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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

It sounds like a freakish, high-tech affair, but hybridization dates back to the nineteenth century. The father of this process is an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel, who cross-pollinated pea plants in the 1850s and 1860s and published a paper on the results in 1866. Today he's known as the godfather of genetics.

Not every farmer makes hybrids. "It's a very lengthy process," says Perez. "That's why people don't do it. It's not cost-effective." Christian Eiroa, of Tabacos Ranchos Jamastran S.A. in Honduras, makers of Camacho, doesn't use cross-pollination, but does select plants that have the characteristics he and his father, Julio, prize. "We do not create our own hybrids, but we do develop the seed to the characteristics that we like," he says. "In essence, we allow the seed to evolve by herself. Once in a while we come up with a freak of nature. The most recent is named Tabacon. This is a 14-foot-plus plant that came from a Habana 2000 crop." The Eiroas may try to get the giant listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Others don't wish to discuss the process at all. "I don't want to get into what type of seed we use," says Jorge Padrón, president of Padrón Cigars Inc., which grows Cuban-seed tobacco in Nicaragua. "It's proprietary."

Crossing plants is just the start of a process of creating a hybrid -- from start to finish, the commitment is typically more than seven years. If you were making, say, a hybrid of Cuban seed and Connecticut seed, you would pollinate the plants, then take some 20 seeds from the mother plant, planting them in the ground. Of those 20, approximately half would look like the mother and the rest would look like the father; a common split would be 12 and 8. You'd select the one type you prefer, let those plants self-pollinate with the others with the same characteristics, and repeat the process, each time weeding out plants that don't look right. At the end of seven to ten growing seasons (which is typically seven to ten years), the plant's characteristics will be fixed, so that seeds from the plant will grow tobacco plants that are identical, more or less. (Wary of someone undermining his company's hard work by stealing a flower from the fields, Perez only grows male, sterile plants, which can't be used to replicate his work.)

David Perez, president of ASP.

Kelner and ASP created the P151 hybrid -- the tobacco used on the Davidoff Millennium -- for taste, but farmers often turn to hybrids as a defensive measure against disease. The most famous example is in Cuba. Until recently, the premier tobacco grown in Cuba for wrapping cigars was the famous El Corojo, which was developed in the 1930s at the El Corojo plantation outside San Juan y Martinez. Beautiful to behold and full of flavor, the wrapper was deemed too susceptible to diseases such as black shank and blue mold in the mid-1990s. Around 1997, Cuba planted its last Corojo crop, and Corojo was replaced by Habana 2000, then by Criollo 98 and then by Corojo 99, each a hybrid of Corojo. The Corojo had been crossed with other tobaccos, the intent of which was to give it resistance to disease.

Today, these hybrids and others, such as Habana 92, cover a host of cigars, from Cuba's myriad brands to an assortment of non-Cubans. The C.A.O. Criollo is named for its wrapper hybrid, as are a variety of Altadis S.A. brands, such as the Henry Clay Habana2000, which is wrapped in the most popular Cuban hybrid, Habana 2000.

In a January 2000 editorial, Cigar Aficionado European Editor James Suckling revealed the history behind the Habana 2000 tobacco, a cross between El Corojo and a mild Cuban cigarette tobacco called Bell 61-10. Like many hybrids, Habana 2000 was crossed more than once. The first hybrid, created in the 1980s, was called Habana 2.1.1. This was crossed a second time with Corojo -- so that the Corojo would dominate, rather than the cigarette tobacco -- creating Habana 2000. Cuba has cultivated the seed since 1992.

Like most seeds, Habana 2000 quickly found its way outside of Cuba and into the fields of Central America and elsewhere. (It was originally and incorrectly reported that the non-Cuban Habana 2000 was a cross between Connecticut shade and Cuban tobacco.) Nestor Plasencia, a Cuban émigré who grows tobacco and makes cigars in Honduras and Nicaragua, planted the first crop of Habana 2000 in Nicaragua in 1996.

"I was surprised at how it looked, and I was surprised at its resistance to blue mold," Plasencia said in a 1999 interview in Cigar Insider, a sister publication of Cigar Aficionado. For Plasencia, the seed was a godsend. He went from losing entire crops to blue mold to losing 1 percent. "I would lose $10 million worth of tobacco in the barns to blue mold. I would have a very good crop in the afternoon, drive to Danlí [Honduras], and very early in the morning I'd go back to the farm and there was nothing."

Like the Cubans before him, Plasencia initially had trouble working the wrapper. The thick leaf needed more fermentation than traditional Cuban-seed tobacco, and early Habana 2000 cigars suffered from rough burns. As growers learned more about the hybrid, they learned how to better handle it in the barns and warehouses, improving its performance. Today, the Nicaraguan version of Habana 2000 can be found on the aforementioned Henry Clay as well as Santa Damiana. A Mexican variety is the pièce de résistance on the new Montecristo Platinum.

Although they share the same genetic code, Habana 2000 grown in Nicaragua tastes different from that grown in Mexico, just as Corojo seed grown in the Vuelta Abajo in Cuba tastes different from that grown in Honduras or Nicaragua -- or in another region of Cuba.

Having tobacco of the highest pedigree is only one part of the equation. People have been growing Cuban-seed tobacco in Central America and elsewhere for decades, and while they have often achieved splendid results, nothing tastes precisely like tobacco from Cuba except for tobacco from Cuba. The chromosomes do one thing, but then soil and microclimate take over, followed by the expertise it takes to treat the tobacco properly. So in many ways, cigar tobacco is just like children. You can have the greatest of genes, but to raise them both properly takes a suitable environment and other favorable factors.

Photos by David Savona and Gary John Norman

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