On the balcony over the central courtyard of a colonial mansion, a portly chap strikes up an aria in his fine baritone. It reverberates through the old walls, transporting us back to its heyday in the 1930s when successful architect and sculptor Mario Favilli lived here. These days, the distinctive yellow house in Granada has a new lease of life as a cigar factory. We’re here to turn our hands to the art of hand rolling cigars at Mombacho.
A relative newcomer to the world of Nicaraguan cigars, Mombacho’s boutique setting has a legacy that lends an air of gravitas to the company’s youthful ambitions. It’s certainly a fitting place for the workers to fulfill the company’s mission of recapturing the “romantic ritual” of cigar rolling, all done totalmente a mano – completely by hand. Founded in 2006 by Canadians Cameron Heaps and Markus Raty, the company moved to their grand headquarters in 2014. They were joined by Master Blender Claudio Sgroi in 2012, and Mombacho now employs 24 Nicaraguans in the factory.
You can take a guided tour for $5 per person, but you’d be foolish not to pay $10 and have a go at rolling your own as well. And it’s not just a tour for cigar-lovers. The art of rolling a mano can be appreciated and enjoyed by those who never intend to take so much as a puff. You will, however, meet plenty of cigar aficionados here. The inhabitants of the smoking lounge typify Mombacho’s customer demographic: wealthy American males, largely over 50. Still, the tour groups are packed with curious travellers and tourists from all walks of life. Aptly so, since the owners initially fell for Nicaragua’s culture, history and cigars on a backpacking trip.
Watching leaves dry
Our guide, Brian, has a wide smile and brims with enthusiasm as he walks us through the process. First, we meet the tobacco leaf sorters. They sit at two large dining tables at the side of the picturesque central courtyard, open to the sky above. These workers quality check the wrapper leaves – known as the capa – ensuring only those of uniform colour and texture make it through to the factory floor. Leaves that pass the test are processed for 12 hours at 98 per cent humidity to maintain their elasticity. By contrast, filler leaves are placed into the drying room at no more than 30 per cent humidity. When we touch them they crackle, unlike the supple capas. But we don’t last long in here. The ammonia escaping from the drying leaves brings tears to my eyes. It takes me back to teenage hair experiments with a bottle of bleach in a poorly ventilated bathroom.
The drying process itself is surprisingly lo-fi. All you really need are dehumidifiers set at the correct level. And it’s the same with rolling. On the main factory floor, an airy former drawing room with large windows, tiled floors and high ceilings, workers sit at antique wooden desks. Their only tools are a spotlight, a rolling mat and a natural glue made from cassava and sugarcane. But that’s not to downplay the process of hand rolling cigars. With such simple materials, technique is everything. It’s time to test our hands.
A recipe for success
Brian explains the recipes first, unceremoniously scribbled on pieces of paper stuck on the wall of a small back room that he affectionately calls the ‘kitchen’. It where the three types of tobacco – seco, visor and ligero – are created to form Mombacho’s signature blends. Before taking the plunge, we watch Noel and Abigail at work. Rollers always work in pairs, with the men taking the part of the bonchero, wrapping the filler together tightly and sealing it to form the basic shape. After the cigar has been pressed for a short time, the female rolera applies the capa – or wrapper leaft – to form a perfectly smooth ‘skin’. When I ask the rollers whether men and women ever swap roles they smile and shake their heads. Apparently, this arrangement suits both sexes fine. The men are happy to weigh in with the heavy construction, while the women administer a facelift at the end.
Ready to roll
“I’ve rolled a lot of spliffs in my time. It can’t be that different, surely?” a member of our group pipes up. It looks fiendishly tricky. Whether any amount of spliff-rolling credentials will help is uncertain. After watching a couple of cigars being produced, we’re up. The process is certainly fiddly. With the filler, it’s all about the concertina folding of the leaves using the one hand as you arrange them in a sausage shape in the other. As I roll, I treading the tightrope between holding the filler firmly enough together, while taking care not to rip the delicate tobacco. “Feel the limit,” Noel advises. Easier said than done.
There’s some well-placed intervention from Noel as our group fumbles through one by one. Not one of us manages to start the rolling process without his assistance. Rolling from 7am to 4pm every day, Mombacho rollers learn on the job, progressing in a year from fumbling novices (like ourselves) to experts capable of producing 80 premium cigars a day. I ask Noel how long he’s been doing this for. “Ten years,” he says with a knowing smile. We have a lot to learn. Still, we all manage to craft a cigar that fits into the heavy wooden mould.
Through the keyhole
A tour of the factory’s historic setting helps pass the time. Italian immigrant and architect Mario Favilli was illustrious in his adopted home of Granda, starting a tile factory that still operates today. At the time of its purchase by Mombacho in 2014, it had stood empty for 12 years. The mansion is very much a work in progress. The bottom two floors have been painstakingly restored. Two alabaster beauties, modelled on Favilli’s wife and sister, serenely hold up the grand staircase. There are plans for an open air cigar lounge on the roof terrace, surely one of Granada’s best platforms to view the Mombacho volcano and the city’s five churches. It will certainly be our first stop the next time we pass through here.
The pressure test
It’s time for us to return to the rolling floor and master the final step: adding the capa. Our cigars come out of the mould, fully pressed, and we’re each given a wrapper leaf. Before we can finish the cigars, we have to take the quality test. Each is placed into the Drawmaster, a machine that measures the density of the cigar. I’m last to be tested. My cigar goes in, and the dial wavers, shooting up to 40, then settling on a satisfactory 35. I’m through!
Now, back to the rolling desk. First, we use a tool to cut the capa into an elongated banana shape, with precise edges for that clean, wrapped finish. We roll, slowly and deliberately. The capa is much finer, and it easily tears when too much pressure is applied. Once wrapped and glued, the final step is to add the gorro or hat, a small circle applied to top of the cigar to create the smooth, rounded head. But there’s a problem. I’ve left too big a gap at the end. My new tutor, Terry, applies a ‘bandage’ to fix the problem. Now I use the tool to attempt to cut out a perfect circle from the fragile leaf. It takes a few goes, but finally, I manage. I stick the gorro down, using my thumbs to massage it into place with the glue. And it’s done! I admire my cigar, proudly. All that remains is to light up.
Up in smoke
Our tour ends in the smoking room, with a well earned Flor de Caña rum to accompany our hand rolled cigars. We ask Brian for advice on lighting technique. Controversially, he tells us that a lighter works better than matches. “It’s consistent. Matches can go out and you lose the heat. Some people move the lighter and others move the cigar. But getting the whole thing burning at the same time is the object.” We’re no experts, but we’re impressed with the taste and texture. The cigar burns solidly, and looks pretty damn fine. All in all, it’s been a pretty good day.