How the ardor of one of Cuba’s leading tobacco geneticists and his team of scientists protected the island’s esteemed leaf crops
In the back patio of Eumelio Espino Marrero's humble home, Triunfo struts around, showing off the proud result of nearly 20 years of his owner's hobby: creating a "bonsai chicken." The little rooster is a perfect miniaturized version of a big chicken. "This is the smallest adult chicken you will ever see," Espino says proudly, emphasizing that it has become a stable breed, producing small eggs that reproduce the same small-sized adults.
But what else would one of the world's leading experts on tobacco genetics do in his free time? Espino's four-decade career has been spent refining and stabilizing the leaf that goes into some of the most cherished products in the cigar universe. And, as with the bonsai chicken, his improvements have always been faithful (albeit full-sized) replications of the original. The point was never to embellish the tobacco, but to preserve and protect its prized qualities against the ravages of blight and disease.
If you are fortunate enough to be smoking one of the fabled cigars of Cuba, it is through the efforts of this man—and a coterie of talented researchers who came before him—that its signature flavors have been shepherded down through generations. From 1970 to 1999, Espino was a scientist in charge of the official program to improve tobacco varieties in Cuba, and then from 2000 to his retirement in 2012, he was the director of development at the Tobacco Research Institute.
He lives in retirement in San Antonio de los Baños, the small town about an hour southwest of Havana where the institute is located. His small house fronts a dirt street filled with deep potholes. The living room is filled with pictures and small mementos of a life spent studying and working with tobacco.
"Thanks to the research here," says Espino, a smallish man with white hair, "we have been able to reduce chemical applications in tobacco farming all over the world." What may sound like a sweeping statement seems modest when put in the context of the enormity of the task with which they were once faced.
In 1979, the Cuban tobacco universe was turned on its head. A disease known as blue mold had reappeared on the island, threatening the harvest of 1978-79. An outbreak had struck in 1957, but it disappeared in 1958. The reason behind the remission was unclear at the time, but, according to Espino, it was probably due to climatic changes, not human efforts to eradicate it. This time, however, it refused to go away. While the '78-'79 harvest was largely over when the fungus struck, Espino describes the '79-'80 harvest as a catastrophe: "More than 95 percent of the Habanos [his term for Cuban cigars] crop was lost." That's nearly 150,000 acres.
A temporary solution existed in Ridomil, a fungicide that controls blue mold. The harvest of 1980-81 was saved. Without it, Espino adds, the Cuban tobacco industry might not have survived. But they recognized the chemical would not be a panacea. It had to be used judiciously because of concern that the mold would become resistant, a problem that quickly arose in other tobacco-growing countries. By closely regulating Ridomil use, Espino says, the Cubans were able to keep growing the same tobacco seeds. But a better solution was needed.
The scientist says the goal was not just to solve the problem of blue mold, but also produce plants that were resistant to other prevalent tobacco blights and diseases such as black shank (fungal), broomrape (parasitic) and something Espino calls "necrosis ambiental," an atmospheric toxicity that damages plants. With precautions in place, Cuban tobacco crops survived without major damage until 1994 when the first Ridomil-resistant fungus showed up in Cuba. By then, two disease-resistant hybrids were ready for production.
"It took 14 years of very patient, painstaking work," says Espino. The tobacco institute started with 17 different tobacco varieties, ending up with 2,500 plants from each variety. That meant a total of 42,500 plants needed to be analyzed one by one. From those were selected just over 200 "lines" to be planted and replanted and then compared with original Criollo and Corojo tobacco plants. This kind of testing is possible with tobacco because seeds from one plant remain identical to the original plant, assuming care is taken to avoid any cross-pollination.
"I can tell you that we did this work using only the traditional methods of pollination and selection," says Espino. "We did not use any type of genetic manipulation or transgenesis." He describes a four-point goal: resistance to blue mold, resistance to black shank, resistance to necrosis ambiental and preservation of all organoleptic characteristics (taste and aroma especially) of Cuban black tobacco.
Only eight made it through to the final round. "Those eight tobaccos were taken before a tasting commission," says Espino, adding that it felt like a tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. "Only two tobaccos survived that final taste test—Havana '92, and Havana 2000."
