Christian Eiroa’s brand, CLE Cigars, is celebrating its two decades with the release of Eiroa The First 20 Years. It’s a box-pressed Honduran puro containing a special type of tobacco in the binder and filler which results in a flavor that is traditional and not overpowering. Christian discloses that they’re not trying to make cigar like anybody else’s cigar. They make cigars that are solid, consistent, and well done. He says you won’t find them trying to chase fads or doing anything crazy. He also shares that box pressing adds to the way the cigar tastes and to the appearance and the whole impact of the cigar. It’s ranked number two, second only to their Asylum which is incredible.
Listen to the podcast here:
Cigar Cafe Radio Guest Christian Eiroa | Eiroa First 20 years | FDA | Regional Brands
I’m Lane. I’ve got Harris and Sean with me. We’ve got two little mini episodes. We got Christian Eiroa and Jason Robnette as our guest host. We’re hanging out and we’re smoking one of my favorite cigars. I’ve got The First 20 Years 6×46 which Jason says is his favorite. I hadn’t smoked this size yet.
I like that size as well, 6×46.
We’re glad to have you in the shop.
Lane was saying about The First 20 Years, he’s not just saying this as the one of his favorites. If you listen to the last four or five episodes, somehow there’s a whole segment on The First 20 Years.
This has become my killer. I smoked a lot of these and I only smoked a couple Ligas, which is weird.
That’s a huge compliment. It’s a great cigar too.
lot of people don’t know much about the tobacco and the filler and such. I can only tell so many people. Can you describe to them exactly how this project came about?
When you start working on a blend, there’s something that you always have in mind. Rarely does it happen that you’re just completely taken by surprise with something. The Eiroa, The First 20 Years, I was looking to do something special, but I didn’t know where to start. It just so happens that my father presented me with the beginnings of a blend. He’d been working on his cigar called Aladino. He said, “There’s some tobacco I was working with but it was too thick. I didn’t like it. You could have it.” I started playing with it and the blend was almost there. I decided to change the binder and change the wrapper that I used. The cigar was completely fantastic. It turns out to be that old adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” This tobacco, my father could not use, because my father likes his cigars much milder than mine.
I normally like very full-body cigars. However, this was a departure and I was like a meeting point because this cigar is medium-bodied. This cigar does have the wrapper that we use, which gives that sweetness that that cigar has. I attribute probably 70% to80% of the flavor to the wrapper itself. The filler is a seed called Victoria or La Victoria. It was grown on my grandfather’s farm, which was called La Victoria. That’s where the name came from, in Pinar del Rio. No one’s messed around with a seed for a very long time. It’s very low-yielding. It doesn’t give you any wrapper, it doesn’t give you any binder, but the flavor is this traditional style tobacco that’s not overpowering. It tastes like pure tobacco. That’s what made this cigar so special. That’s one thing that customers seem to like very much, the fact that it doesn’t taste like anything else.
We’re not out there trying to make the cigar like anybody else’s cigar. We’re trying to make something an idea that was top of mind. I credit my father at least 95% for this. It was him that pointed me in the direction and put me there. We decided the finishing touches. There’s something funny that happens. Why the box press? I thought it was part of the image, but it’s something funny that happens even to us. I was smoking the round samples. When you press cigars, in my mind, it tastes different. It shouldn’t be that way. Chemically and biologically, nothing’s happening, but there’s something about the flavor. You could say that there’s a pneumatic effect, that the air is just different. The air flow changes the taste. Box pressing adds to the way the cigar should taste and the appearance and the whole impact of the cigar.
Is this one of your bestselling cigars you’ve had in a while?
For the last three months it’s been number two. It’s second only to the Asylum 70 X 7, which is incredible.
It’s your most expensive cigar too, yet it’s number two sold.
We’re always very wary about a cigar becoming trendy. We don’t want trendy cigars. We want cigars that are solid, that are consistent. We operate the factories and we can’t hire 700 people today and fire 350 five months from now. We want to make sure the growth is slow, consistent, and well done. You won’t find us trying to chase these fads or doing anything crazy. The growth in this cigar is very organic. We’re pleasantly surprised Cigar Aficionado gave us two 90s in a row, which is also very important. You look at the way the magazine works. If you get a 95 or 96,that’s great. You can throw a big party where that’s all you get, then you get the kiss of death. When you look at cigars that get consistent good ratings, it makes a huge difference.
The packaging that you have on that stick is also important. It’s not a trendy type of packaging. It’s a classic look. It says that you want to be around for awhile. I don’t know if any of your cigars begged to be smoked for a month and then thrown away.
