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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.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

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?

Robaina: Yes, they have it. A few days ago I was asking about this because I am considering, for the next harvest, the idea of planting a bit of Criollo tradicional.

CA: Isn't the yield of Criollo tradicionalcomparatively lower to the new varieties?

Robaina: Yes, it did produce lower yields. But the quality was higher. That is why I disagree in using seeds that have high yield rates. This goes along with what I have told you before: a lot and good do not walk together. That seed that the scientist mentioned, the one that would yield 20, 30 or so leaves? I disagree with him because the important question is this: what will happen with all that tobacco when it gets cured? Around 25 years ago I planted one kind of seed throughout the entire plantation. I remember that we collected what was called el vizcaíno. I planted with a set price, whether it was a good or bad harvest. The yield was very high. But that wrapper was a disaster. The entire wrapper harvest was lost at the curing stage.

CA: Isn't the Criollo tradicional smaller in size?

Robaina: Yes. Its leaves are moderate in size.

CA: Would you say the focus for cigar tobacco should be in the taste and in the quality?

Robaina: The perfect thing is to combine the taste, quality and growth of the plant. But a bigger plant will have problems with the wrappers and it won't work out. That is my opinion.

CA: What's your opinion on climatically controlled curing barns?

Robaina: It's like the traditional curing process but with special focus on temperature control, making it perfect. The wonder of this is that, for example, the tobacco that was cured this year still has its natural oils. With the system we were using before, we had the disadvantage that the tobacco would lose its natural oils.

CA: Why does the temperature need to be controlled? Is it due to the humidity levels or higher temperature?

Robaina: Both. This curing is done in a way that is very similar to what nature does for a plant…the temperature, the humidity are what they should be.

Hiroshi: The purpose is to guarantee the perfect temperature and humidity and that cannot be achieved in the natural environment. In the natural environment [traditional curing barns], there are changes in temperature and humidity all the time. The controlled curing barns ensure that both the temperature and humidity are perfect. Should these conditions exist in the natural environment, the tobacco could be cured in 22 days. [Editor's note: it usually takes twice that amount of time].

CA: Are there other changes that you and your grandfather have incorporated at the plantation recently?

Hiroshi: Yes, there have been changes, like we now have drip irrigation for part of the plantation, our own seedbeds are done in trays, and [we have] the new shade-growing tents. These are just a few of the new things we are doing. The rest is traditional and done the way my family has done it forever.

CA: Have you have learned a lot from your grandfather?

Hiroshi: The truth is that it has been easier for me than for my grandfather. He acquired his experience from his father and grandfather and from his own work throughout his life. For me, I feel it has been a lot easier because he has passed on to me the essence of all those years of experience. I have not had to experience the hardship he went through in his life.

CA: Do you know of any other young people in Vuelta Abajo that have had the same experience?

Hiroshi: I would say that family traditions have been lost throughout the years, not just in Cuba but all around the world. We have visited Italy and have seen that the young people leave the countryside to go to the cities to go to school, and when they finish studying they do not want to return to the countryside. There is little or no continuation of tradition. I believe there are still a few families that are keeping the traditions alive. But only a few are left.

CA: Yes. But it is so important that you keep the family tradition going.

Hiroshi: Yes, I think it is a fundamental issue.

Robaina: Tell James about your involvement with a group that specializes in agricultural studies.

Hiroshi: Yes, here in the farm it's just us two, me and my dad. Some people question the fact that my name is mentioned in the region when it should be my dad who should hold that place. These people think that we have jumped a generation, but the thing is, we're here do our work together so that everything is done correctly. It's not just tobacco.

CA: Doesn't your uncle Frank work here, too?

Hiroshi: Yes, and my cousin, too. He handles his own tobacco crop. We have other cousins and uncles who also grow tobacco. We have a lot of family in the vicinity that grows tobacco.

CA: Aren't there close friends that are considered family, too?

Hiroshi: Yes, friends that are like family and that grow tobacco. We exchange opinions, ideas and experiences with them.

