Jesus Fuego Interview
June 2, 2010
Jesus Fuego is a man of the most humble sorts despite his impressive cigar resume: a family history of cigar farming in Cuba, graduate studies in agriculture, and many years behind the scenes researching and developing cigars. His intimate knowledge of tobacco paved the way for the recent release of two new boutique blends. Good taste and sophistication come together in the cigars he creates. For a new brand, J. Fuegos have been generating a great deal of buzz. We spent a couple of days with Jesus Fuego and his family in Miami to talk about all things cigars. His two new blends, J. Fuego Natural and J. Fuego Corojo No. 1, were designed to please a diverse range of palates. In this personal, exclusive debut interview we learned about these brands and the man behind them.
CP – When did you first become involved with cigar tobacco?
JF – I was involved with it at one point or the other basically my entire life. I was born in Pinar del Rio (Cuba) and raised in the family house on the farm. In that area it was very common to live on a farm. My grandfather, his three sons and I all lived inside the farm. When I was about seventeen years old I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist so I went to Havana University. I studied there for three years before I realized that I was missing the tobacco fields so I switched to a different university and studied agriculture. I eventually graduated but stayed at the university as an assistant professor. During my last year at the university I taught classes about post harvest tobacco. Back then not many people were spending much time researching that area. I asked the university for permission to study fermentation and they granted it to me, and that is what I did my thesis on.
CP – Where is your family originally from?
JF – The first J. Fuego came from Spain to Cuba in 1876. They established themselves in the Pinar del Rio region. For three generations they grew tobacco in the “El Corojo” region. They only grew the tobacco then. They would grow it and sell it to other companies. The companies that bought the tobacco would sort it, ferment it, and sell it to the factories. My grandfather was the one who decided to take it to the next level. He bought a piece of the original “El Corojo” farm and began sorting and fermenting his own tobacco. He called that farm “Corojo No.1”. Like other families in the vicinity, he saw the advantage in getting vertically integrated. This allowed him to sell the sorted and fermented tobacco directly to the factories. The area that my family came from was big on the growing and farming aspects of tobacco production. That tobacco would usually be sold to warehouses directly in Havana, or directly to places outside of Cuba such as the Canary Islands in Spain, Tampa in the U.S. It was inside the warehouses where they did most of the tobacco aging.
CP – Why, and when did you make the move from Cuba to Honduras?
JF – Ten years ago I was offered a contract in Honduras to work for a cigar company. So I moved there and stayed. I worked for a couple different cigar companies in Honduras mostly on the sorting and fermentation end. I was doing the same thing I did in Cuba, post harvest tobacco. Out of those ten years, I spent about five of them doing everything (as a pre-industry technician) from farming tobacco to cigar production – fermentation, sorting, aging, inventory, you name it.
JF – I found it to be a little bit more interesting. I was more into the final product. I like the mystique of blending, using different tobaccos from different farms, and everything about it. There was a strong tradition of farming where I come from, but it was limited to that. It was a great place to learn how to grow premium tobacco. Pinar del Rio is basically a tobacco growing area. So many people are involved with the growing, sorting, and fermenting of the tobacco. There was never a need for a factory there. Factories were mostly in the areas where a lot of workers were available such as Havana or the central part of the country where they grew sugar cane. The farm areas didn’t employ many people, and so the factories were established in heavily populated areas.
CP – Do you miss teaching the agriculture courses?
JF – No. I was doing more research than actually teaching. The courses I did teach were mostly post-grad. It’s very common in agriculture to start with the basics. Eventually you want to become more specialized so you take postgraduate classes for more emphasis in a certain area. The major university that had more emphasis in tobacco was in Pinar del Rio. There weren’t other universities in Cuba that offered agriculture degrees. The other universities did not have as intensive training in tobacco as Pinar del Rio did. I also taught soil chemistry related to tobacco before I left Cuba. Teaching is fun – it’s a lot of fun. I really like the human interaction. That is why I like cigar stores. There is a lot of camaraderie. The environment in a cigar store is really unique. It’s a place where I feel really good. It’s a relaxed place, with relaxed people.
CP – Where did you work in Cuba after school?
JF – After college I worked full-time Monday through Friday with a government tobacco company called Tabacalera San Luis. On the weekends I would also help out at the university.
CP – Where did you learn to roll cigars?
JF – I learned how to roll cigars in the countryside. Those were the kind of cigars that you rolled to smoke at that moment. I found myself a fairly experienced guy in that area since I was around it my whole life. When I moved to Central America I got more involved in the factory side of the business. I liked it a little bit better. I learned a lot there. I brought what I knew from Cuba and learned more while I was in Honduras.