We evolve with everything we do. Definitely, the CLE side of the brand has been an evolution. The Asylum is more we go after that cavemen and Neanderthal type thing. It doesn’t need to evolve. The CLE line is more traditional, but it has to evolve as well. We came off very simplistic at first. As the brand progressed, the brand itself began to build its own image. It’s not something we do, the customers build that image. We realized that we had to improve a lot in the way we were doing the packaging in a different direction. By chance, it’s funny how this business works and the world works, I had to be in a meeting in China where I met the graphic designer from Holland, who would meet me then in Miami after his trip in Dominican to decide how to make the bands for my cigar like the Behikes he was making in Cuba.
These are the same people that do the Behike bands. They did a holographic pattern for us. They took their time to develop a holographic plate for us, which is a lot of work. They finally did it and the end result is fantastic. We do the tissue wrap on the foot as well. The reason I do this because I absolutely detest cellophane. I hate it. The customers, the retail stores,are100% right in demanding cellophane because cigars get destroyed in storage. Cigars have to marry each other inside the box. The process never stops. When cigars are sitting next to each other, they keep evolving. There’s a homogeneous effect on the cigars to the extent that the wood that we use for the Eiroa 20boxes is also selected wood because the wood gives the cigars that effect. We’re able to protect the cigar so that they ventilate as well as absorb the smell from the wood, the moisture from the wood. We’re able to barcode the cigars as well.
We definitely appreciate the barcodes.
The whole idea came up after a fight with our new IPCPR President, Ken Newman. Ken Newman is this kid out of Chicago. He’s one of my better friends. He’s a prick when it comes to barcodes. We ended up getting into an argument because he won’t bring cigars in unless they have cellophane. I said, “Listen you piece of shit, I’m going to make the cigar. You’re going to bring in every new cigar I make now because I’m making this change just for you.” I did. He’s committed to everything we do that’s new. I do thank him for that. We changed. The new CLE launches will have the tissue wrap, or they all have the individual tissue wrap. I like it a lot better. It protects the cigars. It look a lot sharper in the store. Everything about it, I like much better.
I liked that you said that you’ve evolved from your customers. Almost all businesses have to be imperfect before they’re perfect. You saying, you mirror my own ideas on how that works. You come up with something that you think people are going to like, and then you evolve as your client tells you what they want.
There’s something called necessarily failures. You have to have them. You have to understand exactly what your company’s about. You have to understand your boundaries. Mistakes for us, the first time we make them, we actually enjoy them. They’re funny as hell because I see them as stories for us to tell in the future. You make the same mistake twice, you might as well start getting pissed off. I agree with you 100%. Personally, in developing a business and developing a company, if I don’t struggle through it, I would not appreciate any bit of it.
I liked what you talked about trying to make this a throwback cigar and going for traditional flavor notes. What stood out to me is that it’s in that same vein with traditional cigars. You start talking about Padron. You start talking about Fuentes and Opus X. Cigars like that, the aromas on this, not just the retro hale, but this cigar smells like a cigar that is in another league. At the price point where you guys put this, this is a sub $13stick here in Birmingham. This is a fantastic smoke.
You do know that Harris only pays at $0.15for the cigars.
He makes 438% profit.
If you saw what we invoiced him for those cigars, it’s $0.18 a cigar. Everything else is just profit.
It’s funny that you call that a medium-bodied cigar. I feel like that is a full-flavored cigar for me.
It’s definitely full-flavored.
You’re right. I believe it is full-flavored. In the last ones, we talked about body. We try to equate that with strength. It’s medium strength, but probably full in body with flavor.
Medium-bodied. Full flavor.
What else you got? I know that you have not rested on your laurels since that cigar has been released. I know that you’ve got some other stuff in the hopper. Give our audience some ideas on what new is coming. Are you being affected by the legislation? Are you going to start to slow things down?
The two last products that we launched are two products of Nicaragua, which is the first time that I do a CLE product Nicaragua. There’s one called the Chele, which is a Connecticut box-pressed cigar. That one has a lot of body to it. It’s a misleading Connecticut. It has a lot of body to it. Chele is a term for what we call a blond person in our countries of Central America. Then we have the Prieto, which is US Connecticut broadleaf, another box-pressed cigar from Nicaragua under the CLE name. That one too has a lot of body to it, a lot of kick.
Another one that you have put out recently is the Azabache. This has been a good year for you guys.
This year is the year we’ve been focusing a lot on the CLE brand. It’s maturity, it’s developing, and understanding what the market is. We sold Camacho in 2008. I was with them until probably 2011. For a year and a half or two years, the market changed completely. Also, Nicaragua became in. The customer’s flavor profile changed dramatically. Everything changed. For me, I’m a traditionalist. I learned from men like Sal Fontana, Frank Enessa, and Lew Rothman, these guys back in the ‘70s and‘80s. It took me a few months to catch up to today’s industry. You can present traditional cigars to people, but there has to be a catch that makes it relevant to these people.
