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The wrapper specialists from Ecuador

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An employee turning over tobacco bundles at Oliva’s impressive tobacco processing plant in Estelí in Nicaragua

The year was 1925 when 18-year-old Angel Oliva left Cuba for the United States. Like so many other immigrants, he left Cuba because there was nothing for him in his homeland, which is what John Oliva Jr., corporate treasurer of Oliva Tobacco Company and Angel’s grandson, tells us. “They were dirt poor. He had 11 brothers and sisters, and had actually left home when he was nine to work at a store to help support a family. The seeds were a symbolic thing given to him by his brother, along with the money, which was all the money he had when he came to the US. It was for him to remember where he came from.” After a few odd jobs and a failed attempt in the laundry business, Angel found his way into tobacco when he got a job selling and storing tobacco. Five years later, in 1934, he started what would become the Oliva Tobacco Company. “He found his way into the tobacco business because he was already in it in Cuba. My greatgrandfather was a land manager for the Cuba Tobacco Land Company in Pinar del Río.” Talking to John, it’s obvious he has great admiration for his grandfather. “He loved tobacco. I got a chance to work with him before he passed away and he taught me everything I know about tobacco. His capacity was extraordinary, even up until he died.” One of his greatest strengths, according to his grandson, was his prescience. “He had tremendous instinct, like when he was able to get all of that tobacco out of Cuba before the embargo.” By foreseeing the effects of the revolution Angel had bought the last crop of Cuban tobacco that was being sorted and distinguished by farms from the Cuban government. “He knew Fidel Castro was going to take over the country and the end was near. My grandfather was a prolific reader and very perceptive. He knew it from studying the man, from history.” Angel had even started looking at alternative locations before the embargo. “He’d gone down to Honduras and they started growing tobacco in Quincy, North Florida. Back then, candela tobacco was a big thing, so he basically bought Stanford Newman of the Newman Cigar Company a train ticket and made him go up there with him to buy the tobacco in order to sustain their production in Tampa.” Since its beginnings, the Oliva Tobacco Company has sold tobacco to almost anyone who’s anyone in the tobacco business. Only the origin of the tobacco has changed. After setting up shop in Honduras, Angel started looking towards Nicaragua, but then another revolution forced him to seek alternatives. The Sandinista takeover in 1979 took him to Ecuador. The family had already been looking for other possibilities for growing wrapper, but couldn’t do it in Nicaragua as they had lost their farms there. The fact that Central America was badly hit by blue mold in the wake of Hurricane Fifi at the same time didn’t exactly help. Luckily, the move to Ecuador turned out to be one of their most important decisions thus far. John Jr. explains: “We bought a farm where they were trying to grow shade-grown Sumatra, which is impossible to do in Ecuador. The tobacco comes out like toilet paper. It’s too thin.” So Angel took over, named it La Meca after his wife, and started growing sun-grown instead. A genius move, as it happened. “Ecuador just wants to grow wrapper. That’s probably one of the things my grandfather looked at; that it was going to be amazing to have a crop that gives you 80 or 90 percent wrappers and binders.”

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John Oliva Jr. carries the tobacco torch of a family with a long tradition of cigar making

By this time, Angel had recruited his two sons to make it a family business. In 1970, John senior had joined, after some friendly and well-meaning guilt-tripping on behalf of his father. “My dad was in the computer business at the time. Texas Instruments bought his business and wanted to move him to Houston, but he didn’t want to go. At the same time, my grandfather told him he was going to retire, that there was no one to take over, and he had an offer to sell. My father always thought it was a ploy, and that the story of the buyer was made up, but it got him into the business.” John Jr. laughs, and emphasizes that his father didn’t join the company reluctantly. “First of all, he didn’t want to see the family business die, and secondly, there was a lot of money to be made. I’m not going to lie about that, but knowing my grandfather, I find it highly improbable he’d sell the business at that age, even if my dad hadn’t joined. He loved this business.” He laughs cordially again. “It was also an opportunity to grow the business and my dad did. My grandfather started the company and my dad made it bigger.” Four years later, his other son, Angel Jr., joined as well, and in 1991, John Jr. became the third generation in the company, but not as a cigar man. “When I got out of college my dad was looking to diversify,” he explains, “so I started working with a seafood company that he’d got involved with. I wasn’t actually sure I wanted to work in tobacco. I wanted to be an FBI agent or something, but then I got married and reality set in. I had to support a family.” When John Sr. decided not to pursue the seafood business anymore, his son told him he wanted to start working for Oliva. “I love tobacco, after all. I picked tobacco in Quincy for the first time when I was 8 years old, for 25 cents a row.I thought I was going to have my summer off, but no, they had a job for me. Prior to that, I was traveling to Ecuador with my grandfather all the time.” Around the year 2000, the Olivas bought some farms outside of Quevedo, two hours north of Guayaquil, and alongside A.S.P. they are the main producers of the famed Ecuadorean wrapper. While A.S.P. focuse almost exclusively on Connecticut, Oliva grows Sumatra and Habano on their altogether six farms. Due to a politically and criminally untenable situation and a tired farm, Honduras is out of the picture, but in Nicaragua, to where they returned in the beginning of the Nineties, the Olivas grow both fillers and wrappers today. That’s also where they process all their tobacco. “I take a lot of pride in the way we process our tobacco. I really think it’s what we do extra. Our tobacco has been fermenting for as long as a year, especially upper-priming tobacco. I know you hear about aged tobacco in other places, but it’s one thing to ferment your tobacco slightly, put in a box and put it away. We ferment that tobacco until it’s ripe and ready to smoke. We don’t rush anything.”

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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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