Today we talk with Mr. Patrick Lagreid, one of the primary writers for halfwheel.com and the Phoenix Cigar Examiner. If you’ve spent any time around a cigar shop in Arizona, chances are you know who Patrick is. In addition to his writing for halfwheel and the Phoenix Cigar Examiner, Patrick also does PA announcing for the Colorado Rockies spring training at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, particularly in local spring training games. While many of the people I’ve done interviews with have keen insight into their particular area of specialty, I can think of no one who has a scope of knowledge across all areas of the cigar industry as vast as Patrick Lagreid’s. The man truly encompasses what it means to be a enthusiast. Spend five minutes talking with Patrick and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. His passion for cigars and all things pertaining to them is infectious.
First and foremost, how are you? Enjoying the weather we’ve been having here in Phoenix?
I’m good – it’s an exciting time of year for me, as I just returned from a people-to-people trip to Cuba and am currently getting ready for Spring Training, as I also work in pro baseball in addition to my work in cigar media.
How did you first start getting into cigars, and at what point did it go from being a casual thing to do into something you took seriously? What drives your interest in being apart of this industry, rather than just a casual smoker?
I can’t say that I recall how I first got into cigars, though I can tell you that when I was interning at a radio station in Seattle during college, one of my jobs was to fetch cigars for the DJs before we went to the clubs on weekends, so maybe that had something to do with it. Sometime around 2003 or 2004, after I’d graduated college and moved back to Seattle, I remember driving around one night and thinking that having a cigar would be a good idea, so I stopped into a steak house and cigar bar called El Gaucho and picked up a couple of their house sticks. It just kind of took off from there.
My interest in cigars progressively became more serious, as I find that I’m a person that likes to dive into the deep end of a topic when I find myself interested in it. I attended a lot of cigar events, asked a lot of questions, read a lot, and tried to understand what the cigar world was all about. Certainly when I got into writing about cigars it became more serious as I was now being seen as a source of information and opinion, and that certainly carries a level of responsibility that I take very seriously.
I enjoy being able to communicate information, tell a story, and translate things for people to give them a better understanding of a topic. I’d venture to say that a fair number of cigar smokers will never visit a tobacco farm, let alone really understand all that goes into the process of taking a tobacco seed and turning it into a consumable product. There really are some 200 sets of hands that touch your cigar before you light it up, from the field worker who planted that seed or transplanted it from the nursery to the field, to the people who picked the leaves, strung them up in the barn for curing, turned the pilones as the leaves fermeneted, moved bales into storage, pulled the tobacco prior to the cigar being rolled, bunched and rolled your cigar, put the band on it, put it in the box and packed it up – it really is an incredible process that happens pretty much entirely by hand. My hope is that I can give the cigar smoker a bit of an understanding about the people and process that made the cigar they are about to light up a reality.
What makes a cigar go from good to great in your mind? Is a cigar merely the sum of its constituent parts, or do you think truly great cigars posses some sort of intangible quality that sets them apart?
The great cigars are the ones that deliver balance, complexity, flavor progression and fantastic aroma, as well as the requisite good draw and combustion, and do so without being overpowering yet keep you fully engaged from start to finish. You don’t want a certain component of the cigar to overwhelm the experience, but rather all the parts must perform together in harmony, much the same way a fantastic symphony orchestra performs. There is real truth in the notion that with great cigars, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; each component must not only show its own best qualities but must be able to show the best qualities of the other leaves.
Do you think great cigars reflect some part of the person who created the blend? Does an artistic work retain the essence of its creator?
In some ways, yes. Cigars show off the creativity and ability of a blender to take the resources available to him or her and turn them into something good or great. Each blender has his own preferences, influences and constraints, and in some cases it’s hard to see them, but the great cigars unquestionably bear the mark of their creators.
What do you think is the most important stage in a tobacco leafs life? At what point does it gain the qualities that will define its flavor?
I’m nowhere near enough of an expert to answer that question, but I don’t think you can point to a single point as being more important than another. There are so many distinct yet interconnected phases of a tobacco plant’s life that you really can’t afford to have any part treated with less care than another.
Who do you consider to be some of the great blenders of all time? Both past and present.
We all know the big names, and they have certainly earned their place and acclaim. However, I’m inclined to think there are a lot of people who create and refine blends behind the scenes and without the attention that their colleagues might get – those are the people that interest me. It’s one thing to be a blender, it’s another to be someone who wants to be the face of a company and take on all that comes with that role.
Who do you think is doing the most interesting work with tobacco currently, and why?
I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Nestor Plasencia, Jr. and the work he’s doing with hybrids and so many different types of tobacco in a number of different countries. I also have respect for anyone trying new things – even if their experiments don’t result in products that come to market. Whether it’s fire cured tobacco, tobacco from non-traditional countries, new growing or fermentation techniques, I appreciate those who are looking for ways to innovate their craft and the industry.
That all said though – I would be remiss to not acknowledge the work of those who work on keeping their products consistent. The industry has become so occupied with developing new products that we often overlook the work of all the companies who have developed solid, consistent core lines of cigars – Arturo Fuente and Padrón are two that jump to mind.
Climate, soil, and various other conditions are constantly evolving. What do you consider to be the most interesting changes in tobacco over the years?
