Black Gold

The San Andrés Valley on Mexico’s Gulf Coast produces some of the most sought-after tobaccos in the world
| By Gordon Mott | From CBS Sunday Morning, May/June 2020
Black Gold
Photos/Peter Garritano

The workers lean over the edge of the pilón of black tobacco, a stack of more than five tons of fermenting leaves that have reached an internal temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. They move quickly, taking the leaves from the nearly six-foot-high, 12-foot-long stack, moving them from the outer row into the center to bring down the temperature. Once restacked, the dark tobacco’s second fermentation will begin.

Alberto Turrent Cano, the 78-year-old patriarch of the Turrent family’s tobacco business, watches closely, making sure the job is being done correctly. He comes into his office in the warehouse daily, and conducts those up-close inspections nearly every day. He picks up one bunch of the leaves—still warm from the pilón—and spreads them out, putting his nose deep into the bunch. He then offers it to a visitor; pungent aromas of chocolate and spice rise from the dark brown tobacco.

In the background of the large warehouse room, with its 15-foot-high ceilings, stand more pilónes of different sizes, each at various stages in the fermentation process. There are also leaves hanging in “hands,” bundles of leaves, drying on wooden racks, resting there before heading to the sorting benches at the far end of the room. The sorting benches are fully manned, as the women select leaves by size and color and group them into bunches to be readied for packing into a shipping bale, known as pacas. Some of these bales weigh 130 pounds, while other varieties are bigger, topping the scales at 175 pounds. They sit at the other end of the room, each awaiting shipment to the clients around the tobacco world.

Black Gold
Turrent employees string up freshly picked tobacco leaves for drying.

The Turrent family has been growing tobacco since 1880 in this area, known as the Sierra de los Tuxtlas, an outcropping of volcanic peaks that pops up seemingly out of nowhere on Mexico’s Gulf Coast plain about 100 miles south of Veracruz and around 60 miles north of Coatzacoalcos, as the crow flies. There are more than 180 dormant volcanoes in the area. The main city in the hilly region is San Andrés Tuxtla, and most of the Turrent’s facilities—fields, curing barns, warehouses and two factories—are located in the small town of Calería, its streets lined with one-story huts and houses, some with stucco walls, some with plain mud walls, and both abodes topped with rusty tin roofs or clay tiles.

The heart and soul of the Turrents’ business today is San Andrés black tobacco, a variety that has become very popular for use in maduro-style cigars. It’s used by producers of handmade cigars all over the cigarmaking world—Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras—and in Europe for machine-made cigars.

The sale of tobacco accounts for about 70 percent of the company’s revenues, according to Turrent. The remaining 30 percent comes from sales of the family’s cigar brands—Te-Amo, an all-Mexican brand that’s nearly 60 years old; A. Turrent, which has a number of line extensions; and a relatively new brand called Casa Turrent. (The latter has performed extremely well in Cigar Aficionado taste tests, with the Casa Turrent Serie 1942 Gran Toro scoring 92 points in the March/April 2020 issue.)

The Turrents’ tobacco is a key element in award-winning blends. “I love this tobacco,” says Rocky Patel, who oversees the Rocky Patel brands. “We buy a lot of it. I love its flavors of caramel, of coffee, of chocolate, and a bit of white pepper on the finish.” Several of his brands use the Turrents’ San Andrés black tobacco as binders, but he primarily uses it for wrappers. “It is a beautiful wrapper,” he says. He uses it on Rocky Patel Vintage 2006, Olde World Reserve Maduro, Tavacusa and the new incarnation of Aged Limited and Rare. The toro size from that brand is Cigar Aficionado’s No. 5 Cigar of 2019, a 94 pointer.

Black Gold
A Turrent tobacco specialist examines a freshly rolled maduro.

“I use this tobacco because of its flavor and its combustibility. It works really well with all kinds of blends,” says Abdel (A.J.) Fernandez, the owner of the AJ Fernandez brands. He calls the tobacco versatile, one that he uses as wrapper, filler and binder, depending on the blend and the brand.

“It’s gotten popular because San Andrés tobacco has a little sweetness in its flavors and its burns very well,” says Turrent. “And it is very easy to blend San Andrés tobacco with other tobaccos. It helps with combustion and has a great aroma.” Over the years, says Turrent, other tobacco growers have tried to grow black tobacco with the same flavor profile and burn characteristics of San Andrés black tobacco, but without success. He claims that the various companies and growers who have tried to produce black tobacco on their own couldn’t duplicate the characteristics found in San Andrés tobacco.