CA: About 10 years ago, weren't there fewer families working on tobacco farms in Cuba?

Robaina: Yes, true.

CA: But now the government says that government-owned farms are not as good as family-operated farms. Am I right?

Robaina: Yes, you're right, and this is something everybody tried to make Fidel understand. We knew our way was the right way from the beginning. I told Fidel I did not like cooperatives or state farms and that the best way to grow tobacco was through family production. He wanted me to join a cooperative and I told him no. I would not do it and that I would remain working with my family. At the end he has understood to the point that a lot of the land is now in the hands of small farmers. Many of them do not have the experience, but some have turned out to be very good.

CA: People always talk about the wrapper growers, but don't the tobacco del sol [sun-grown tobacco] producers work well, too?

Robaina: They are very important, but you have to remember that sun-grown tobacco does not require the same care as wrapper. However, there is no doubt that they should be good producers because, as you know, 70 to 80 percent of the quality of cigars rests with sun-grown tobacco.

CA: Is it easier nowadays for you to get the petrol, fertilizers and supplies in general that you need for tobacco growing? Does the system work better now?

Hiroshi: We have not lacked petrol.

Robaina: I cannot speak for everybody else, but I can say that we have had a steady supply of petrol and we have not lacked resources in general.

Hiroshi: We haven't had any problems with supplies this year.

Robaina: There has even been an improvement with the fertilizers.

CA: How about the products used against blue mold?

Robaina: We have also had access to very good products to prevent the appearance of the blue mold.

CA: Some people outside Cuba say that there are not that many people left in Cuba that truly know about tobacco and how to grow it. They argue that Cuba is finished as a premium tobacco producer. Would you agree?

Robaina: I believe this is not true. We have lately seen some new producers. Many of them were producers in the old days; they left the fields for some reason or other but have now returned to the countryside. They are terrific producers. There is also the issue of the quality of the soil [in which the tobacco] is planted. I have to mention that here in Cuba there is a tendency to plant in first-class quality lands. There is little or no planting in lands that are second-grade quality and so on.

CA: But what would happen if Cuba needed to grow more tobacco for cigars if something happened like the U.S. market opened?

Robaina: There is three times more first-class quality land available than is being used today. It's amazing the amount of this quality land that is not being planted.

CA: Is it just in this area and San Juan y Martínez?

Robaina: In both areas. Although, I think San Luís has much more of this unused land than San Juan has.

CA: You are 87 years old, right? What is your opinion about the future of Cuban tobacco and the Cuban countryside?

Robaina: I believe that there is a new tobacco attitude being born, both in the fields and in the factories. In my opinion, the rollers have improved, and in the fields you can see the same kind of improvements. A lot of young people are in universities getting their degrees in agricultural engineering. This is very important. We have to resort to science. I can mention that we have an instrument that tells us when the plant has matured. This equipment was bought in Japan and is very effective. With the change of seed, everything else changes, too. So the maturity we were used to in Criollo tradicional is very different from the maturity in this new seed. This instrument that we bought in Japan ensures that we know when the tobacco has reached its maturity. Hiroshi can tell you more about this.

Hiroshi: It measures the maturity of the leaf, the nutrients the leaf has. This allows you to know the best time to harvest the leaf. In the past, the tobacco grower would see that the leaf turned a bit yellow and he would think it was time to start the collection, but in reality, it had only reached maturity from the tip to the middle, and from there to the end of the leaf you could see that it still needed more time to fully mature. This instrument allows you to measure with precision if the leaf is fully mature…. This instrument is really great. It tells you if the soil is lacking in nutrients so that you can provide the nourishment. Should it say that the leaf is partly green, you should not pick it, because if you do then, when it's taken to the curing barn, it will dry in different colors because part of it is green and the other part is mature.

CA: Alejandro, there will be a day when you won't be here. Are you worried about the future of your plantation and all your work?

Robaina: I have made sure I have passed on my experience to my family so nothing strange will happen. Everything will remain the same. So I can leave any minute. I am happy.

CA: Let's hope that day never comes.

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