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
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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.