CP – So you started out in Pinar del Rio, then moved to Honduras, and now you’re in Miami?
JF – I moved to the U.S. in December of 2006.
CP – You are very close with the Plasencia family. How long have you had that relationship?
JF – My family and the Plasencia family have a very long history. It goes back to 1876. They came to Pinar del Rio first. My family came a little bit later. Both families have been in Cuba for five generations with only a dirt road separating the two farms. My father and Nestor Plasencia Sr. were born only a couple of months apart. They were raised together, went to school together, and were best friends. Nestor Plasencia Jr. and I were the same way. Nestor Plasencia’s father and my grandfather were also raised together, and their parents were raised together. So it is a very old relationship. When I came to Central America the Plasencias were, in my opinion, the top grower in the area. I was always doing business with them.
CP – You guys must have had a lot of fun together in Honduras experimenting.
JF – I was always talking with Nestor Jr. about new things. Their family is really interested in experimenting with new seeds and new regions. They are really into optimizing tobacco production. At the end of the boom there was a lot of buying and selling farms. So the Plasencia family acquired some farms in different places in Central America. Tobacco had never before been grown on some of those farms. I remember back then Nestor Jr. was always talking about growing true corojo with Cuban seeds. Those seeds are very good but they have big problems. They are weak in regard to being very susceptible to diseases – blue mold, black shank, etc. So the ideal place to grow those seeds is a place that hasn’t had a previous infestation of any particular disease. So we made the first experiments there on small plots.
CP – What made you take the leap to launch two cigar brands after being in one aspect or another of the business your whole life?
JF – I decided to finalize the project in 2006. I always wanted to make a cigar with the J. Fuego name. Before this it was always a brand and name used for raw materials. It was a family of growers who supplied factories with tobacco. I felt like I was missing something, and became interested in the cigar part of it. Nestor came to me and showed me the tobacco that came from the experiments on those small plots. My father and I made some blends with the tobacco that had at that point been aging for a year. We loved the blend. It was similar to my J. Fuego Corojo No. 1., but at that point it wasn’t named J. Fuego. It was just an idea between friends. So I actually went to Nestor Jr. and told him, “One day if you want to do something nice, I mean wow, keep this tobacco for yourself, don’t sell it, you have plenty of other
tobacco to sell.” So he went to his father, Nestor Sr., and told him that these farms could yield some really good tobacco. Sr. already knew that these farms were good, but they were small producing farms. The Plasencias usually sell to large companies with large inventories. So the tobacco from the farms that I made a couple of blends with couldn’t be offered to a lot of their big customers because it was small production. When I finally decided in 2006 that I wanted to go on my own, I went to Nestor because I saw what he could do with some of the other companies he was working with. So I naturally wanted to make it with him.
CP – Did you already have this small batch tobacco and that blend in your head?
JF – I had that tobacco in my head somehow, but I wasn’t thinking that I could be fortunate enough to use it for myself. I didn’t perceive myself as important enough to have the opportunity to make blends with that tobacco. It was more like she is too beautiful and too rich and I am too ugly, too fat, and too poor. We had a really good relationship and I always knew that I would have cooperation with the Plasencia family. I was basically interested in two tobaccos: sun grown Cuban seed corojo from the small batch farms, and the criollo seed. I am always interested in criollo seed. I think it’s a very good seed. Criollo has mostly been sun grown for binder and filler. We thought that it would be nice to have that same rich flavor with the criollo seed, but not as sharp. To make it true criollo.
CP – What is true criollo?
JF – Criollo means native. It is the native seed that has been in Cuba forever. The other seeds are true as well, but they have been genetically modified. They have gone through some sort of modification to make them more resistant to disease.
CP – So when cigar manufacturers refer to criollo – are they referring to the native Cuban seed?
JF – Some people use criollo to refer to “native” seed from another place. It’s not wrong to say that you are using Honduran criollo tobacco. In that case you aren’t talking about Cuban seed tobacco, you are talking about Honduran seed that has been grown in Honduras for a very long time.
CP – After you decided to make a cigar line, how did you get the ball rolling?
