A visit to Royal Agio. Growing up in The Netherlands, cigars from Royal Agio were a staple. The most famous brand in the country, with the powdered Gouden Oogst as the most recognizable cigar in the portfolio. And later, after being introduced to premium handmade cigars on a trip to Asia, I smoked a lot of the Balmoral Dominican. And with Royal Agio being acquired by Scandinavian Tobacco Group, it was ‘now or never’ to visit this 115-year-old, still family-owned business before it’s too late.
So on a Monday morning early, late September, I jumped in the car and took the 2 ½ hour ride from my vacation address near Amsterdam to drive down to Duizel, near the Belgian border. And right before I took the exit to Royal Agio, I saw the Dutch HQ of STG. The new owner is less than a mile away.
The Royal Agio Cigars building is brand new. It was completely renovated in 2015 with only a few of the old buildings remaining. They couldn’t be included in the renovation since they are protected monuments. And the new building is impressive. It has the highest classification when it comes to sustainability. The whole building is powered by solar panels on the roof, heat is regenerated and re-used using the latest technology.
Up until a few years ago, before the renovation, Royal Agio still produced cigars in Duizel. But nowadays, the building is only used as an office, packaging facility and a state of the art distribution center. And everything is climate controlled. The warehouse is fully humidified and fully automated. Picking orders are computer generated and the forklifts are computer-controlled. Just for safety and security, they are manually monitored.
Unfortunately, even cigar packaging has to be labeled with ugly warning labels. Every country has different regulations, even within the EU. The Wintermans family, the owner of Royal Agio, has a machine manufacturing company too and they created machines to automate the labeling. And to pack the individual packagings into sleeves, marketed to specific markets. Those machines are impressively versatile and can handle different sizes of packaging, different materials, different stickers and all. But that’s just for the machine-made cigars.
Besides their own Balmoral and San Pedro de Macoris premium handmade cigars, Royal Agio is the distributor for Drew Estate and La Flor Dominicana in specific markets. But the volume of premium cigars isn’t high enough to justify designing and building a machine for automated labeling. So that is done by hand. Due to regulations, it is almost impossible to automate this process. During our tour, we saw the beautiful La Flor Dominicana La Nox boxes. Those are round and need special stickers to cover 65% of the front of the box, so just for that box alone, new stickers had to be designed and printed.
After the tour in Duizel, my gracious host Dave de Rijke and I drove to Westerlo in Belgium, just across the border. That’s where Royal Agio still has a manufacturing facility. And it’s impressive. A huge factory with an impressive amount of tobacco stored. And those bales are loaded into machines that loosen the tobacco up and cut it to the right size. Then it’s blended to the recipe made by the master blenders. The cigars are rolled fully automated, from filler to wrapper. And that process is made possible because of the invention of Royal Agio. The machine factory owned by the Wintermans family invented the process and that’s one of the reasons why Royal Agio survived were other companies that made dry-cured shortfiller cigars disappeared in the era after World War II.
Some of the products are flavored cigars. Those cigars are inserted into special machines that inject flavor into the tobacco with long, thin needles. Those cigars are kept away from the non-flavored tobacco to prevent cross-contamination. After the production, the cigars are all packed, all automated again. And then prepared to be shipped to the warehouse and distribution center in Duizel. Dave and I grabbed a few freshly made Agio Gouden Oogst cigars from a machine to smoke on the way back to Duizel.
Back in Duizel, I sat down with Marcel Verhoeven from the Marketing department. We had a long talk about regulations, about the inability to market cigars straight to consumers in Europe due to legislation. But also about the history of Royal Agio and about their charity in Sri Lanka. But those are subjects for the next articles about Royal Agio Cigars. I was happy to have been able to visit this beautiful family-owned business before Scandinavian Tobacco Group takes over. And I can only hope that the new owner won’t change much. But the track record of STG isn’t in favor of Royal Agio, so I fear for the future of this beautiful company and brand.