The Turrent family is the largest grower of cigar tobacco in the San Andrés region, and by their own estimate account for more than 50 percent of all the tobacco grown in the small valley. They focus on three varieties. Mexican black tobacco is usually considered the most direct descendent of native Cuban black tobacco, although it has been grown in Mexico for more than 100 years so it has acquired its own flavor and performance profile, especially in the volcanic soil of the Sierra de los Tuxtlas.

Sumatra tobacco is derived from Indonesian tobacco, and it’s a variety that is now grown in Ecuador and other parts of the world. It’s prized for its sweetness and neutral taste. Habano 2000 is a Cuban tobacco hybrid that hasn’t remained a key player in Cuba’s tobacco lineup, nor in other countries that tried to grow it, because of what usually has been viewed as a problem with its combustion performance; but in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas, it seems to have found a home.

Each year, the Turrents grow about 440 acres of black tobacco, nearly 300 acres of Sumatra and, since 2000, about 25 acres of Habano 2000 tobacco, a leaf that they only use in their own cigar production. The total production comes to about 530,000 pounds of black tobacco, nearly 400,000 pounds of Sumatra and 33,000 pounds of Habano 2000.

Black Gold
The San Andrés Valley on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, where the Turrents harvest their coveted tobacco.

The tobacco-growing season in the region is long, stretching to around nine months. Black tobacco is planted in the third week of June until the end of August, and the harvest begins in early September, or at about 70 days from planting and continues until early November. They start the plantings when the heavy seasonal rains begin in June, according to Turrent. He says the first step is to remove the leaves that grow closest to the ground. Then they cut the first and second primings, which are considered “light” or “clear” tobaccos, used to wrap lighter colored cigars. Binder and filler tobacco are taken from higher up the plant.

Sumatra is planted in mid-September until early December, with the harvest beginning 45 days after planting, so the last leaves are removed in mid-January to early February. The Habano 2000 is planted in early January, and is harvested after 55 days, and then every four or five days for the four cuts, or up to 80 days after planting. That means there is tobacco in the fields until mid-March, even early April.

All the Turrents’ tobacco is harvested using primings, removing rings of leaves from the stalks in stages. The Mexican black tobacco fields are cut in two primings, the first taking four leaves, and the second 12 leaves; these leaves are used as wrapper, binder and filler. Sumatra goes through up to eight primings, depending on the quality of the harvest, according to Alejandro Turrent, the 47-year-old son of Alberto, who manages many parts of the tobacco business from his home in Mexico City. Alejandro says the Sumatra is used only for wrapper and binder. The Habano-seed fields (there are two hybrids in those fields—Habano 2000 and Habano Mexico, which was developed by the Turrents by crossing Criollo ’98 and Habano 2000) are primed four times, and the leaves are dedicated only to wrapper and binder.

After harvest, the leaves are moved into the family’s 40 tobacco barns. They are different sizes, with up to 24 galerias, or racks for drying the leaves, while some only have 16 racks. The barns are unique to the area, with tin sides up to about 10 feet high, and roofs that are constructed from dead cornstalks. The roofs are repaired every year and replaced entirely if necessary. (The Turrents also have two barns known as Calfrisas, which are sealed temperature and humidity controlled environments for any tobacco that needs special treatment.) The only time of year that the barns are empty is from May to late August, before the first harvest of black tobacco.

Black Gold
Pilónes of Mexican tobacco rest for fermentation.

Of the company’s land dedicated to tobacco growing, fields are rested after one or two crops for at least one season and sometimes even two growing cycles. They plant a legume that returns nitrogen to the soil and helps to balance out its basic nutrients. One thing they say they don’t have to do is apply a potassium-rich fertilizer to the fields, because of the naturally high levels of potassium in the region’s nearly black volcanic soil.