JF – I went to Nestor and told him I want to make a cigar. Nestor Jr. is a very enthusiastic person. He loves the factory aspect. He’s really into that environment. I talked to both Nestor Sr. and Jr., and told them that I wanted to make a project together. I had this idea and I wanted to make cigars in the Cuban tradition that I learned, and also something that I can be proud of because I want to put my family name on it. So Nestor Sr. listened to me and wanted to know my plan. I wanted to start small and make something to grow with. I didn’t want to make something crazy. Mainly, I wanted to make something that we liked, a cigar for us. In talking with Nestor Sr. and Jr. I learned that they had been expanding and growing more tobacco in those small batch farms little by little every year. Talking with them that day was one of the happiest days of my life – well, aside from the days that my daughters were born. I wanted something really unique. I wasn’t saying that I wanted to make the best cigar in the world, but I wanted to make something that I could really enjoy. So Nestor Sr. and Jr. listened to my plan. It was pretty funny actually the way I found out I could use that tobacco. During a conversation Nestor asked me “What are you doing on Monday?” I told him not much, this and that…so he drove me around some farms in Nicaragua, and at the end of the day he took me to a warehouse in Nicaragua, and later in Honduras. Nestor Sr. asked if I knew what it was that we were looking at – I said sure, more tobacco. Sr. told me “This is the tobacco you and my son were running your mouths about. It’s still here. It hasn’t been used.”
CP – I personally think that is how some of the best cigars are made. Those who follow their own taste tend to have a lot more enthusiasm to produce the best cigar they can, and something truly unique can come out of it.
JF – In my opinion there is always a very personal part to a cigar. It is true that I cannot make a cigar that is going to please everybody. But at least I can start by pleasing somebody. That is how I wanted to approach this.
CP – So all that small batch tobacco has just been sitting there?
JF – That crop was six years old by the time they started storing the tobacco there. But that crop was a little small because the leaves weren’t very broad and we didn’t get enough wrapper tobacco out of them. So mainly I realized that we had enough tobacco to make a consistent boutique cigar with tobacco that was five years old or older. That was the case for wrappers. Filler was a little different since they were able to start accumulating it since day one. We tried the tobacco again and it was in a lot better condition. Nestor said that he wasn’t offering it to anyone because he was only selling to big companies and there wasn’t enough of it. If I wanted it then I could use it. Now we have 50 people rolling J. Fuego cigars and we are training more to roll. I train all of the rollers myself. I don’t teach them because I think it’s the best way, but because it is the way I know and feel comfortable with. Nestor was kind enough to let me have those rollers work only on my cigars.
CP – Is it hard to control quality now that you are in Miami?
JF – I have a guy overseeing the production. I think a more appropriate term would be helping as opposed to overseeing. The reason I have that guy there is not because we are afraid to receive the wrong product. I can trust the Plasencias enough to know that it will get done right. It is because I know I want something that is fairly complicated. I see it as a way of saying thank you. We have someone there to collaborate with the Plasencias. The Plasencias have a really big operation and are very busy.
CP – Why did you choose to do the Gran Corojo No. 1? What made you choose that blend?
JF – I always had that blend in the back of my mind. I think the term full-flavored better describes my ideal cigar than full-bodied. I like to smoke a cigar that has complexity. I want to smoke a cigar that is not the same all the way. I want a cigar that changes and gives me different waves as it burns down. We blended four different farm’s tobaccos. Everything is corojo and everything is sun grown. The Corojo No. 1 is on the full-bodied side. Outside of that there are two crops that were grown in the same season, and the other two were from other seasons. A cigar is basically flavor and strength. You get flavor and complexity by blending tobacco from different places, different soils, and different origins. The soil and weather creates different flavor profiles also. Strength comes from playing with the balance of different thicknesses and textures of the leaves. We made a cigar as complex as we could counting on the fact that we’ll always have materials to meet the demand that we are having. That is the case of the corojo. The natural is 100% criollo Cuban seed. We blended three different farms. We were looking for the flavor of the criollo, but not as sharp. I wanted a cigar that would appeal to a lot of people. I want a cigar that was not too strong; one that a mild cigar smoker could smoke after dinner, and at the same time one that a strong cigar smoker could smoke it in the morning.
CP – What is real corojo?
JF – Corojo is a seed that was mainly obtained from the criollo seed in the El Corojo area in Cuba. In the old days almost 100% of the wrapper that was being used in factory came out from the criollo seed. Everybody pretty much realized that they needed a seed with that same great flavor, but one that can produce more cigars with more wrapper tobacco per pound. Basically this is the origin of sorting – separating the different flavors and strengths to get a tobacco that is thinner, more evenly colored, more pliable, and that can make the cigar look better. That was also the origin of shade-grown tobacco. The amount of light and wind that the tobacco receives plays into the outcome of how the leaves will appear and smoke. You raise the leaves in a more controlled environment that way. They don’t suffer that much and have to protect themselves by growing thick. You can pretty much control everything. Some people started selecting the seed that they planted in their fields. They found that certain seeds grew better in a particular soil. So they wanted to keep the seed. Corojo originally, or at least the direct translation, is a kind of a palm tree. There was a farm in our area of Pinar del Rio that had a tree in front of the farm. And that is why they call it “El Corojo”. So everybody in that specialized area of Cuba had a high demand for tobacco. Most of the factories wanted to buy tobacco from that area of Cuba. “El Corojo” was the name of one of the farms in that area, and pretty soon the farms in the vicinity started using the name Corojo. The Rodriguez family was in the area with the corojo farms. They brought in a technician from Holland. He had a lot of theoretical training in genetics, and he took it to a scientific level. He tried to refine a seed mainly from the criollo seed. He finally came out with a seed that was a little bit more resilient to the worst enemy of tobacco – the viruses. It produced similar flavor to the criollo and it was nicer looking with wider leaves. The flavor was a little bit subtler, more refined. Basically corojo is a seed that was developed from the criollo seed that they had in Cuba. The biggest part of the process is selection. It is not cross breeding, but selection. You choose the plants that have the same characteristics that you want, and improve that selection every year. So people who use corojo today still use that selection of picking out the best plants of the crop. The seed is not that stable.
