For most of the last year, cigar enthusiasts across the nation were blind to the West Coast's best kept secret. Pier 28, founded by Tim Wong, would remain exclusive within his terroritories until after 2017's IPCPR.
Now that they're available on Small Batch, we approached Tim to finally let the cat out of the bag. What follows is some Q&A with the man himself!
-What’s behind the name Pier 28?
I’m a San Francisco kid born and raised. When I was considering a brand name, I looked at a lot of traditional Spanish names but I came to realize that most of the good names are already trademarked and I didn't want to name the brand something that people couldn't pronounce or didn't make sense. So I went back to the drawing board.
I decided to come up with something that told my story. If you've been to San Francisco, you know there are a series of Piers numbered 1-60 on the waterfront. Pier 28 is special to me because it's one of the most picturesque places in the city. The bay bridge is directly above the building and I lived 6 blocks from there. When I came home from the road and drove by that pier and under the bridge, I knew I was home.
Also, being Chinese-American, we are superstitious people and numerology is big in our culture. The number 8 is especially lucky and is synonymous with prosperity. When it is paired with the number 2 it means, "to prosper easily." It's like giving my brand a little luck, which is always useful.
So the brand and the band represent all that. The shape of the band is cut to match the facade of the Pier 28 building. The lines on the band represent the bay bridge. The 3 Chinese characters on the band represent my heritage. Above the Pier 28 logo is the character for "Wong" to represent my family. The characters for the number 2 and the number 8 are printed on the silver coins surrounding the logo. So the brand and the bands tell a little of my story.
-Talk to us about Tim. What’s your story?
I would love to tell you that I have a long family history in the cigar business but I kind of lucked out and fell into the business simply because I was a cigar dork. I happened to meet the right people through industry events and online bulletin boards. In 2004, I had the pleasure of meeting the Torano family and they offered me a sales position. I had never been a salesman before, but they loved my knowledge of cigars and also knew that I practically lived in cigar lounges. They took a chance on me and… 14 years later, here I am. I have also worked for Rocky Patel cigars and General Cigar.
Like a lot of the people in this business, you evolve and I knew at some point I wanted to launch my own blends and brands. That was always the part that fascinated me. I spent a lot of my time talking to and learning from blenders, factory owners, retailers and brand owners. I’ve been blessed to meet a lot of great people including my partner in all this, Erik Espinosa. I’ve loved his cigars since the United Tobacco days.
When he opened La Zona six years ago, he knew what my dream was and told me when the factory was up and running, we would have a discussion about working together. Three years ago we actually had that sit down. I loved what he was doing and knew La Zona was the right place to launch a brand.
And I was right. Without them, who knows if Pier 28 would have gotten off the ground?
-Let’s talk about the Pier 28 lineup. How would you characterize your cigars to someone that’s never smoked them before?
Pier 28 Habano is my first attempt at blending. I prefer flavor to strength so the concept was to create a full flavored complex blend that all palettes could smoke. I love naturally sweet cigars so that factored in as well. With the guidance of Espinosa's Master Blender Hector Alonzo, we came up with a 4 country blend that is medium strength but full-bodied.
The cigar is sweet from the get go but builds spice gradually. It's also very complex and will change on you several times as you smoke it and yet it is smooth through out. There are four sizes and I tried to make sure I had something for everyone.
There's a Corona Gorda for the small ring guys and a 6x60 for the guys who prefer the larger gauge. There's a Robusto and a box pressed Toro as well. Pressing the Toro just takes it to another level.
Pier 28 Maduro is a more traditional blend. It’s a familiar Nicaraguan binder/filler with a San Andres wrapper. When you go with a blend that has a lot of comparable options already on the market, you just have to execute it as good or better than what is out there. The San Andres we sourced for this cigar is beautiful and wonderfully sweet. It has a caramel color and is a little more delicate that other San Andres.
People sometimes forget that the Maduro process is supposed to make the tobacco sweeter and more flavorful and not just darker or stronger. I wanted to deliver a classic Maduro with all the sweetness it's supposed to have. We all hear the flavor description of chocolate and cocoa for Maduros and I wanted to make sure this cigar delivers just that. I believe it does. I would consider it medium to full strength and again, full flavored.
-What pairing suggestions would you recommend when trying Pier 28 cigars?
Pier 28 Habano: a nice sipping rum like Zaya, Zacapa or Papa's Pilar. The Balvenie Carribean Cask would also pair well. Macallan or Kavalan would be good too and I think a nice port will also work.
"I prefer flavor to strength so the concept was to create a full flavored complex blend that all palettes could smoke."
Pier 28 Maduro: you might need something a little stiffer like Oban, Talisker, Zacapa XO, or Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros. A Cuban coffee or strong espresso would also be wonderful.
-What's something that most people don't know about La Zona?
We have our own "user conference" once a year at our offices in Hialeah Gardens, FL. Dubbed "La Zonapalooza," it's a chance for consumers, bloggers, and retailers to get to know our cigars and our family better.
We have all kinds of fun activities and we smoke a lot of cigars.
How would you describe the West Coast preference, if there is one?
I don't necessarily believe there is a West Coast preference when it comes to cigars. Some cigars work in certain regions while others don't. Where a brand owner comes from dictates that somewhat. I think most boutique cigar makers start building their consumer and customer bases in their home areas. That’s how Pier 28 is being rolled out. Guys are always willing to give the local guys a chance.
The west coast is blessed though. Because we are such a strong market for cigars, consumers can usually find most brands big or boutique somewhere near them. We get to try a lot of stuff that may not be widely available, which is great for cigar smokers.
-What’s your favorite cigar moment?
I have so many. I think my current favorite is when we had a final release candidate for the Pier 28 Habano ready and we had Erik try it for the first time. His reaction was, "If you don't release this, I will."
That's when I started to believe I might actually have something.