From the tobacco barns, the tobacco moves to the main warehouses in the town of Calería. There, the tobacco is processed, each type of leaf receiving a slightly different protocol. For instance, black tobacco is stacked into the 5,000 kilo pilónes, while Sumatra is piled in smaller pilónes of about 800 kilos to 1,000 kilos for the first fermentation and up to 1,500 kilos for the second fermentation. Habano is stacked in bulks about the same size as Sumatra. The leaves undergo two fermentations, but a final fermentation is not completed in Mexico; the leaves are shipped to their clients for final processing to get the exact color of maduro they desire and the exact flavor profile they are looking for.

Alejandro Turrent says that each black tobacco plant produces between 14 to 16 leaves, and six to eight of them, mostly in the higher primings, are suitable for wrapper. The rest becomes filler and binder, or is used for machine-made cigars.

The list of the Turrents’ premium cigar clients is so large that it’s almost easier to list who they don’t do business with. Among their big clients in Nicaragua are Rocky Patel, Drew Estate, A.J. Fernandez, Eduardo Fernández at Aganorsa and Pepin Garcia at My Father Cigars. Many cigars rolled in the Dominican Republic use Turrent tobacco, including those made by Altadis, but much of the leaf shipped to that country goes to Universal Leaf, which distributes the tobacco to a number of clients in that Caribbean country. In Honduras, both Julio Eiroa and Nestor Plasencia of Plasencia cigars are big buyers of the Turrents’ leaves.

“I can’t tell you how many of the maduro cigars in the market use our tobacco,” says Alejandro. But he estimates it is a significant number of the dark wrapper cigars in that category.

The company employs between 550 to 600 workers in all aspects of tobacco production, from working the fields during planting and harvesting, to the processing in the main warehouse to the rolling of their own cigar brands. Alberto Turrent says there is rarely any downtime for their employees, even during the brief period when there is no tobacco in the fields or barns, because they are working on getting seed beds ready to grow the seedlings for replanting and cleaning and maintaining all the other facilities such as the barns.

While cigarmaking only accounts for about a third of their revenues, the Turrents run a modern operation. The rolling rooms are clean and well organized, although small compared to some of the new giant factories in Nicaragua, and the big producers in the Dominican Republic. The Casa Turrent rolling room, in a separate building from the main facility in Calería, has 15 rollers in a small space not more than 20 feet long by 10 feet wide. There is a draw machine and a small sorting area to create the blends of leaves for the new brand. Alejandro says they will make around 500,000 Casa Turrent cigars in 2020, but their total cigar production, including some machine-made products, will exceed five million cigars.

Even through their tobacco travels all over the world, the Turrents operate in a small, relatively isolated part of the globe. The smooth round tops of the extinct volcanoes in San Andrés give way to verdant valleys and ravines with a tropical rain forest look and feel. Throughout the region, there is no doubt that agriculture—whether it’s tobacco or fruits and vegetables—is the dominant activity.

The isolation is highlighted by the lack of an airport, and the long drive back to Veracruz. On the way, the car crosses over more than 160 speed bumps, positioned at every crossroad and in every small town along the way. No one is in a hurry here, and the out-of-the-way location only punctuates the reality that the Sierra de los Tuxtlas is a special place that produces a unique tobacco.


More in Tobacco

See all
Hail Destroys Acres Of Fuente Fuente OpusX Wrapper Leaf

Hail Destroys Acres Of Fuente Fuente OpusX Wrapper Leaf

An intense and long-lived hailstorm destroyed several acres of cigar tobacco at Chateau de la Fuente …

May 11, 2022
The Mystique of Medio Tempo

The Mystique of Medio Tempo

The newest buzzword in the cigar-blending world is medio tiempo: a high-primed leaf that packs a big …

Nov 16, 2021
Tobacco Seeds Discovered Among Stone Age Ruins

Tobacco Seeds Discovered Among Stone Age Ruins

The use of tobacco by humans goes back much farther in history than previously thought.

Oct 12, 2021
Crop Report: Nicaragua’s Tobacco Season Extends into June

Crop Report: Nicaragua’s Tobacco Season Extends into June

The season is extending an extra month, to mid-June.

May 11, 2021
Shade in the Dusk

Shade in the Dusk

The once-dominant wrapper leaf grown under cloth in the Connecticut River Valley now needs protection …

Oct 25, 2019
Connecticut Tobacco Crop Report

Connecticut Tobacco Crop Report

After a disappointing 2018 season plagued by heavy, consistent rains, cigar tobacco farmers in the …

Aug 27, 2019