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Quarter 3, 2008

On the Avenue of Kings

Story by Cindy-Lou Dale, photos by Jonathan Dale

Philipe Vandergruggen, owner of Brussels’ Le Roi du Cigare owner speaks on cigars, history, as well as the state of the industry.

It was a tradition: at the end of each day my Mom and I used to enjoy a good Merlot and a Rum & Maple pipe on the veranda, whilst taking in the giant vistas of the restful, deep green vastness which was our farm in Southern Africa. I shared this memory with Monsieur Philippe Vanderbruggen, a second-generation tobacconist in Belgium, a rain swept country better known for its chocolate and beer. His store, Le Roi du Cigare, housed in an ancient building in Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is near the monument for the Unknown Soldier and a few hundred meters from the Royal Palace. “My little shop witnesses King Albert of Belgium passing by regularly on his way to the royal office,” he proudly announced and then proceeded to wreath us both in fragrant blue smoke.

“Europe was first introduced to the concept of smoking after Columbus had discovered America in 1492. He was the first European to come into contact with tobacco leaves after the Indians offered him some,” stated Vanderbruggen. “In Europe, tobacco was initially regarded exclusively as a medicine that could cure all manner of ills. Towards the end of the 18th century, tobacco cultivation and cigar smoking suddenly came into vogue.” He paused as he shot a cloud of cigar smoke across the table.

“Here, in Belgium, I’ve found the most popular pipe tobacco brands to be Larsen and Ashton, but pipe smokers are radically decreasing in number which, in part, is the responsibility of the large tobacco companies who regularly cancel popular blends. In Belgium and Germany, you can still find a few reasonably good brands at some newsagents, but mostly, this small niche market seeks out specialist tobacconists like mine. So my sales are increasing, but this is because other shops like mine are struggling to survive, and closing down.”

Philippe Vanderbruggen, Belgian Tobaconist
The EU capital’s tax authorities have priced a pack of 20 cigarettes at€4.40. The policy makers have also barred smoking in offices, most bars, restaurants and other public spaces; in fact the only people you ever see out of doors in Belgium are winos and banished smokers standing around having a puff. The outdoors, you see, has become a kind of purgatory, a place to which you are evicted. And if that’s not enough, smokers are now forced to carry around mini anti-smoking billboards depicting cancerous growths, toothless gums, blackened lungs, and open heart surgery, all cheerily announcing that “Smoking can lead to a slow and painful death.” No wonder Belgian smokers are becoming surly.

Mr. Vanderbruggen Senior opened the doors to Le Roi du Cigare in 1980. “My father bought this shop because it was in a good location (the American Embassy is nearby, so too are the EU offices) but more importantly because he loves cigars. I worked in the shop during my school holidays, and then continued in the trade until 2003, when my father retired, and I took over the running of the shop and became the new King of Cigars.”

Smoking cigars should be enjoyable—a cigar is something that demands respect. It is to be enjoyed fully by all the senses, the nose, the palate, the finger, the eyes—it’s an exquisite experience.

Nearly 3,400 tonnes of tobacco was sold in Belgium during the first six months of 2008 (down by 8.5% in comparison with 2007). The Belgian government identified several factors that triggered the fall in sales—their legislation banning smoking in restaurants and public places, and the price hike in 2007. Belgian cigarette sellers claim they are also competing against cheap prices from Eastern European producers who routinely smuggle their goods into Belgium.

Since 1986, Le Roi du Cigare does not sell cigarettes, choosing instead to specialize in cigars and pipes. “Every year there is a modification in the law: one year you cannot smoke in your office, another year you cannot smoke in a cafe or bar, now you cannot smoke in a company car,” Vanderbruggen gesticulates wildly. “The result is that it’s becoming difficult to smoke—anywhere.” He considered this statement for a moment then continued. “No more do you find a big box of cigars being bought for Christmas or Father’s Day. It’s politically incorrect, you see.”

Luc Devert, a long-standing client of Le Roi du Cigare savors the wares.
I enquired after the clients Le Roi du Cigare attracts—and their preferences. “Cigars allude to an affluent, indulgent lifestyle; pipes to an older, learned person, perhaps eccentric. This is untrue, of course, as I have a number of young pipe smokers and people from all backgrounds who enjoy a good cigar like Nicarao and Oliva from Nicaragua; Villa Zamorano and Flor de Selva from Honduras; and a local favorite being Neos under the J. Cortès label—the Gallic blue packaging of this brand even attracts female customers.”

We spoke a while about EU regulations. “My business suffered greatly when the EU smoking ban was put in place. Initially it was my mid-range cigars clients that fell away—my bread and butter—but now many of those clients have moved to better cigars, like handmade Cuban or Dominican cigars. There’s a trend, in particular among young smokers, to constantly search for new tastes. I’ve found a tendency towards aromatic cigars.

“It gladdens my heart to say that my little country is one the biggest names in cigars—we even make most of the Dutch cigars!”

Vanderbruggen voiced his opinion about the future of tobacco. “The problem, I think, is that there are far fewer options available as the large tobacco companies are buying out the little guys. This means there is less competition and fewer products, and smokers are left to deal with staff that know little or nothing about what they are selling. This is why I endeavor to develop business ties with small companies—companies who provide knowledgeable and personal service. This is where the future lies for shops like Le Roi du Cigare.”

Further to the lobbying efforts of J. Cortès, Belgian cigar manufacturers’ packaging remains (anti-smoking) pictorial free. They endeavor to make this initiative European-wide. J Cortès cigars, headquartered in northwest Belgium, was established and family run since 1926. 2007 saw their export figures topping 6.5 bn pieces. “We produce in excess of 416 mn cigars annually—in a decreasing European market,” says Jacques Carlens, International Sales & Marketing Director. Family run since day one, J. Cortès Cigars, the top cigar exporter of Belgium, is listed amongst the top-ten biggest cigar producers in the world.

“To live up to our name, the three elements—wrapper, binder, and filler—have to originate from the most discerning tropical tobacco plantations. Brasil, Java, Sumatra, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras—all offer aromatic tobacco leaves, forming the basis of our product.”

“We make good cigars, which compels our clients to savor the incomparable, exquisite pleasure of our brand,” continues Carlens. “A product made with love and devotion must be tasted with pleasure.”

From the manufacturers to the storefronts, Belgium remains a land of taste and is truly a home to the true smoker’s experience.

Tobacco Products International - Quarter 3, 2008
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