Sadly and it’s heartbreaking, the FDA is and will take away innovation from us as we understand the law today. Now you have all these attorneys and scholars now try to understand what the law says. They’re reading the language in many different ways. We will eventually get to the point where we understand the language and know exactly what they want to do with us. It’s just no one wants to be the first person to file the first application. Innovation, as we understand, has been eliminated completely. You’ll see a lot of manufacturers issuing out products that they had in the past, and that will be exciting.
I was smoking a Montesino with my dad.
I haven’t had that brand in a hundred years.
It’s still being made. It’s still a great cigar but it needs a complete overhaul when it comes to branding. That’s one of those cigars where I could see coming back if someone breathes a little life into it.
There’s probably four or five things that I could think of that I was hoping would never come back. As someone who’s a cigar nerd, I learned from these people and a lot of these men were my mentors. I would love some of these cigars to come back and have another day in the sun.
That’s pretty likely to happen.
The FDA is brutal. We’re trying to understand exactly what it means. What it means to us is we have to go through the approval process. It’s going to cost us a lot of money to go through it. We will identify the brands we want to keep and the ones that we’re not going to keep. We’re definitely going to fight as much as we can and see if we can get an entire portfolio approved, but we’re ready for whatever it is. At the end of the day, even if cigar stores close down, cigar smokers will still consume 250 million cigars in the United States and customers are still going to demand better quality products.
We’ve been discussing what some of the cigar companies would do and I want to hear your take on this. There are regional brands that have been around in the United States for quite some time, certainly prior to 2007. Would a business model include trying to grab some of those regional brands because they would be exempt from the approval process?
Yes. That thought does come to mind. A lot of these brands are going to get picked up. The question is how far back in the process is the government going to allow you? Let’s assume there’s a brand called Cucaracha. If I buy that brand and I make it in my own factory, does it mean it’s a brand-new product? If there’s a change of ownership in that corporation, does that mean it’s a change of product? How is the FDA defining it? As optimistic as we want to be as people and as entrepreneurs, we have to understand that the FDA does not want us. The default answer is no always. How do we take that risk? Imagine going out and buying a brand like Cucaracha and paying $500,000 for it. You’re trying to get that cigar and try to continue doing business with it, but the government says, “No, sorry. Change of ownership, new cigar.”
You talked about innovation. The trade show’s coming up. With this looming over everyone’s head, what do you think that’s going to do the innovation for cigars that we’re expecting to come out and be released at the show this year?
At the IPCPR, as of the last count, Charlie Manado told me that he had almost 397 new SKUs that he had rated already. It’s 400 cigars. In my estimation, there will be a total of 2,000 SKUs at the trade show.75% of those are people trying to get under the fence. Which brands are going to stick? A lot of the burns are going to be on retail stores. How many did they decide bring in and what spot are they on? It’s going to be more of a show about rejection than actually bringing in new product for you. Unless Carlos Fuente is coming out with Opus Quadruple X or something like that. I don’t see how you guys can bring in. It has to be a real powerful brand name.
Outside of CLE, Harris is going to have to say no several times to a lot of people. That’s our company.
We’re not doing anything new though.
You’re missing out the best part. The first trade show, I couldn’t talk to anybody because I had a covenant. I spoke to somebody at the IPCPR and he set a booth aside for me. When I finally run into him, it was all by code. He says, “Call up and say it’s code XYZ and they’ll give you the booth.” When I see the layout, I’m in the corner. I remember at the Orlando trade show, that Chinese restaurant, the Great Wall was there that looked like a Chinese restaurant, I was down the hall from them. I was like, “Son of a bitch.” It turns out it was the best spot in the world. I was right next to the men’s room. There was a girl that works with us, Norma, she’s awesome. People were crossing their legs and she’s grabbing. “No, we got to talk.” They go, “Please, I’ll be right back. I promise.” We grabbed every single customer we saw because we’re next to the can. That’s what we did this year. Our booth is not that big and the IPCPR works on a point system, so we picked places that look crappy next to the men’s room. That’s the trick.
There’s the trade secret.
When you talk about spots in your store, I never realized that until we started talking more about your floor space. We’ve talked about having Ezra Zion or MBombay or some of the ones that we see on social media a lot. Who do you kick out for that floor space?
All of our four stores are maxed out on space. The only way we can bring in something new is to eliminate something. You have to look at each brand as its own little business. Evaluate. Are they producing further amount of shelf space? If they’re not, get it out. Get something else new in.
7/11 does it. Every eleven months, they rotate their entire inventory.
You’ll look at your shelf space and say, “You’re a dog. You got to go?”
Yeah. We’re doing that right now. We make tons of samplers. We’re 30 to 40% off just to get things out the door. We’ll cut 100 to 150 facings at least to make space for new things.
It’s a pleasure to talk to you, guys.