Esteli Nicaragua – A Visit to the Yayabo Cigars Factory and Plantations

I have known Diany Perez and Alex Basulto, the wife and husband owners of Yayabo Cigars ever since the 2015 IPCPR. It was at this show, I met such a terrific family from Esteli, Nicaragua. Now almost 3 years later I stood up at their corporate anniversary party and not only called them friends but family. I was originally planning to visit them last year but my job took preference. This year, however, I put in for my vacation time early so the trek to Esteli could be made.

Diany and Alex are Cuban immigrants to Nicaragua. They were tobacco farmers that settled and purchased farm land where they grew and cultivated tobacco for years, selling the crop to a number of the big names in the business in Esteli. They knew tobacco well and the business thrived. A few years ago,  they stopped selling their crop and moved into the manufacturing of cigars and the story continues to be told of this small but growing boutique cigar company.

This article is a series of articles I will be writing about Esteli, as there is too much for just one article. Today I want to introduce you to the Yayabo Cigar Family and take you on a tour of their fields and processing facilities.

The Yayabo Granja  

Our first stop is to the Yayabo Granja (farm), which is located back in the farm lands of Esteli, close to some of the Plasencia and AJ Fernandez granjas . The trip to the Yayabo Granja is a bit rugged as you drive off the paved roads and onto gravel and dirt roads. Coming upon the gate to the granja , one of the farm hand opens the gate for us and we drive down the dirt road passing tobacco fields and then down a small incline and splash across a creek and back up again to arrive at the green houses, curing barns, and more fields. My friend Melvin (Bossman) Robinson and I both open our eyes wide as we looked out over the fields of the newly planted crops. While most tobacco is being harvested at this time of the year, Diany explained that they decided to try an experiment with this particular crop to grow it later in the cycle and benefit from more sun and less rain in the early stages of the crop.

Tobacco Seedling

Tobacco Seedling

Our company guide Jorge (George) Luis Rodriguez took us on the grand tour. All farm tours start with entering a green house where they start the germination process from seed to seedling. The structure is like a tent covered with fine netting. I asked if the netting was to shield the seedling from the sun but I was to learn its primary purpose is to keep the bugs out. Looking down the green house you can see rows of seedling trays that are being cared for, treated with liquid growth food and pesticide. These little seedlings need special care just like a baby, they need to have the right environment to grow and have the correct mix of food, minerals, and water to start their growth. If you want to think about the value, each tray of seedlings will eventually yield about $100.00 USD in leaf. Green cash indeed!

The second room of the of the green house is where they grow the seedlings into plantings which will eventually be brought out to the field and transplanted into the tilled and prepared soil.

George took us out to the fields where the workers were breaking down the clumps of dirt and removing rocks in the tilled rows. This is back-breaking work done with manual hoes working their way up and down the planting rows. Remember these folk do not make much money but they appreciate having a job and know their work leads to a fine product that the cigar consumer enjoys. So next time you fire up a cigar think about that.

As I mentioned, the Yayabo Company is doing a late planting this year so there is no pictures of the fields but we will have some in future articles in the Esteli series.

Yayabo Workers

Yayabo Workers

After walking about the fields we took a little break and Bossman and I took turns laying back on Diany’s favorite resting spot on the farm. This has to be the coolest tree I have ever seen. We also went over to check on her horse Alegre. He is an old soul, that was ill and Diany accepted him and has been caring for him ever since. I believe he is 16 years old and through Diany’s caring heart he is coming back to life. Just look at the smile on his face, so happy to see people.

Next stop was the curing barns and once again the photos don’t show the leaf hanging yet, but I can explain a little about it. You will notice the rows of logs stacked from floor to ceiling. Each level is used for a different priming of the plant. Priming is when the farm workers cut the leaf from the lowest level of the plant to the highest and then and thread the leafs together so they can hang them in the barn. There generally 5 priming, which are done at different times of growth, to allow more nutrients to get to the higher leaf. Eventually the highest leaf (Ligero) is primed and hung to cure. It is important that the barn has the right temperature and moisture during the curing process. Sometimes it can get dry and they will wet the dirt in the barn to maintain the proper humidity.

