among the small cities, villages, and abundance of little-known tourist delights in Mexico’s Los Tuxtlas Mountains is one of the world’s oldest cigar-making operations. The Turrent family has been involved in tobacco farming for five generation spread over 128 years, and its company (Turrent, Nueva Matacapan Tabacos, S.A. de C.V. - known commercially as Tabacalera Alberto Turrent) is the largest cigar maker in Mexico, producing 5 to 6 million cigars per year in the village of Sihuapan near the lakeside tourist town of Catemaco.
Lest that history remain an obscure behind-the-scene fact, the company has just released a new blend and brand in its native Mexican market - A. Turrent 6th Generation - celebrating the birth of a darling new grandson who marks the sixth generation of the Turrent family born into this storied tobacco tradition. The company plans to expand distribution of the brand internationally later this year.
Alberto Turrent IV, president of Nueva Matacapan and fourth generation family member, is as much a man of the soil as he is an accomplished business executive. Each morning he can be found in the fields examining the tobacco crops. Were he American, he’d be one of the finest examples of a Southern Gentleman - a gentle, hospitable man whose achievements could easily earn him the unofficial title as the father of modern Mexican tobacco.
The first Alberto Turrent immigrated to Mexico from Spain in 1880 and established tobacco farms in the San Andrés Valley in the southeastern part of the state of Veracruz. The valley, with two dormant volcanoes nearby, provided a rich soil and perfect climate for quality tobacco.
Turrent IV took over the company in 1960 at a time when most Mexican tobacco was shipped to Europe. In 1964 he first started exporting cigars, targeting the American market which was still adjusting to the loss of embargoed Cuban cigars. Turrent’s Te-Amo brand would go on to become a market-leading blockbuster.
Sihuapan and the Tuxtlas region in the 1960s were still the “old Mexico,” a time of burros that the majority of today’s youthful Mexican population - enjoying a burgeoning economy - either doesn’t remember or never even knew. The roads were very narrow and in miserable shape, barely improved from generations earlier and living evidence that the Los Tuxtlas region had long been ignored. Alberto’s grandfather and great-grandfather had shipped their tobacco by mule train to a river where it was loaded on boats and floated to Veracruz for international transport. The first train tracks arrived only in 1910 and didn’t reach Merida, Yucatan, until 1955 - a few years before the highway reached the same point.
The Los Tuxtlas were cut off in many ways, as the Mexico of that era had few cars, exceedingly poor telephone communication, and little infrastructure. Yet, the region had supported a thriving turn-of-the-century tobacco industry. Several of the second generation Turrent brothers even had companies of their own.
Family photos adorning Turrent’s office in Sihuapan show his grandfather by a tobacco field about 1910 and another with his father by a tobacco field in 1931. Today, the Turrents manage an entirely vertically-integrated operation growing tobacco, curing it, and rolling their own cigars, all handled through four different companies. One operates the tobacco farms and leaf operations (Group Matacapan Tobacos); another handles production of cigars; a third produces cigar boxes; and finally a distribution arm located in Mexico City oversees cigars into retail channels.
“I love the farms,” says Turrent, flashing a big grin that’s as well-known within the industry as his “I started with the soil as a youth, but they’re completely different, the farm and the factory business.”
Leading the family business into the modern world while based in a decided rural area presented challenges. It wasn’t until about 1965 that Turrent began using tractors to plow his tobacco farms. Before that? “Bulls,” he laughs. “We farmed with bulls.”
Even fertilizer arrived before mechanized plowing. “They used to not use it,” Turrent explains. “The earth is naturally rich from the volcanic ash in the soil and the tropical rain forest vegetation constantly rotting and replenishing it. But it is needed. We started importing and learning about fertilizer from Germany between 1910 and 1920 and using it here.” The industry thrived.
