by Dan Mickelsen
The history of Mexico is comprised of civilizations stacked upon the past. As one failed, another kicked earth over it and built again. Today, this stacking of society has erected within Mexico a monument to contrast; a civil offering of vast distance between figurative black and white, have and have not. Within a single city, the pinnacle and chasm is found in the same block. The Rolex and Armaniclad businessman strides sightlessly around the pestilent husk of the beggar, a posh hotel stands adjacent to the crumbling tenement. In a way, there is something for everyone; the sweat shop and the scuba vacation, the majestic pyramids of then and the choked cities of now. So heavily weighted are the ends of the spectrum in most of Mexico that the line itself bends until the ends meet in an uncomfortable juxtaposition.
Travel away from the heart of the country, however, to where the land is pressed by soothing waters on both sides, where only the jutting hump of the Yucatan separates it from the influence of the island paradises of the Caribbean, and you will find a fuzzier place. Here the towns are awash in tranquilo, and the spectrum balances and shortens. Breaths are drawn more slowly, here they use color on the sidewalks and buildings, and the colonial blends with the tropical. And, mi dios, here they make the cigars.
The gateway to this region is Veracruz, a busy port town on the Gulf of Mexico. Tankers and container ships form a waterside phalanx around the port, all hanging at anchor, bows pointed to town as if preparing for a charge. Away from the oily industry, Veracruz is not without its charms, offering the visitor a culture composed of part gilded Miami Beach, part old world Madrid. But an evening spent amidst the cacophonic parade of life that inhabits the plazas of Veracruz left me craving more than the icy beers and trinket vendors: I needed to seek the origins of the cigars hawked from trays piled haphazardly with tobacco products. The road called.
Out of Veracruz to the southeast, the road stretches 100 miles to the home of Mexican cigar production. The first hour this road shoots straight along the playa of the Bahia de Campeche, and then begins to wind into the foothills, rising to San Andres Tuxtla, the diminutive valley town which watches over all the cigar tobacco of this giant nation. This volcanic valley owns the serendipitous combination of earth, air, and water which coaxes tobacco from the ground like few others. Tales of the soil, which is rumored to be as thick and black as any, are told throughout the cigar industry. The reputation of tobacco from this small valley is such that, advertised or not, a vast number of cigars hailing from all the world's tobacco landmarks utilize San Andres Tuxtla leaf in one way or another.
As we drove into the valley, the validity of the rumors was satisfied for me long before getting a glimpse of the soil. Much of the land bordering the roadway was fenced farmland, and the fencing, while crude, was a sturdy combination of small cut logs and barbed wire. Every single one of the fence-posts was shrouded in a cloud of greenery. They were growing. This, I feel certain, was not intentional. What was once rows of stripped, rough-hewn logs was eventually going to become an arboretum. Several of the more ambitious posts could pass for trees in some communities. Even given a heightened level of anticipation concerning this valley and its fertility, I was impressed.
Considering the agricultural marvels I had seen, it was no surprise that my hosts from Tabacos y Puros de San Andres were eager to take me straight to their farms to display the bounty of the earth. After but a wistful glance at the beach chairs at the lakeside resort which would serve as home for the next several days, I piled into one of the fleet of company trucks and passed through the town of San Andres Tuxtla, and on to the valley farms.
I misread the eagerness of my hosts, however, as it was not the earth they hoped would impress me - here, that is a given. When you live and work in some of the world's finest soil, you respect it - revere it, even - but it is as constant for you as the rise of the sun. I would indeed be struck by the thick, black, aromatic loam, especially when sucked into its clinging richness by a passing rain storm; that would not distract me from the effusive display of energy and ingenuity arrayed before in the form of the Tabacos y Puros de San Andres operation. Makers of one of the most popular, and fastest growing, Mexican brands, Cruz Real, this is a young company on the move.
Begun in 1992 as the cigar arm of Cigarrera La Moderna (CLM), Mexico’s largest cigarette manufacturer, Cruz Real was brought along slowly as a very separate entity. The 1997 purchase of CLM by British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the world's largest cigarette manufacturers, gave Cruz Real a new direction, and new management. The challenge has been to institute the changes that make use of the organizational and production expertise of the cigarette business, while maintaining the tradition and craftsmanship of a cigar business. Cigarette tobacco is not cigar tobacco, and the new Cruz Real management team was forced to carefully select refinements that would work within a premium cigar framework.
"Our cigar company was built under a cigarette company known for very high quality," explains Alberto Pedraza, export manager at Cruz Real, and part of the new BAT-installed management team, "and we wanted to apply that quality to the cigars. And now under BAT we are using a combination of our experience in cigars, the technology which the cigarette industry can give us, and the philosophy of using experts in every area." This thinking butts up against the stoic nature of the cigar industry, where "this is the way my great grandfather did it" is usually considered all the technology needed. But Pedraza is equally blunt, and pragmatic, about this. "We can't invent a heritage we don't have," he says of Cruz Real's new push. "We can't say we've been making cigars for 100 years, because it's not true. What we can say is we are in the best tobacco region in Mexico, we are not cutting costs and producing a poor product; we are in fact taking the time and money to improve our operation."