CP – How would you describe the Natural and the Corojo No. 1 according to your taste?
JF – I would describe the Natural as a medium-bodied cigar. Flavor is very subjective. It is a tough question because what is full-bodied to me may not be to someone else. I would describe the Criollo (Natural), as a medium-bodied cigar with complexity, and sweetness. I would describe it as an easygoing cigar. There is a good balance between sweetness and spice. It’s my father’s favorite blend. I wanted to come out with two different cigars. I didn’t want people to think that I came out with two of the same cigars with two different wrappers. I wanted to come out with two completely different cigars. My father always likes the Natural blend. He says that it is a cigar that he can smoke one after the other. He smokes a lot. On the other hand you have the Corojo No. 1. I would describe that as a cigar that is a little bit more intense in flavor. It is smoother because it has been aged for a longer time. The youngest tobacco in the Natural blend is the wrapper and it’s three years old. The youngest tobacco in the Corojo No. 1 blend is also the wrapper but that is five years old. The Corojo No. 1 is a cigar that has all the power without the harshness. A lot of people tend to confuse strength and harshness. To me a full-bodied cigar is one that hits you in the chest and stomach. That is the sensation I was looking for in the Corojo No. 1. I wanted to offer something where you can notice the difference in the two brands. If you enjoy the J. Fuego line, you should be able to enjoy either one depending on the time of day or mood you’re in. For the Corojo No. 1 I was aiming mostly for complexity and smoothness. I don’t want a cigar that dries my mouth or that gives me a scratchy throat. I wanted a cigar that gives me a lot of flavors. That is also why we made the different sizes that we made. The same blend doesn’t behave the same with different sizes.
CP – Do you blend each size differently?
JF – Not precisely. I came out with one blend. In my cigars I try the blend in one size. Then when I decide which sizes I want to put on the market, I may have to re-blend a little bit. You’ll find that some sizes taste similar and that’s a great way to determine which sizes you may want to use. You want to make the smallest difference between sizes. When I blended these cigars I blended the same way. I blended one size. I rolled one and smoked it. If I liked it I’d try other sizes with the idea that I would use the same proportions of different tobaccos in each size in order to see what was different in order to change it or correct it so I can balance all the different sizes. I smoked all the sizes I currently have in the market, and I started to enjoy the variations of strength and the different concentration of smoke throughout the different sizes. I thought it could be interesting to leave them like that. I smoked them with my father and with friends and we all kind of liked the idea of having a corona, for example, that was a little powerhouse 4 1⁄2 x 46. Then you have the grande on the other side, which is a 6 1⁄2 x 58. The grande is a cool smoke that is not that concentrated. It is almost fresh. I enjoyed the variation and left it like that. That is the way I left it for both lines. If you smoke the Natural and you want the mildest cigar, then you have to go for the biggest ring gauge. The same applies with the Corojo No. 1.
CP – What are the regions and countries of the tobacco used in your cigars?
JF – On the Natural the wrapper is a shade grown criollo from Jalapa, Nicaragua. The binder is a secret and the fillers are from Honduras and Nicaragua – all criollo seed. For the Gran Reserva Corojo No.1 the wrapper is from Honduras, the binder from Costa Rica and the fillers are from Honduras, Nicaragua and the same secret region of the binder in the Natural.
CP – Are the cigars in the market now the ones with the first batch from those particular tobacco fields?
JF – The wrapper of what is in the market now is mostly from that first and second (now six years old) crop, the fillers and binder are all from the first one.
CP – Cigars aside, I heard that you owned a Cuban restaurant in Honduras. Have you always liked to cook?
JF- That restaurant was born from necessity. We were restarting our lives in Honduras and there wasn’t any other Cuban restaurant in town. So I opened it with a lot of help from my sisters. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun at the same time. It was because of the restaurant that cooking became one of my hobbies.