19 February 2008
I just returned from a quick trip to the Dominican Republic. Within hours of my feet touching Dominican soil, I felt like I never left. I get to the Dominican Republic about four times a year, and every time is unique and special. This year I brought my girlfriend and two friends along with me- making it extra special.
Thursday, we spent the day at MATASA. Best known for making the Fonseca brand, MATASA makes some of my favorite cigars to smoke. From the airport, we went straight to one of MATASA’s storage facilities. Bails upon bails and Tercios upon Tercios were stacked- filled with tobaccos from years past that ensure MATASA’s ability to make incredible, consistent cigars, year after year. We proceeded to the factory in Santiago,where we walked through the factory looking at the various stages of making a premium cigar. From sorting, to stripping, to sorting some more… then making the bunch, applying the wrapper, forming the cap, and then aging. But of course it doesn’t stop there… MATASA has their own box factory as well.
On Friday we drove out to La Canela to see one of MATASA’s fields. I’ve been there many times before, but each year is always different as each crop is unique year after year. This year was incredibly healthy, with harvest well under way. “We only lost 30 or 40 plants” said Manuel Quesada, owner of MATASA, referring to the two major storms that pounded the Dominican Republic in late Fall. We walked in and out of curing barns where thousands of leaves had been strung and hung to begin the curing process- changing in color from bright green to brown. From here, they’ll head to the storage facility we visited the day prior to begin their long fermentation process before going to the storage facility for aging.
We then headed north, through the mountains and up to La Isabella, the place where Columbus first landed. A friend of mine has a wonderful beach house that he generously made available to us for the weekend where we enjoyed all the sun, Presidente beer, Brugal Extra Viejo Rum, and cigars we could before heading back to Santiago on Sunday for our Monday departure back to New York.
What’s always so impressive to me, and seems to be most impressive to folks on their first visit to a cigar factory is just how much is done by hand. In fact, EVERYTHING is done by hand. Seeds are planted by hand. Leaves are picked by hand and carried to the curing barn where they’re strung by hand and then hung by hand to cure. When that’s complete their then removed and stacked by hand on the ground of the barn until their bailed by hand and brought to a fermentation facility where they’re stacked by hand in pilons. No less than twice a day the core temperature of each fermenting stack is measured and each stack is rotated regularly by hand, bringing the inside tobacco to the outside, and the tops and bottoms to the middle, to ensure even fermentation. After months of fermentation, the tobacco is bailed by hand and brought to an aging facility. Once it’s time to use the tobacco, the bails are opened by hand, the leaves are sorted and re-moisturized, sorted, stripped and eventually rolled in a premium cigar. The cigars are inspected by hand, sorted by color- a band is then placed on each one by hand with the brand’s logo, and many are placed into cellophane sleeves- by hand. Then the cigars are sorted for color and boxed, each box sealed and labeled with all the necessary stickers for the importing country. It’s astonishing. It gives new meaning to the words “Hand Made”. Next time you reach for a cigar, before just cutting and lighting it- pay a little more attention to it, and appreciate just how much truly goes into making that Premium Hand-Rolled cigar!