Some of the most sought-after releases on the cigar market today use Cameroon tobacco. To get an idea of just how crazy cigar lovers are about this tobacco, look no further than the popularity of Fuente. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that Cameroon tobacco is limited in supply and at one time almost vanished from the map—a fact seemingly at odds with its use in several new releases . While delicious in flavor, Cameroon has proven to be a finicky product that’s tough to replicate outside of Central Africa, where it’s grown. Read on to take a probing look into the history behind this fantastic leaf.
Cameroon tobacco was first cultivated from Sumatran seeds brought over by the Dutch in the early 20th century. Soon after, the French took over, and the cultivation of tobacco thrived in the climate. Top tobacco expert Jean Masseron was sent over in the late 1950s to establish tobacco plantations and techniques to grow and ferment the tobacco. As a result, Cameroon quickly became favored around the world, especially among American consumers.
The French maintained strict control over the exports of African tobacco through SEITA (Société d'exploitation industrielle des tabacs et des allumettes), which had an effective monopoly on sales of the highly sought-after Cameroon leaf. Purchases took place via silent auctions in SEITA’s warehouse in Paris. Buyers of the tobacco lots were given catalogs that contained samples, but they weren’t able to actually view the bales themselves – a system that led to discontent over both quality and price.
Soon, big producers who required copious quantities of tobacco dropped out of the bidding process altogether. At the same time, around 1990, Central Africa also faced dwindling crops and quality deterioration. This led to an abrupt end to SEITA’s distribution of Cameroon tobacco.
To this day, French tobacco producers dispute their culpability surrounding the decline in Cameroon tobacco. Patrice Hirschfeld (who worked for SEITA) has said that Cameroonians took a financial interest in the company in the 1970s (soon owning 85%) and ran things irresponsibly. Further, Hirschfeld claims SEITA decided to stop selling the tobacco because their growing techniques were no longer good, causing significant issues with the quality of the product.
Faced with the prospect of completely losing Cameroon tobacco when the French pulled out, crop financier Rick Meerapfel stepped in to save the industry. Millions of dollars were invested, and a new organization called CETAC (Compagnie d’Exploitation des Tab’s Centrafricains) was formed. This was a privately held company between the Meerapfel family and local Africans involved in growing and transporting tobacco. At the time of its inception, over three thousand individual farmers were cultivating tobacco.
In a region filled with corrupt government officials, warring tribes, and little to no infrastructure, Rick Meerapfel somehow built a successful business. He did this through a steadfast dedication to quality. Growers were given specially selected seeds and were regularly visited by CETAC representatives to be given advice and resources. Because of the remote nature of these farms, these visits were often made by moped, and sometimes even by foot.
Having visited Cuba, Meerapfel admitted to closely following Cuban techniques to processing the tobacco. The purchasing process was also simplified and aligned with traditional purchasing methods, with bales being open for viewing before purchasing.
Unlike most other wrapper leaves, Cameroon is grown directly in the sun. Despite being sun grown, the tobacco is thin and delicate and takes lots of care to ferment. Cameroon typically produces smaller leaves than other tobacco plants, resulting in low usage in larger ring gauge formats.
Authentic Cameroon wrappers are known for being “toothy,” which refers to the many pockets of oil on the leaf that create a rough texture and enhanced sweetness. This also adds complexity without much body, offering notes of light spices such as cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.
Due to the high demand for Cameroon wrappers, tobacco growers have made efforts to grow the varietal in other regions, with mixed success. One of the successful few has been the Eiroa family. Their Cameroon leaf is featured on the highly rated Aladino Cameroon and CLE signature THT-EKE. This effort took years to perfect and saw Justo Eiroa making adjustments to his very hands-on method for growing tobacco in order to get a leaf that better replicates the growing conditions in Africa.
While the Cameroon leaf has faced its fair share of challenges over the years, its presence on the world stage and the global cigar market is stronger than ever. Through the arduous work and dedication of a select few, the leaf has established a foothold in the humidors of the vast majority of devoted cigar consumers. With new releases utilizing authentic Cameroon and Cameroon from other regions, demand for this tobacco doesn’t appear as if it will shrink anytime soon.