Visiting Esteli, Nicaragua was probably one of the coolest things I’ve evern done.  Muchas gracias to @governorscigars for the opportunity and answering my questions all day every day.

We visited with AJ Fernandez the first evening, toured the factories the next day, and then the fields on the last day.  For the purposes of this mini series, I’ll be going backwards to provide a clearer insight of how everything gets from seed to shelf.

Nicaragua Trip - AJ Fernandez Fields

We began our field tour at the nursery with Eric (our Handler and Production Manager).  Here we got to see two week old Connecticut Hybrid seeds getting ready to be planted in AJ Fernandez’s new Shade Grown fields.  Each seed is placed individually with tooth picks and kept inside this nursery to protect it from cross contamination as well as provide it with the necessities of life.

At this point, we were all wondering just how many other folks in Nicaragua were growing Connecticut Shade Grown tobacco.  Doesn’t seem to be common.   Yet.

The tobacco seeds that we see here are about two weeks old.  According to Eric, that’s where the money lies for wrapper grade tobacco:  the seed.  We learned that all tobacco receives the same treatment in AJ’s fields once it’s planted, so the cost of wrapper grade tobacco is the initial investment.


The tobacco plants shown here on the right are approximately 60 days old.  We can see that the bottom portion of the leaf has already been harvested – this is called the Volado.  To my knowledge, Nicaraguans don’t use the Volado leaf.  This begs the question:  why cut it?  It’s to provide more nutrients to the cuts, or primings, that they plan on using for premium cigars:  seco, viso, and ligero.

@governorscigars mentioned to me that they do something similar with the flower of the tobacco plant.  At a predetermined time, they’ll cut the flower to ensure that nutrients go to where they want it instead of to the flower.

Also, I noticed that different types of tobacco have different primings.  Or, at the very least, different names for the primings.

In about two weeks, the Seco will be harvested.  Then the Viso.  Then the Ligero.  It takes roughly 90 days to go from seed to barn with this hybrid Connecticut Shade Grown plant.

Nicaragua Trip - AJ Fernandez San Lotano Farms Criollo 98 Here we’re able to see quite a few interesting things.  Directly in front of us is the Criollo 98 fields.  The bottom priming has already been harvested, and now the workers are harvesting the rest of the plant.  It will later be determined by hand feel which priming of the leaf is which.

To the left of the fields we see a lone, bare tree.  It’s Cuban tradition that when you purchase land for farming, you clear all except one tree.  This tree is bad luck to touch.

To the right, where the land isn’t being used, is rumored to be an old burial ground for a past war.  And, if you look hard enough, you can see the rebuilding of the San Lotano barn that burned down this past Christmas.

Nicaragua Trip - AJ Fernandez Drying Barn

All of this Criollo 98 leaf is headed to the Drying Barn that you can also see in the background.  Here they are sorting the leaves by Sano and Roto.  Sano meaning healthy, and roto meaning ripped or torn.  All will be used eventually, but this is the first step in separating the leaves.

After they’ve been dried, they’ll be separated again by ligero, viso, and seco.  Amazingly, they are able to determine the priming of the leaf just by hand feel and experience.  The higher the priming, the thicker and more leathery it feels.  Supposedly – I’m still blown away that they can determine such things.  I never got the hang of it myself.

Here’s a quick video of what they do with it afterwards.  It’s hard to see how many levels high this barn is with the lighting, but take my word for it: it’s pretty damn cool.

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Extra Tidbits

  • From what I heard from Eric and Friday, AJ himself loves to be in the fields.  It’s his passion.  Whereas some folks enjoy more of the marketing or business portions of the industry, AJ Fernandez wants to be with the crops ensuring they receive the best care.  On the drive back into town, it was readily apparent just have much TLC goes into AJ’s tobacco.  Many other fields had crooked lines and dry soil.  As you’ll see in the next article regarding his factories, AJ takes a lot of pride in what he does.
  • These fields are plowed with oxen and irrigation includes a few personnel with a water hose draped across their back (presumably with holes cut into it) walking the fields.  The amount of labor that it takes to produce a cigar from seed to shelf is staggering.
  • Ligero, Viso, and Seco smell so different to have come from the same plant.  It’s amazing.  When you add in different regions of Nicaragua and their characteristics, it becomes exponentially mind blowing.  For instance, we were able to smell three separate piles of leaves.  Two ligero and one viso, each from different regions.  One smelled like chili powder, the other was very sweet, and the last smelled like rich, wet dirt.

In case you missed it:

Nicaragua Trip Part III: The Man

Nicaragua Trip Part II: The Factory

Pre-Release Last Call Review


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Dave West

Editor and Contributor at CigarNoise
Identifying as a Cigar Enthusiast more than an Aficionado, I enjoy trying new cigars and attempting to annotate my experience. Disclosure: As of June 2017, I began writing for and will no longer be reviewing SBC exclusives
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