You’ve probably noticed that public opinion of Mexican San Andres tobacco has drastically shifted in the last few years. Until recently, Mexican tobacco was viewed by Americans as less than desirable, something only fit for machine made or short filler cigars.
To help figure out Mexican San Andres tobacco, I’ve solicited the help of Nicholas Melillo, one of the key individuals responsible for improving the sentiment on this tobacco by increasing accessibility, accountability, and awareness.
What Is Mexican San Andres Tobacco?
Much like other tobacco growing regions, the San Andres Valley located at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is perfectly positioned near volcanoes that provide nutrient-dense soil.
San Andres is thick, hearty, and perfectly suited for Maduro fermentation. Nick points out that Mexican San Andres Negros tobacco seeds pre-date Cuban-seed, spreading up from Peru into Central America, into Mexico, and then into Caribbean.
It’s not often that we’re able to taste wrapper-grade tobacco on its own in a purito format, so I asked Nick how he’d describe the leaf by itself. He said that it has a real depth of earthiness to it, some sweetness, and can have cocoa-like qualities. “As long as you don’t use too much of it, it’s a phenomenal binder and wrapper leaf. As a puro, though, it can be a bit rough.”
Why Have We Just Recently Started Appreciating San Andres Tobacco?
Until the mid-1990s, the answer was that trade agreements made it cost prohibitive to bring cigars across the border. Then NAFTA was signed and tariffs were suddenly eliminated, opening the doors for Mexican cigar brands and tobacco. Mexico would continue to have serious hurdles importing tobacco from other countries for blending, though, with significant trade victories still being solidified to this day.
But, shortly after this win for the San Andres region, the doors slowly began to close to American cigar enthusiasts.
“Around early 2000s, a lot of people pulled out of Mexico because of growing issues. The Turrent family was always dominant – they grow some incredible tobacco, and they have for a long time. But a lot of other companies pulled out.”
This void left us with one very public icon of Mexican San Andres tobacco: Te Amo, the Mexican Toscano. I say that jokingly, but they share a lot of similarities with the Italian Toscano: both are considered overwhelming if you’re not accustomed to them, and both have fostered a love it or hate it relationship. As Nick warned us in the beginning, Mexican San Andres makes for a rough and dirty puro unless you’ve developed a taste for it.
Unfortunately, that stigma would take many years to overcome.
Melillo To the Rescue
Nick described an interesting scene when he started going to Mexico as early as 2005 to source Maduro tobacco. The little guys, local farmers, really didn’t have access to or understand their role in the larger, global economy. Outside of the largest farms in the country, they weren’t able to easily tap into the demand that cigar factories had for their product. Until Nick stepped in, it was a buy all or nothing scenario for many factories wanting to source Mexican San Andres tobacco.
What Nick did next benefited the entire industry.
Recognizing the void, Nick developed Melillo International approximately four years ago to serve as a consulting agency and hub for these farmers and coordinate the distribution of Mexican San Andres worldwide from Esteli, Nicaragua. Working with the San Andres de Los Perros, a couple of farmers that also dabble in cartoon drawing and photography, Nick flipped the script on the San Andres tobacco scene.
“I had known some farmers that were looking to expand their operation. And I had a really good relationship with Oliva Tobacco Co. who had an amazing sorting facility in Esteli under the supervision of Gustava Cura, one of my mentors. A lot of smaller Nicaraguan factories had already been going to Oliva Tobacco Co. to pick their tobacco anyway, but they didn’t have San Andres in their portfolio.”
By putting bridging the gap between farmers in Mexico and Oliva in Nicaragua, Nick gave every boutique factory in Nicaragua an opportunity to use Mexican San Andres tobacco while simultaneously implementing Oliva’s rigorous standards.
“We brought the farmers from Mexico to Nicaragua to learn what we were doing as far as growing in the fields, fermentation, selecting, and sorting. And then we had people from Nicaragua go to Mexico and assist them in the fields and their curing barns. Over the years, Nicaragua has built up quite an infrastructure for growing and processing tobacco – we took that to Mexico. ”
It Gets Better
Not only did the accessibility of Mexican San Andres improve, the quality of the leaf advanced as well. They didn’t just implement additional growing techniques in the San Andres valley, they also changed the way the leaves were fermented.
Nick explained that San Andres tobacco was traditionally fermenting in much larger piles than what is used in Nicaragua. Around 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of tobacco was being used at one time, creating a tremendous amount of heat and fermenting the leaves fairly quickly. And, as he noted, Mexican San Andres is a thick leaf that can take that sort of heat.
But now they’re fermenting, sorting, and selecting the tobacco in Esteli, Nicaragua at Oliva Tobacco Co’s world-class facility. That means lower poundage for the fermentation piles resulting in lower heat over longer periods of time to preserve the natural oils.
“It was still phenomenal tobacco before, but you can definitely taste the results of our process. There’s a fine balance of preserving the essential oils while at the same time curing it so that it’s palateable, combustable, and usable for cigars.”
And thanks to Oliva’s process, cigar factories are more confident buying Mexican San Andres than ever before. The sorting and selection process is about as exact as it gets, meaning buyers can expect a higher yield and less downgraded materials or waste.
From all of us that enjoy Mexican San Andres wrapped cigars, thanks Nick!
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