PHOTO: LES DRENT, FOUNDER & GROWER, KAUAI CIGAR COMPANY
By MARCUS DANIEL
Les Drent is the founder and grower of three companies: LBD Coffee, LLC, Coffee Times, Blair Estate Coffee, which is estate- grown, top of the line, organic coffee, and last but not least, Kauai Cigar Company. Les started growing tobacco in 2004, he had a love and passion for cigars since he was a kid, his grandfather smoked them regularly and would enjoy them at the ball games. Les can remember how terrific they smelled and eventually puffed on a few.
It all started while in his friend Ron Oda’s garden, a Japanese man who had an incredible botanical assortment of different plant species in his garden. As Les was looking at the various unique plants he said: “What’s that one?”. Upon learning that it was a tobacco plant, he thought to himself, “Why can’t I grow this here in Hawaii?”. Les received his first Sumatran tobacco seeds from Ron’s garden and began growing on a couple acres he had leased on a plot of land in the eastern region of the island in Kapaa, Kauai. He soon discovered some Sumatran seed that was growing wild on the island and began experimenting with it… he realized everything grew so well, and continued to search for even better seed.
Les continued experimenting and improving his growing techniques, which in turn improved as he obtained better seed; namely Cuban (Habano) seed. “This is really a hobby”, says Les. He wanted “to not only see if I could do it, but see what else I could do”. He also mentioned “the more tobacco we can keep here and fool around with… it peaks our curiosity”. “When I first started, I didn’t’ really see it going anywhere, I thought I’d just sell to a few gift shops around here. I had no idea the cigars would be so well received by the locals, tourists and connoisseurs. It’s nice to do something different than what everyone else is doing here, which is primarily growing coffee”. Surprisingly, the numbers coming in from the cigars were bigger in three years time than he had seen in the past thirteen years in the coffee business.
(Author’s Note: One thing is for certain, these cigars are very different- they are unique… I can’t quite put a finger on it, but I like them. They offer me something different, unusually different than your everyday standby.)
Les began reading a lot of old agricultural documents from the 1930’s that he found in the University of Hawaii Library system, many tutorials on how to grow and ferment tobacco. He also pulled some old reports from the early 1900’s from Connecticut. One 1907 report on agriculture had even documented in great detail the different varieties of tobacco. The bottom line of Les’ research is that he soon came to the realization that Hawaii can grow tobacco that is as good as that which is grown in Cuba. He studied things like how to build a tobacco barn and received a lot of mentoring from industry figures in particular John Oliva, Jr. of Oliva Tobacco Company, in Tampa. Les’ partner Victor Calvo with Tabacalera Tambor has also been very helpful, in many areas including for instance how to use float trays for seeds. As you can see, he acquired a lot of information from history and present day tobacco men.
When speaking with Les, he pointed out that he files 84 different reports per year for federal, state, and local governments, plus the new SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program), which sent the federal tax from a nickel to almost 41 cents per cigar. Whoa! Oh, and don’t forget, Hawaii has a whoppin’ 50% state tobacco tax on top of it all. He went on to say that labor in Hawaii is $15.00, actually closer to $18.50 per hour after paying worker’s compensation, TDI (temporary disability insurance), and things such as the unemployment tax.
Ah… when Les first realized he needed additional licensing to make cigars in Hawaii, he decided to strictly become a grower. That is when he teamed up with Victor at Tabacalera Tambor in Nicaragua. He would send tobacco down, and they would make the cigars there. Then there came the Federal Manufacturer’s Permit, the Federal Import Permit; this gave him the ability to work on the Grand Alii, which means “Royalty” in Hawaiian. He has been fermenting the tobacco on the island and is two weeks away from launching this new blend, which is 100% Kauai grown; binder, filler, and wrapper that will be completely made by hand in Hawaii, making it a true Hawaiian puro.
The growing process in Kauai is done organically, but once the tobacco is sent to Nicaragua, it loses its organic status due to fumigation. The Grand Alii will be 100% certified organic, because the tobacco will not leave the island during the manufacturing process. Yes, this is the certification process through the USDA’s national organic program. Many moons ago, Les stated he was “working towards being able to do everything here… the Grand Alii will be a very limited production and the vast majority of production will still be made in Estelí….”
Soon Les will be opening a 3,000 square foot retail coffee roaster and cigar parlor with four cigar rolling benches, where they will be rolling cigars. It will be the only one of its kind on the island. When vacationers disembark the cruise ships, they’ll be able to enjoy a fine cigar and premium cup of Hawaiian coffee.
Despite incredible challenges, Les pushes on and defies adversity in these difficult economic times. When most people say they “can’t make it!” or “it’s impossible!” Les has turned a dream into reality.