“As a proud American, I believed it was possible to bring cigar tobacco farming back to Florida, on a small-scale, limited production way. As a cigar retailer, I believed consumers would be willing to pay a little more for cigars that contained genuine Florida-grown cigar tobacco, as long as the tobacco was unique, distinctive, flavorful, and of the highest quality. Fortunately, our Florida Sun Grown tobacco has all those qualities and more.” —Jeff Borysiewicz
It all started innocently enough. Just a few businesses capitalizing upon the fact that Florida’s climate and close proximity to Cuba provided ample room for tobacco cultivation, importation, and cigar production.
It was the 1800s, and cigars were North America’s favorite smoke, followed shortly thereafter by pipe tobacco. Machine-rolled cigarettes were still decades away from reaching the masses, and what was available was either produced in finite amounts or hand-rolled cowboy style.
But whereas the regions of Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the industry-leading regions of Connecticut produced a vast amount of tobacco, it was in Florida where much of that long-filler fun was rolled.
However, the years have not been gracious to the state of Florida when it comes to premium cigar blend formulation and production. The cigar industry has shifted almost all of its clout south toward the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua over the past century.
What was once a booming industry now resembles a broken cigar leaf wrapper. Curled and empty, Florida’s return to its former glory seems wholly unachievable, and for good reason.
Yet with the right amount of dedication, knowledge, financial backing, and just the right connections anything is feasible. This is precisely why we’re putting the tobacco side of Florida on a pedestal at Klaro Cigars today.
The Glory Days of American Cigar Tobacco
Being that Florida has so many agricultural and topographical similarities to that of Cuba and other tobacco-producing countries, it only makes sense that premium hand-rolled goodness was produced on-premise.
Take a stroll around certain areas of Tampa’s Ybor City, and the remnants of what once was is evident even today. Even in the Wynwood arts district of Miami, warehouses with faded signage dedicated to what once was still stands, housing fancy eateries and all manner of modern high-dollar amenities.
While we’re on the topic of Miami and its surrounding areas, history tells that Key West was actually the big producer of cigars for much of the 1800s. But when the tiny town of Tampa became the new hot spot for rolling cigars in the late 1800s, immigrants from all over the world flocked to the western winded peninsula town.
Within just a couple of decades, the town of 1,000 grew into a cigar-rolling juggernaut, with a recorded 151 cigar factories producing an estimated 500 million handmade cigars a year during Tampa’s tobacco heyday.
The Demise of Florida’s Cigar Industry
From a timeline viewpoint, long-filler cigars went from a mainstay to novelty fairly quickly.
After sales crumbled under the weight of The Great Depression, cigars struggled to regain their mass appeal. The highly lucrative premium cigar blend market suffered an even more static shock when the machine-rolled cigarette craze kicked in during World War I.
Cigarettes were cheaper, faster to smoke, and easier to pack and carry. They could also be quickly ditched without a care for the consequences if a firefight suddenly commenced. Readily available, and just as equally disposable as ammunition, cigarettes proved to be a death stroke for much of America’s hand-rolled cigar industry.
What resulted was the shuttering of thousands of American cigar factories, the loss of countless jobs, even more, shitty paper cigar wrapper substitutes, and an unfathomable amount of lost revenue.
Factor in the cost of American labor over that of foreign countries, and everything from the tobacco farms to the curing barns, and everything crafted within those cigar-rolling factories went up in smoke in just a few short decades. A tragic tale that closely mirrors that of another unsung story, as the southern pecan suffered the same fate as the American-made premium cigar blend.
Tobacco Nerd Note: By the time the 1900s rolled around, the neighborhood of Ybor City within Tampa was being referred to as “the cigar capital of the world.” Subtropical weather, easy access to Cuba and other Caribbean countries, as well as a plentiful supply of locally farmed filler tobacco all, made for quite the winning combination.
The previously referenced article from the Smithsonian Magazine claims that during the height of Ybor City’s boom, an estimated “...10,000 cigar rollers worked in 200 cigar factories producing up to a half-billion hand-rolled cigars a year.”
Fighting Extinction: Florida-Made Cigars of Today
Over the past 70+ years, the United States cigar production industry has continuously contracted, with Florida arguably being the hardest hit. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tobacco fields, where the last crop of Florida cigar leaf was recorded being cultivated in 1977 on a farm in Gadsen County, Florida. We’ll circle back to this tobacco tale a bit later…
Although a handful of small operations in Ybor City still roll out cigars, there is one facility that still rolls a sizable amount of premium cigar blends annually. A relic from the past, brought back to life to remind us of what once was, and what is still possible.
In 1910, when the old Regensburg Cigar Factory (commonly referred to as El Reloj due to its clock tower) first opened its doors, the cigar world stopped and stared. Constructed to support over 1,000 cigar rollers at one time, this structure churned out over 250,000 cigars a day and an average of 60 million stogies per year. A feat that was made possible in part by the fact that this Tampa-based titan housed more usable square footage than any other cigar factory on the planet by that point.
Then, in 1953, the J.C. Newman Cigar Company bought the old Regensburg Cigar Factory, in the process transitioning operations from Cleveland down to Tampa. Constructed from sound materials like stone, cement, and brick, this building resembles almost every other cigar factory in the area. Three stories tall, and approximately 50 feet across, the structure relies upon an east-to-west orientation to minimize straight line wind damage during hurricane season.
Today, this building not only stands as the last operational cigar factory in all of Tampa, but it is the only traditional cigar company from the early 1900s still functioning in the United States. Operating as a mere shadow of its once glorious former self, El Reloj houses merely 150 employees and produces just 12 million hand-rolled boutique cigars per year.
Then there’s the whole Drew Estate side of the Florida cigar story. A collaborative endeavor between the boutique cigar brand’s founder, and Corona Cigar owner Jeff Borysiewicz. Enterprising, and deeply devoted to all things Florida, Borysiewicz believes that preserving Florida’s tobacco roots transcends tradition. It’s a duty to preserve a portion of The American Dream that many of us have either long forgotten, or never knew existed in the first place.
It may have taken a couple of decades, but this collaborative project between one of America’s most enterprising boutique cigar brands, and the Florida tobacco cultivator, curer, cigar producer, and all-around tobacco nerd has seen a ton of publicity.
Known as The 20 Acre Farm line by Drew Estate, this recently launched cigar brand is being heralded as the first major premium cigar blend to be produced with Florida-grown tobacco in nearly a century.
Rolled up tight with an Ecuadorian Connecticut cigar wrapper leaf and held in place by a sun-grown Honduran Habano binder, the Nicaraguan and Florida-grown long-filler boast quite the unique premium cigar blend.
Grown exclusively at the 20-acre farm run by boutique Corona Cigar Co. just outside the town of Clermont, Florida, the filler of this cigar is an homage to the American cigar’s glory days. A small, yet worthy addition to any premium cigar blend, for it is the only registered premium cigar tobacco producing farm plot operating within the entire state of Florida.
Available in a Robusto, Toro, a 60-ring gauged Gordito, and a highly coveted Corona Cigar Co. 25th Anniversary Belicoso size sporting 7 x 54 dimensions, this recent addition to the Drew Estate portfolio offers more than just a delicious cigar smoking experience. It is the only surviving link to what was once the great cigar and the tobacco-producing state of Florida.