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Hot Hybrids

Growers play the mating game to concoct new tobacco strains.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

At first glance, the tobacco plants occupying a small plot of land on the Casjuca farm in Ecuador bear a faint resemblance to Death Row inmates about to meet their maker. Each plant's flower is cloaked in a hood, as if waiting for the executioner. It's not a pretty sight. Unlike the neat rows of nearly identical plants that grow in the main fields at Casjuca, the largest tobacco farm in this South American country, each row in the smaller area looks completely unlike its neighbor. Some plants are unruly giants, standing more than 10 feet tall, while others are small and plump. Some have narrow, sharply tipped leaves, while another looks as through it has sprouted dinosaur tongues; the wide, fat and hideously thick leaves (some are three feet long) sag under their own weight. No normal tobacco plant looks like this.

This is the experimental plot of ASP Enterprises Inc., a veritable Dr. Moreau's laboratory of tobacco oddities. All the tobaccos here are experimental hybrids, created by taking the genes of one tobacco plant and joining them with another. Most will never make their way into a cigar for any number of reasons, but some hybrids will be used commercially.

The hybrids being developed at Casjuca are a far cry from the two varieties traditionally grown in Ecuador, a land festooned with active volcanoes and covered by a blanket of thick clouds that provide all the shade a tobacco plant could ever need. Variety No. 1, Connecticut seed, is a close copy of true Connecticut shade, which grows outside of Hartford. It's golden brown and has a neutral taste that cigarmakers love for blending. Variety No. 2 is Sumatra seed. It's very dark, as oily as a well-worn baseball mitt and brimming with leathery richness.

ASP's quest to create tobaccos with different tastes led it to establish the experimental hybrid patch in 1992. The company's efforts have borne fruit, with one hybrid eventually going on to wrap the renowned Davidoff Millennium, a cigar that's darker than Connecticut shade but lighter than Sumatra, with a flavor unlike either of those tobaccos.

Nearly every tobacco seed grown today is some type of hybrid, a blend of one seed's characteristics with another's. According to Davidoff cigarmaker Hendrik (Henke) Kelner, two species of tobacco plants -- N. Tomento Sifumis and M. Sylvesris, each with 12 pairs of chromosomes -- combined long ago to create a natural hybrid called the Nicotiana Tabacum, with 24 pairs of chromosomes. The cigar tobacco used today comes from the Nicotiana Tabacum family.

Kelner, one of the industry's most knowledgeable cigarmakers, says that a variety of wild Peruvian tobacco has only 12 pairs of chromosomes, leading him and others to believe that cigar tobacco originated on the South American plateau. The others are hybrids.

"All a hybrid is, is playing the birds and the bees," says David Perez, president of ASP, one of the premier creators of tobacco hybrids in the world. "It's cross-pollination."

Left by their lonesome, tobacco plants will self-pollinate. A tobacco plant's first instinct is to reproduce, and it has an abundance of firepower to achieve that goal. As a tobacco plant grows, it sprouts leaves throughout the stalk, and at the top it grows a flower. A bee will take the pollen from a male plant and transport it to a female plant, which is packed with seeds. The seeds are tiny: one ounce contains 300,000 to 400,000 seeds, according to Cuban Counterpoint, by Fernando Ortiz, and one tobacco plant can make as many as one million seeds.

Cross-pollinating is when a farmer like Perez takes the bee -- and chance -- out of the equation. At his farm in Ecuador, he has eight women who specialize in pollinating the experimental plants. The women, their faces nearly covered by wide-brimmed, floppy hats, move from plant to plant, reaching as high as they can and bending the stems of the plants down, so that the flower is at eye level. With a practiced hand, they uncover the flower, swab the stamen of a male, then touch the pistil of the female, fertilizing it. The hundreds of thousands of seeds from that female will have genetic characteristics from both plants, and might become the next big thing in the tobacco world.

Bags around the flowers are meant to keep bees from doing what nature intended. When making a hybrid, the grower has to ensure that only the plants he wishes to combine actually mate.

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