Cuba's Cigar Legend, Alejandro Robaina
The dean of Cuban tobacco men and his grandson, Hiroshi, discuss the state of cigars in their homeland in a wide-ranging interview.
Alejandro Robaina, 87, is a legend in Cuba, and the dean of its cigar industry. He has dedicated his life to growing the best wrapper tobacco in Cuba, if not the world. His family has been growing tobacco at the same plantation in Pinar del Río since 1845. In the last three years, his grandson, Hiroshi Robaina, 30, has taken over the day-to-day management of the farm. Hiroshi's father, Carlos, 50, also is involved in the farm's operations.
I met with Alejandro and Hiroshi in early March while the 2006 tobacco harvest was coming to a close. A representative from the Cuban tobacco institute was visiting the Robainas. The official explained that the institute had developed a new wrapper tobacco that would produce more than 20 leaves per plant. Alejandro was not impressed.
We sat in his guesthouse later and spoke about his observations and his grandson's thoughts about the Cuban tobacco industry. Later, we drank some beers and watched the World Baseball Classic together. The interview was conducted in Spanish.
Cigar Aficionado: How many hectares of tobacco have you planted this year? Alejandro Robaina: 16 hectares [almost 40 acres].
CA: Do you always plant the same amount? Has it changed much since the mid-1800s when the farm started?
Robaina: Yes, always the same amount. Well, now that you mention it, it could be that after the revolution I increased the plantings a little bit.
CA: What yield for wrappers do you usually achieve?
Robaina: In the curing barns, I have had years when it's reached 82, 72, 70 and 68 percent. There was a very bad year a while ago when I had a 36 percent yield. That was one of the worst years I have had.
CA: Was it due to excessive humidity in the barns?
Robaina: Yes, that was the problem. It was a total disaster, but compared to the other best grower in the region, who had a 16 percent yield, I did quite well! The rest of the growers in the region only achieved 3 or 4 percent yield and some only achieved 1 percent!
CA: In your opinion, why were the other growers' yields so low?
Robaina: It could have been that they had problems with their fields. I remember that we had this big meeting with Carlos Perez, who was then the minister of agriculture, in San Juan y Martínez. I remember him saying that the state farms only achieved 0.8 percent yields and some individual farms made 4 percent. My outcome, with 36 percent, was one of the best. I had to resort to all of my father's and grandfather's experience to save the situation.
CA: Is one of the reasons that you achieved that level of yield because you work as a family?
Robaina: Yes. We are a close family and we work together. But the other reason is the love that I have for the land and the care I put into it. If I didn't prepare the land with the high concentration of organic fertilizers as I do, it would have been impossible to accomplish the results I had in such a bad year.
CA: What about the influence of new tobacco varieties, such as Habanos 2000?
Robaina: I was the first to plant Habanos 2000 here in Cuba and the results were very good, but nowadays, Habanos 2000 has lost quality to the point that I am not planting it anymore. It's prone to blue mold and black shank. Plus, there are now other seeds that have much better quality.
CA: Do you mean that you like such new varieties as Criollo 98 and Corojo 99 better?
Robaina: Yes, I like them much better. These plants are much more resistant to blue mold.
CA: Yes, but what about the flavor?
Robaina: Well, the flavor I feel is much better also. These have higher quality than Habanos 2000. In my opinion the Habanos 2000 is excessively fragile. These new seeds have higher quality. I have had better results with Corojo 98 and Criollo 99. This year I planted both.
Hiroshi Robaina: You mean Criollo 98 and Corojo 99, grandfather.
Robaina: Yes, that's what I mean, but I am always mixing them up and saying their names the wrong way!
CA: Why don't you plant the old variety, the traditional Corojo?
Robaina: I wish I could get my hands on those seeds!
CA: The flavor was wonderful.
Robaina: Yes, no doubt, and the traditional Criollo was the best filler tobacco around.
Hiroshi: I wish we could use it.
Robaina: Perhaps this year we could try.
Hiroshi: It would be great to plant traditional Corojo in the new tapado (cloth tents for shade-growing wrapper)!
CA: Wasn't there a blue mold problem with Corojo?
Hiroshi: Remember that now we have a new tapado system that doesn't let anything through! We planted 10,000 organic seedlings under this new tapado this year, and we had no problem.
Robaina: This tapado is new in Cuba but also worldwide. This system is totally new to everybody. It's a major step forward in the sense that there was no need to apply insecticides at all…our harvest was wonderful…the only problem was that the roof was dark-colored and we have to replace it.
CA: Doesn't the traditional Corojo leaf have more oil?
Robaina: Yes, traditional Corojo was the very best tobacco we had here in Cuba, and the old Criollo was the best of the sun-grown tobacco. I know Criollo seeds are still around. The government's Experimental Center has some left.
CA: Does the government have "Corojo tradicional" seeds as well?