After about 50 days in the barn the 1st and 2nd primings are taking down and laid on palettes to transport to the factory. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th primings are usually taken down after about 60 days since they are thicker leaves and require more time. Throughout this process the leaves are rotated within the barn to provide an equal curing. I mentioned to Bossman Robinson that he is missing the most amazing part of the curing barn, the sweet spicy aroma of the leaf as it cures. You may have noticed in some of my cigar reviews I note this aroma during a pre-light inspection of the cigar.

It was now time to head over to the factory to continue the process.

The Yayabo Factory is located not to far from Diany’s home which is located in what is affectionately called the Cuban Riveria of Esteli. This is a neighborhood where many of the big names in the cigar business have homes including AJ Fernandez, Oliva, Don Pepin, and others.

We pulled into the parking lot of the factory and embarked on the next phase of our tour. First up was the Pylons, where the cured leaves are removed from the pallets and built into pylons (carefully created piles of leaf) and then moistened down and covered to start the process of fermentation. A thermometer is inserted into the center of the pylon and when it reaches a temperature of around 120 – 130 degrees the pylon is disassembled and then recreated by taking the leaves from the center and moving to the outside and from the outside into the middle and top to bottom and then covered again. The process continues until the temperature stops rising and then settles which signifies the end of the fermentation process.

The time for fermentation can be 6  or more months, with the higher priming taking longer because of the thickness of the leaf. The smell of the fermented leaf is just so enticing.

Once the fermentation is done the leaves are brought to a stripping station where the female workers strip the main vein from the leaf and then it moves onto a sorting station where the leaf is sorted by color and quality. Leaf with holes and imperfections are used for the filler and those without will be used for binder and wrapper, although Yayabo purchases it wrapper from Ecuador as Nicaragua is not known for the best wrapper leaf. Leaf is then bailed until it is time to be used in the rolling process.

Time to Roll Cigars

Now that the tobacco has been processed, the master blended has figured out what the blend would be, that is the job of Alex Busalto at Yayabo Cigars. He will smell and smoke different leafs and based on his experience and desire for what he wants the cigar to taste like, he will develop a blend formula that directs the Torcedor (cigar roller) how to construct the cigar. It tells them what leaf to place where in the filler and what binder and wrapper to use.

Torcedors always work in pairs, bunching and applying the binder. Almost all of them at Yayabo Cigars use a cigar rolling jig that they put the bunched leaf in, to roll the cigar. There was one master roller that does it all by hand without the jig. Once the rolled and binded tobacco is complete it placed in a mold that makes the shape of the cigar and then the molds are put into a press to press the shape.

Once removed from the press the molds are sent to quality station where a draw machine tests the flow of air through the cigar to make sure there are no plugs that would give a bad smoking experience. The quality station also uses a metal ring gauge to check the conformity of the ring size.

After the quality check the cigars are sent to the wrappin station where the worker applies the wrapper and cap for the cigar.

One would think this is the end but there is more…

The freshly rolled cigars are sent to a station where they are examined and sorted by color grade and then stacked to and wrapped in paper to be stored in an aging room where they will rest for 6 to 8 more months before they are brought out to be banded and boxed and then prepped for shipment to the Yayabo Cigars Miami warehouse. It is at this point they are distributed to various shops around the country for your smoking enjoyment.

I want to thank Diany, Alex, and Jorge for their hospitality and time to give us a private tour of their farm and processing facilities. We are proud to have this company as one of premier sponsors and I have to say – when you think about boutique cigars, Yayabo Cigars is as boutique as they come. They own the fields, processing, rolling, marketing, and distribution of their product. Every step of the process is under the watchful eye of Diany and Alex to ensure you, the consumer, have an outstanding cigar smoking experience.