The Havana '92, according to Espino, had been developed to replace the original Criollo tobacco, which was used primarily for filler and binder. The Havana 2000 was designed to take the place of Corojo, which was the only tobacco used for wrapper leaf on Cuban cigars from 1948 to 1994.
Asked if the new hybrid tobaccos were different in their taste and aroma qualities from the tobacco they were designed to replace, Espino laughs: "Absolutely not...they would not have survived the tribunal if they hadn't preserved the essential characteristics of Cuban black tobacco."
While there were detractors, the result was apparently seamless. Espino recalls an incident from 2000. He was having cigars with a man who started to complain that what they were smoking was totally different than the cigars he liked in 1998—a problem he blamed on the new hybrid tobaccos. "What he didn't know is that the cigars he was smoking and the cigars from 1998 already had the two main hybrid tobaccos in them." By the 1995 harvest, nearly all the tobacco farms in Pinar del Río had started using the new seeds.
"We had a test field the year before with the new hybrids side by side with old Corojo and Criollo, and the old plants all succumbed to blue mold, and the new ones were strong and green," he says. "It didn't take much to convince the farmers."
Understanding the origin of Cuban tobacco is essential to comprehending the difficulty in developing new varieties before they were commercially viable for use in the fields.
"At the turn of the century, following the Spanish-American War, we had lost nearly all of our original tobacco seeds in Cuba," Espino says. Heinrich Hasselbring, a researcher from the University of Illinois managed to isolate a variety in 1907 that Espino identifies as Habanensis. It was called "tabaco criollo" by local farmers, as it was considered to be the original pure Cuban tobacco, as opposed to the crossbred, diluted tobaccos introduced during the war years.
It took another 20 years before a famous Cuban agronomist, Juan Tomás Roig, isolated and reproduced that precious seed variety. By 1937, his redevelopment of the true black Cuban tobacco known as Criollo, was planted in all the prime farms in Pinar del Río and the Vuelta Abajo region. It made up 100 percent of Cuban cigars—filler, binder and wrapper—according to Espino. In 1948, tobacco producer Daniel Rodríguez followed with the original Corojo wrapper. With the help of a Dutch botanist, Corojo was made as a cross-pollination of Criollo and Sumatra-seed tobacco. The latter tobacco gave the hybrid an elasticity perfectly suited for growth under shade cloth, according to Espino.
After a 54-year period of absolute dominance by Criollo and Corojo ended in 1994, the search for more hybrids continued, says Espino, leading within a few years to Criollo '98 and Corojo '99. The former he defines as a good seed, but with some susceptibility to black shank disease. He judges Corojo '99 as another good variety. Nevertheless, its lingering deficiencies led to more research and what would be the last hybrid that the scientist would be directly involved with: Criollo 2010. Espino characterizes it as an effort to create a wrapper leaf with resistance to all three of the major tobacco afflictions while maintaining all the correct taste and aroma characteristics. "I can't tell you which seeds were used to create the Criollo 2010," he notes. "It is still a new commercial seed, and the government keeps the seeds that created a hybrid a closely guarded secret."
For a different reason he offers little information about the Corojo 2012, a sister line to the Corojo 2006, which Hirochi Robaina told Cigar Aficionado about this past February. "That hybrid was created at the research station in San Juan y Martínez, and I had nothing to do with it."
Espino, the 2004 Habanos Man of the Year for Production, has deep knowledge of all phases of tobacco cultivation. Since graduation in the 1960s from the University of Habana, he has spent his life in the study of tobacco. At the Habanos Festival in 2014, he gave a presentation on the 539 necessary steps—from seed to packaging—in the creation of a Cuban cigar.
Espino sees widespread use for his research in tobacco genetics. He says with pride that his work is one way of eliminating hosts for blue mold, which might eventually eradicate the disease altogether.
"Developing new tobaccos, with better and better techniques is good for the entire tobacco industry," says Espino, his eyes squinting around the sharp features of his face. He has hopes that even while retired his passion for tobacco will keep him active in the business, whether it is in Cuba, or somewhere else.
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