I love smoking cigars while having conversations at a cigar lounge. That describes my time with Michael Rosales of Roma Craft Tobac Cigars. On a normal weekday, at an unremarkable building in North Austin, Texas, I found him at the world headquarters for his cigar brand. He invited me into an amazing space that was as perfectly appointed as the outside was nondescript. We lit up a Wunder/Lust cigar and started talking. I want to thank Michael for being a great host and for being so open.
How did you create the name Roma Craft Tobac?
It is the first two letters of my last name Rosales and my partner’s last name Martin. We have a very traditional way of making cigars which emphasizes craftsmanship. We wanted a product that could stand on its own.
How do you decide what blends make it to market?
There are a lot of cigar manufacturers who come up with the branding and then build the cigar around it. We start with the cigar first. If we like the cigar and keep going back to it over and over again then we make it. Originally, we made enough for us to smoke and we would share the rest.
How did you come up with the names for your cigars?
In the early days of 2010 when we started making the CroMagnon, my partner had a man cave, so the name came from that. It is a stout cigar and I knew there was a market for this cigar. Aquitaine is the region of France where they found the first Cro-Magnon skull. Both of the CroMagnon and Aquitaine share the same names across the board because they are the same cigar. The CroMagnon has Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper and the CroMagnon Aquitaine has an Ecuadorian Habano Ligero wrapper and then underneath you have the six to seven sizes. We decided we would make the box using a really tight font from Indiana Jones.
The Intemperance line came because we wanted to come up with a cigar that spoke to the changes we were facing in taxes and the way you can get cigars. Back in the twenties there was a church movement to ban alcohol. There was a Tree of Intemperance in the middle of town, if you abstained then your tree was fruitful, but if you did not abstain then your tree’s fruit would be bad. The Intemperance Cigar, Ecuadorian Connecticut, would represent the 18th amendment starting the ban and the 21st amendment repealing the ban. This is our way to remind people that we have been down this road before with alcohol and it did not work and it won’t work this time.
The Neanderthal came a few years later. It is a full body, strong cigar that we thought would predate the CroMagnon man. It has a thicker tobacco from San Andres river valley.
We are not a company that comes out with a product year after year. We do about 1.2 million cigars a year. We are limited by space and getting good material. If you don’t have really good material then it limits you. We won’t use lesser tobacco.
What does “Weasel” mean?
Bloggers were banned from our cigar trade shows. There were a lot of people starting blogs and telling companies “If you send me a box of cigars, I will review them.” It was this kind of trick or treat mentality. There were some small bloggers and some really good bloggers and they were not allowed in to these events. This was blocking a new medium of advertising for us. The problem was these bloggers wanted a free cigar while they interviewed you. The professional bloggers and the up and comers were butting heads. When the professionals would see an up and comer they would say “Here comes the weasels” meaning moochers.
There were some retailers who also blogged, so they let them back into the trade shows. Skip and I decided to have fun with it. We made stickers which said on the back “That cigar sure looks tasty.” We did this because the bloggers were not allowed to ask for a cigar. Everyone put them on the back of their badge and would flash them at cigar manufacturers. It just stuck and we ran with the weasel theme. Here at our headquarters in Austin we made the Weasel Den. People from across the world have come to the Weasel Den and shared a cigar and their stories with us.
What keeps you going in the face of all this FDA regulations?
One is the challenge. When you are faced with adversity, you can decide to throw in the towel and just move on. The reality is we have created a large following who expect more from us and want more. To just walk away from what we cultivated because some people don’t like smoking is not productive.
It is a hard industry to walk away from. Every shop has the same cast of characters across the states. You meet such phenomenal people in the cigar world. There is an amazing opportunity to meet, socialize and network with some fantastic people. The cigar community, as a whole, is the only place where you really break down the barriers for economic status. It does not matter if you are smoking a $50.00 Davidoff or an $8.00 Roma Craft; as soon as you walk into the humidor it is bound to open up a conversation…” What are you smoking?”
What is something you would like to change in this industry?
I would like to change the taxation on tobacco. An example is in California you may have 67% tax on tobacco so a $10.00 cigar has to be sold at $16.00. I am okay with taxation but I wish there was a limit which made sense. When states are running low on money, they always decide to raise taxes on tobacco. This causes owners to close their doors. We need a universal standardization of the taxation on cigars.
What do you like /dislike in the industry?
The changes under the new FDA Regulation is stopping creativity, it is cost prohibitive to bring a cigar designed after 2007 to the states. So, we are starting to see a lot of resurrected blends from the 1900s. It is new to smokers now and it is a way of being creative but it is nothing new.
Does it worry you since your brand was created after 2007?
Yes, it does. That is why we created the Wunder/Lust for Europe. We wanted to test the waters. I was not sure we would do well, since our products are on the fuller side. Then the American demand calling over to get them here in the states overwhelmed the retailers. They decided when they got the next round of cigars, they would hold them back for their customers. Roma Craft has exceeded my expectations there.
We are planning to do what is called substantial equivalence which allows you to potentially tie your products with other like products if you don’t have a predicate date cigar. It is very complicated but we are moving forward to paying the money and taking the path we need to continue making our cigars.
Who was the biggest influencer in your life?
My Godfather, Richard Cunningham, who had no children. My parents were not going to baptize me but he convinced them to have it done. I had 3 brothers, I was the second to oldest, for some reason he always made sure that I had school clothes and I was ready. He went out of his way to make sure I was secure and stayed on course to finish college. He was into classical music, symphonies and opera so he exposed me to a lot of culture. When I moved here in May of 2001, I had not talked with him in about seven days. I was so busy moving. I decided I needed to call and speak with him one night. That night I got a phone call that he had passed away. The connection we had was supper rare and right now I hope he is looking down at me and is proud of what I have done. I know I have done everything I can to make him proud.
Tell me something about you that most people don’t know?
I am a father of two. The first cigar I made was named after my son Adrian. I am a certified dive master. Working in that industry is what brought me to Costa Rica where I got introduced to cigars. I got into cigars when the housing market crashed, I thought I could just get into some shops to make ends meet for now.
Tell me something about Skip?
He is a big hip hop historian. He worked on Nuclear Subs. He likes to talk politics. If you want to talk politics with him make sure you know what you are talking about and that you are not just regurgitating what you heard on CNN. He is able to recite the Constitution. He is very smart. He can tell you if a tobacco is approachable and will sell here. Since he has spent some time in Estelli Nicaragua, he has learned more about the leaf and knows what leaf to blend with another to create a great cigar.
Our time talking concluded with the last puffs of this wonderful cigar. Michael, gracious host that he is, had greeted several people during our interview, invited a cigar broker from out of state to join us and light up a cigar, and ran his company as easily as he talked to me about it. I could go on and on about these guys and their company; but I want to encourage you to try their cigars if you have not yet done so. I chose Roma Craft as my first interview because of my love for their cigars and the way they have always treated me with a great respect and kindness. I’m certain you will find that the Roma Craft cigar “sure looks tasty” because it sure is.
By Tara Lee Maloney