A visit to the NEOS factory. For the smokers of premium handmade cigars, NEOS might be a new name. But for the smokers of dry-cured short fillers, it is not. It is a famous brand with a long history. The brand is more than a century old and since 1975 part of the J. Cortes/Vandermarliere Cigar Family. But the old factory remains, at the original location and is still producing over 250 million cigars a year.
Around the turn of the 19th century, it wasn’t an odd choice to become a cigar manufacturer in Belgium or the southern parts of The Netherlands. And that’s what Cyriel Vandenberghe did. He is the founder of Tabakfabriek n°253 (tobacco factory # 253) in Handzame, a small town in West Flanders, Belgium. The factory is still there and still functioning. And since a few years, there’s a cigar museum as well with Cyriel Vandenberghe at the virtual host. Unfortunately, Ministry of Cigars could not visit the museum due to covid-19, but we did visit the factory.
The company few rapidly until the First World War. After the war, Vandenberghe had to reinvent NEOS and he did. The Vandenberghe family was in charge of the factory until 1975. Then another Belgium cigar manufacturer, and family business, Vandermarliere acquired the brand and the factory. Even though Vandermarliere had a factory about an hour away, they did not close the factory in Handzame. As a family business, they recognize the importance of history and of being loyal to the employees. Employees at NEOS that worked there for decades, and sometimes even generations. And the Vandermarliere family upholds this until today. There is one dedicated truck driving between the two locations daily, but both locations remain in function.
From 1975, the NEOS brand and the factory were part of the Vandermarliere concern. Back then the J. Cortes brand wasn’t part of the family. By becoming part of the family a few things changed. But the heart of the company stays the same.
Nowadays raw tobacco comes in, frozen, from all over the world and remains frozen until ready for use. The tobacco is frozen to kill the larvae of the tobacco beetle. The raw tobacco is then shredded into small pieces and goes through several filters to ensure nothing but tobacco is left. That is done by shaking and by blowing air through the pieces of tobacco. Then the blending begins. Different kinds of tobacco are mixed in a huge mixer until the desired blend is achieved. This is done by skilled blenders who constantly monitor and test the blending.
Once the tobacco is ready, bunches are made with a binder. The beautiful part is the wrapping of the cigars. Huge rolls of cloth with perfectly cut pieces of wrapper are installed in the wrapping machine. Each bunch then gets the wrapper applied. Those bobines, as the name of those rolls are, come from Sri Lanka. J. Cortes has a factory in Sri Lanka that makes those bobines. Huge containers come to the factory, full to the brim with those bobines. These come in frozen as well, to null the risk of beetles. And once used, the cloths go back to Sri Lanka. There they are cleaned and ready to use again.
Some of the cigars made in this factory are aromatic. That can be done in two ways. Either by using very aromatic tobaccos in the blend to create an aromatic cigar. Or by injecting additives. That is done by a machine with hollow needles. The needles have holes all over so that the additives are spread evenly all over the cigars.
The machines are old, mechanical machines. And they are rare. So J. Cortes has its crew of mechanics that can repair any machine. But because of the rarity, the Vandermarliere family buys whatever old cigar-rolling machinery they can get their hands on. Either for when the production grows, or when spare parts are needed. Since these machines are no longer made, and lesser factories are producing cigars, it is Vandermarliere’s way to ensure continuity.
The factory itself is the old city hall of Handzame. One of the production rooms has a beautiful, original, tile floor in black and white. That used to be the ballroom where many people from high society from that era danced. And according to some staff, people still dance now and then.
The most famous brands that roll of the factory line in the NEOS factory in Handzame are Neos and Amigo. But J. Cortes also produces private labels and a select few other brands at the factory. Except for the private labels, all packaging is done at the facility in Zwevegem but that’s a subject for another article next month.
Once the covid-19 pandemic is over schedule a visit to the tobacco museum and book a tour through the factory. There is a lot of knowledge to be found, and it is great to see history so well maintained and respected. Even if dry-cured short fillers aren’t your preferred choice of cigars, a visit to the museum and factory is well worth your time. We surely did enjoy our visit and did pick up a thing or two about cigars. But be aware, use your GPS as the location is hard to find. We drove past the place twice. Even when we parked right in front of the building we did not see it. It is on the main road, with just a small facade. But once the doors open, you can see how big the factory is. Reservations can be made via an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on +32 51 56 61 08.
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