“There were many tobacco farms in our area,” says Turrent. “We have the same conditions as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but World War II finished most of the Mexican tobacco growers. Almost all of the tobacco [grown here each season] had been shipped to Europe but the war ended that export business. Most cigar factories folded and the owners turned to bananas for export to the United States. Only five or six families survived in the production of tobacco.”
Nueva Matacapan produces two tobacco crops per year - one that generally spans from June to September and the other from September to February. To accommodate these crops at harvest time, the company has nearly forty tobacco curing barns which, unlike those commonly seen in Central America, are covered with corrugated tin on their lower third, and dried corn stalks on the upper two-thirds. Currently the company has about 600 hectares (roughly 1,500 acres) under cultivation, encompassing both filler and wrapper varieties. “We can use Sumatra seed here for cover [wrapper] or we can use San Andrés Criollo like Connecticut broad leaf,” says Turrent.
Mexican tobaccos are unique in flavor and are used by other cigarmakers in their blends worldwide. “Negro San Andrés is our region’s particular tobacco,” explains Marilu Zetina, exports manager at Nueva Matacapan. “It is good for the binder, filler, and wrapper. Few tobaccos can serve all purposes, and Negro San Andrés is needed by many other tobacco companies for at least one part of the process. We send tobacco to almost thirty countries.” Also grown in the area are Sumatra, Habano, and Criollo.
“No one can really say what cigar tobacco is better,” notes Turrent. “Tobacco is like wine and every area has its own flavor. Each one has its own traits it brings forth from the local area. You can plant our seeds in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but it won’t taste like the tobacco we grow. It’s really the taste each individual prefers. I can only say with certainty, our quality is as good as or better than anywhere else in the world and we take much pride in our product.”
Still, Mexican cigars have not had an easy time in the U.S. market over the past decade. Imports to the U.S. peaked in 1997 at just over 25 million sticks and fell rapidly following the collapse of the U.S. boom. Last year, about 1.1 million cigars were imported from Mexico into the U.S. The Mexican Association of Cigar Manufactures (www.mexicocigars.com), which was formed in 1995 by all of the major factories from the San Andrés Valley to regulate the quality of Mexican cigars during the rapid rise in production during the boom, began to jointly promote their products. Alberto’s son Alejandro Turrent, who works alongside his father in the family business, is currently president of the trade group. “The association can buy larger spaces at shows,” elaborates Nueva Matacapan’s Zetina. “There has been a year-by-year growth and expansion to other countries. They also let people know Mexico, not Cuba, is the original home of tobacco. The Mayans smoked tobacco, and archeologists have found many pipes among their artifacts.”
While there may be some lack of public knowledge that tobacco cultivation originated in Mexico and then moved to Cuba, there is by no means any rivalry between the industries in those two nations today. In fact, Nueva Matacapan has entered the Institute of Tobacco with Cuba, Turrent explains. “They study the genetics of the seed. Our tobacco is grown with basically the same seed Cuba uses. The studies are to find a genetic strain that is resistant to blue mold. One of their people comes about twice a year.”
Zetina reveals an even deeper acknowledgement of Cuba’s regard for Nueva Matacapan’s expertise. “The Cubans were recently having problems drying their leaves,” she explains. “Here, we braid our leaves and put them up for drying. The Cubans asked Mr. Turrent for help and he sent a man to Cuba to teach them the Mexican method of braiding leaf.” There have also been other positive developments, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “It was good,” says Turrent. “It helped exports by reducing import taxes. The U.S.A. now buys about 75% of all our cigar production. Spain, Poland, and Ukraine follow the U.S. in purchasing our cigars.”
Turrent’s original Te-Amo blend has since been joined by several other lines over the years: A. Turrent, Te-Amo Aniversario, and Te-Amo World Selection Series. All are distributed in the U.S. by Altadis U.S.A.
At age 65, Turrent can’t imagine ever doing anything else. “I couldn’t stop working with tobacco,” says Turrent, again flashing one of his great smiles. “If I retired I’d probably go work for one of my daughters. They run tobacco shops Monterrey. I’d tell customers about tobacco.”