When an opportunity came up to sit down with Mark Ryan during a visit to our offices, we jumped at the chance. After all, he's a key figure in pipe tobacco in the US, and possibly the world. Still, I wasn't sure what to expect. Every first-hand account had the man as being intelligent and genial, yet he's such a controversial figure that one can't help but to be a little uncertain as to who exactly it is you'll be meeting.
Fact is, he's a bit of both: a polite, unassuming businessman, with a quick, warm humour and a passion for his craft that still burns brightly after 23 years in the tobacco industry.
Purchase and Transition
Those of us who have been pipe smokers for a while now have all heard the horror stories. Perique was almost a vestige of the past, something that could be emulated but would probably never be seen again in its pure form.
Tobacco has always been a somewhat technology-resistant industry and Perique more so than most, a subject Mark related to me at some length, and when Mark first purchased the L.A. Poche facility, most upgrades were just to get things back in order.
"When I bought the Perique factory, the old barns and factory buildings, two little buildings, were a mess. The roof leaked, there was insulation dropping off. They had eighty working presses and they maybe used half of those. I did all these renovations, put in a new roof, rebuilt the floor, and brought it back up to one hundred and twenty two just from restoring them. With my new receiving station I added three hundred, so we went from eighty to four hundred and twenty two presses, and we use every one of them."
An Investment in Infrastructure and the Community
Of course, the facility wasn't the only thing to be upgraded, and Mark knew that in order for Perique to survive and flourish, a significant investment would need to be made in his farmers.
"When I first got there, some farmers were growing in window boxes, like my grandma used to have. Cinder blocks around it, with old windows, from an old house. You'd prop it up with an empty beer can and you'd pull one plant out at a time. When you're growing three thousand plants you can do this. When you're going to be growing fifty thousand or a hundred thousand like the way I'm building this, you can't do this that many times. So I bought two greenhouses for two of my biggest farmers, and they fought me on it. We were growing so fast that they had not capitalised enough to buy the greenhouses. So I said "Look, in order to get this thing going, I'm going to buy the greenhouses and give them to you."
Katrina and the Security of the Supply Chain
Even ten years after and catastrophic impact of Hurricane Katrina on human life, its effect is still felt in the agricultural industries of the area today. But Mark insists that while he's drawn lessons from the disaster, so little was grown at the time (not long after his acquisition) that the disaster held few ramifications for the leaf.
"The interesting thing with Katrina is I had two barrels going to Germany, and my farmer actually brought to Port two of my vintage barrels by mistake. 'Oh, you sent the wrong ones, go get those and put some of the recent barrels.' Well, he went to get them, and then we had Katrina, and that whole section of the port went out to sea. If he hadn't made that mistake we would have lost two precious barrels."
In many ways though, Mark's work since 2005 has still been a rebuilding effort, though in response to a gradual decay of the facilities and supply chain. A lot of these efforts centre around building trust with local farmers, and ensuring best trade practices are employed so that new farmers will grow what has been seen for some time in the area as an unprofitable crop.
"You've got to have a legal, sustainable business model. We bring in raw leaf from my farmers, and I pay them when they bring it in, which wasn't always standard practice. I assume the liability that it's not going to rot in the barrel. There's so many things that can effect that stuff, not just damage in the field. So for that reason, I've got better farmers that now are approaching me, 'We'd like to sell to you.'"
What Makes It St James Perique?
Sidetracking for a moment, I was curious as to what makes Perique the way it is. The seed type is utilised in other areas, and some producers in Brazil have attempted to emulate the process, but consensus says that, either Arcadian blend or pure Perique, it's just not the same unless produced in St James.
"It's a special magnolia soil. It's the climate obviously. It is the seed type, but it's also the processing. Not every tobacco will take to the Perique process. Mr Roussel was the one that industrialised Perique in 1905. He was the first one to put it in oak whiskey barrels. Before that, they had wooden boxes and they processed it in a similar way to what the Native Americans did in trunks, tree trunks."
So what about appellation, much the same as the Champagne region of France?
"I would like to do that, like you do with Vidalia onions. To me, unless a barrel has authentic Perique tobacco in it, grown in St James Parish and processed in St James Parish it's unethical to call it Perique."
Both during the interview and during the event at our Low Country store, I spoke with Mark about Perique, Daughters & Ryan, and tobacco in general and was left with the impression of a passionate man lucky enough to make a living from doing what he loves. And while anyone in the position he finds himself in, as the owner of the last traditional Perique processing facility in Louisiana, is bound to be a subject of much scrutiny, it's clear that our favourite condiment has found in him a fervent protector.
"Perique is preserved in perpetuity now. I'm not an owner, I'm a custodian or steward. I'm protecting and preserving the tradition and history of the region. That's my purpose."