “you’d have to go in and wet the floors with a hose, and guess how much humidity the barn picks up … So I’m artificially introducing water, trying to get a gauge on where I’m going to be. I can go nuts trying to add the right humidity. If it’s too much, I have to turn the fire on again and run the risk of the greening the tobacco.”

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The leaves need to get to the curing barns quickly. – DAVID PÉREZ

Henry Lopez tells me that the sun is strong, and without the natural humidity the leaves would dry up too quickly. “The humidity allows the leaf to have this shine and elasticity. That’s why they don’t grow as much wrapper in Central America. They have a lot more sun and less humidity, and it’s easier to remove humidity than add it in the barns. Also, we don’t have to water as much in the fields.” He compares it to cooking meat.“The cloud cover is like a lid. The vapor helps with the cooking, so we get steamed meat while they cook theirs on a griddle.” Henry takes a leaf and pushes hard from underneath. I see his finger through the thin tobacco and it looks like someone stretching a rubber cloth. Or, as a more nerdy reference, when Jabba the Hutt carbon-freezes Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back. “Look, it doesn’t break,” he continues. “The soil has the nutrients and the water retention capacity, but it goes beyond the soil. A leaf that dries too quickly loses its elasticity and shine, so if it’s really sunny, you need to add water in the field.” Ironically, it’s really hot and sunny the next day when I visit the massive 2,400-hectare San Juan farm belonging to A.S.P. There’s tobacco or tobacco-to-be everywhere I look as David Pérez and I drive out to a field that is being harvested. Women scurry around us to unload the leaves from the carts as David starts talking to some colleagues about the ominous sun. “The leaves need to get to the curing barns quickly so they’re not damaged by the sun,” he explains. “Are the leaves so sensitive that an afternoon of sunlight makes that big a difference?” I ask. “Well, it’s been sunny for a few days now, so you don’t want sunburns or humidity to be released too fast from the leaves being on top of one another. That would make the leaf start yellowing too quickly. The heat doesn’t let the air circulate. It’s not a matter of minutes, but they should get to the barn within maybe two and a half hours instead of four and this is a big farm. To transport the leaves from some fields to the barn might take 15 to 20 minutes; then they have to be strung on poles and the poles have to be hung.” “So what do you do if it gets too sunny?” “Pray,” he says with a smile. “No, you have to observe the maturity of the leaf and, if anything, you have to take three leaves instead of two. However, if there’s not enough curing-barn space for them, we have to throw them away. With filler and binder types it’s different. You can wait four, five days, but the varietal of wrapper we grow is very thin and sensitive, so you don’t want it to get stained, but the tobacco tells you when it’s ready. You want to hear it click when you pick a leaf.” While Oliva grows Habano and Sumatra, A.S.P. specializes in Connecticut, and the varietal Pérez is talking about is their own. “It’s a hybrid my father came up with in 1992, and as far as I know we’re the only ones growing it.” Each seed has its own general characteristics, but the final product also changes, depending on where it is grown. When, for example, the Pérezes tried growing their Nicaraguan seed in Ecuador, it came out thinner and more neutral in taste. But it still produces a full-bodied wrapper. “The difference in all tobacco is in the soil,” explains John Oliva Jr. “If I grow this in Cuba, the Dominican or Nicaragua, it will taste different. The volcanic soil in Ecuador gives you more of a spice flavor. It exists in Nicaragua, too, but it’s not as strong. And tobacco from our farms in Quevedo tastes different to the farms we have in the south. It’s drier in Quevedo. You can see it in the soil.”

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David Pérez and Angel Elizalde testing the elasticity of wrappers in the fermentation area

The flavor also varies within the same area. Ernesto Perez-Carrillo prefers tobacco from La Francey and Carlos Fuente from Don Angel, both farms in Quevedo. One of the farms, however, is situated closer to a river that floods the plain every year, which makes the tobacco taste different than it does on the top. “The only way I can explain it,” says John, “is that the river imparts extra nutrients into the ground every year.” “One of our benefits is that it drains very well,” Pérez adds. “Whenever we have a lot of rain it doesn’t accumulate, which means it doesn’t let any fungi or insects procreate in the water.” It seems that the Ecuadorean wrappers have as much in common as what keeps them apart, but there are two recurrent characteristics, the shine and elasticity. “It wraps around the cigar and stays stretched out, like your skin, which makes it easier for the rollers,” Pérez says. “You don’t want it to be wrinkled or the roller to be scared of stretching it.” Similarities aside, what Oliva grows is so different from A.S.P.’s product that they serve a different purpose in the overall blend in the end. “The Sumatra and the Habano will give you more of a flavor profile to the cigar, while Connecticut blends very well with your fillers,” says Oliva Jr. And Pérez explains that the Ecuadorean Connecticut wrapper flavor is neutral, letting the strength and the flavors of the filler and binder come through. “The producers who use Connecticut are looking for a milder, medium type of cigar,” Oliva Jr. continues. “Sumatra and Habano are spicier and if you’re using those, you’re looking for heavier-bodied, stronger, Cuban-style cigars. They’re not going to overwhelm your filler blend, but you really pick it up, especially with the upper priming tobacco. So when Carlito Fuente uses our Cuban seed wrapper he’s probably going to lighten up on the percentage of ligero. Newman, on the other hand, is going to add ligero when he uses a Connecticut wrapper to make Cuesta-Rey.” Like all tobacco, the flavor also depends on which leaf of the plant is used, just to make the flavor spectrum even more diverse. Personally, Oliva Jr. prefers the middle primings instead of the most sought-after top leaves. “To me, they’re the most flavorful, especially the Cuban seed, because it’s got that spiciness, but with a sweetness in it. I can’t tell you what the flavor actually is, but you can put this stuff in people’s cigars, and I know it already when I light it up.”

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Since graduating with an engineering degree in surveying in 2005, Simon Lundh has preferred to follow a profession in journalism. He stumbled upon the cigar world while working for a non-governmental organization in Estelí, Nicaragua, and is now mainly making a living writing about cigars, metal music, tattoos, and travel.


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