The gradual introduction of technology into a process that spans hundreds of years has been very interesting. The Calfrisa system that Plasencia uses to control temperature, humidity and air movement is one such example, and I think there are agronomists who are probably looking at the fields to make sure the plants get as good of a start as possible.
What trends on the business and cultural side of cigars have you observed? Which do you consider to positive trends, and which do you consider to be having a negative impact?
Certainly the industry has to be incredibly concerned about what the FDA might do should they decide to regulate the industry, and I just don’t see the concern at the consumer level yet. Unfortunately, I have a feeling it will be a rude awakening to many people who will see some drastic changes and wonder where it all came from.
I continue to see more and more new companies pop up, yet humidors aren’t expanding to accommodate them and the consumption rate by consumers hasn’t seemed to expand either. As I explain to people, five new companies could come out with one new cigar each, but that doesn’t mean that I have five times the amount of time to smoke cigars or five times the budget to buy all their cigars. Likewise, most retailers won’t suddenly have five new spots on their shelves to put those boxes, five new customers to buy those cigars, or an noticeable increase in revenue to buy all those cigars. I’m a bit wary as to how many new companies the industry can support without significant growth among the cigar smoking population.
There is also more and more legislation going into effect that is raising the age to purchase and consume tobacco, limiting where you can enjoy a cigar, and some more things in the works that would limit online sales and more. It’s hard to keep on top of it all, but it’s important to heed the calls to action when organizations like Cigar Rights of America issue them or when your local retailer says it’s time to contact your legislators.
On the positive side, I see consumers being open and willing to try new products and expand their palates, as well as learn about the background of the cigars they are smoking. The online media world has certainly brought more information to consumers and made them more informed, while also helping to shine attention on more cigars that might be otherwise overlooked. The camaraderie in cigar lounges and shops seems as good as ever, and people still seem to value the cigar shop as a place to gather, relax, visit with friends and feel comfortable.
What is your opinion on the increasing trend of internet bloggers getting information and samples of new products prior to retailers?
I think it shows the significant change in the flow of information that the cigar industry has had to adapt to in recent years, as well as how companies are utilizing new resources and go outside the traditional methods to create buzz and demand for their products.
On the information side, once Facebook and Twitter became realities of daily life, cigar manufacturers were posting photos of new projects without telling retailers or their reps in many cases. Then you’d have a consumer go into a store and ask about it, or a retailer would call their rep and ask about it, and neither had any idea what that project was because they hadn’t been told, but there it was online for pretty much anyone to see. It might just be a photo of some test blend that never shows up at retail – yet it was used to keep people engaged with the company and keep their name in circulation and in people’s minds. The old flow of information has been greatly disrupted both by the technology and the people using it, and that’s upsetting to a lot of people who believe that information should flow in a certain way.
On the cigar media side, and speaking only in relation to halfwheel, our job is to find stories and report on them, whether it be new products, personnel moves, legislative news or whatever else might be of interest to our readership, which is comprised of consumers, retailers and manufacturers. In addition, we provide honest, critical and unbiased reviews of cigars as well as the occasional interview or photo essay.
There is a wealth of information and chatter happening all over the world right this minute as to what is to come, whether it be a new store exclusive cigar or a new hybrid seed being developed. Being part of the media, our job is to go out and find those stories and report on them, not necessarily to wait for a prescribed flow of information to get to us. There are cigar company owners and reps doing events all over the country almost every day of the year, and when they mention something, whether it be formally or in passing, odds are good that it will soon end up on someone’s Twitter feed, Facebook page, Instagram account, or on an online message board such as the halfwheel forums, BOTL.org, or any of the others that are out there. We keep our eyes open and ears up 24 hours a day for that information because there is a desire for people to know about it and we want to be the go-to source for all cigar related news. We believe that if you check halfwheel two or three times a day, you will have a very good and up to date idea of what is happening in the cigar world – and that goes for consumers, retailers or manufacturers.
As for cigar media getting samples of products before retailers, that is a decision made at the cigar company level on an individual basis. If a company feels like getting some media exposure and feedback will help them make their case to a retailer that they should add it to their humidor, that’s their choice, and one that I can understand and respect because it is harder than ever for a new company to get into stores given the sheer number of brands available. It’s also effectively free advertising – short of the cost of the cigars and postage of course – that a company can in turn post on their social media accounts and in their marketing materials in an attempt to gain buzz for their products. Depending how you look at it, one box of cigars split up among five or ten media outlets could be seen as having the potential to generate more impact than one box split up among five or ten retailers.
Ultimately, it is a shake up to the way things have been done for a long time, when you only had one or two cigar related publications, you had established companies with sales forces and you didn’t have the same volume or nature of releases that you do today. The cigar industry is simply in a different place and under a somewhat new set of rules and guidelines than it was previously.
Who brands or individuals do you think are the biggest up-and-comers?
As for new brands, Ezra Zion certainly had a fantastic year and earned themselves a lot of critical acclaim. Likewise, 1502 Cigars had a good 2013 for a relatively new brand. I’m interested to see the response that Jose Seijas’ new brand, La Matilde will get in 2014, as well as how brands that have established themselves will continue to develop in 2014, notably E.P. Carrillo and Crowned Heads. I think RoMa Craft Tobac will continue to grow and deliver interesting creations, especially as their factory gets completed and gives them more space to work and grow.
Stay tuned for the second half of our in-depth interview with Patrick! Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us Patrick!