2011 Big Smoke Saturday Seminars: Today’s Hybrids—The Tobacco Used in Your Cigars

When Christian Eiroa looked into the crowd of cigar enthusiasts gathered at the Big Smoke Las Vegas and confessed “My father is a degenerate gambler,” he wasn't revealing a family secret about a weakness for the town’s gaming tables. The former Camacho Cigars president was describing his father's passion for creating the new tobacco hybrids that are improving the cigars we smoke.

Nestor Plasencia talking about hybrid tobaccos.
Nestor Plasencia is one of the largest tobacco growers in Central America.

Manuel Quesada, maker of Fonseca, and Nestor Andres Plasencia, of Plasencia Tobacco, joined the younger Eiroa on the panel of the Saturday seminar Today’s Hybrids: The Tobacco Used in Your Cigars. The focus was the wave of new hybrids in the wake of the creation of Habana 2000, a blue-mold-resistant tobacco strain that has improved yields.

Eiroa said that rewards of finding the next-greatest strain are alluring enough that his father endures years of time-intensive, painstaking and often frustrating work, betting that his efforts will pan out. However, “If you grow something that has white veins, you’ve just wasted two years of your life.”

Plasencia, who holds a degree in agricultural engineering, explained that it might take seven to eight years from the time the idea for making a specific hybrid is hatched until it is successfully planted in enough volume to create cigars from. A hybrid is a marriage of two tobacco strains in hopes of reproducing the best characteristics of each. The panelists said that the variable include such things as width, height, flavor and durability.

Christian Eiroa of Camacho Cigars.
Christian Eiroa spoke of his father's passion for creating new tobacco hybrids.

Plasencia said that Habana 2000 factored in hardy cigarette tobacco seed. “It would grow anywhere,” said Eiroa. “You could throw that stuff on the driveway and it would grow.” It was married, he said, to the disease susceptible Corojo seed. “This couldn’t have been done with traditional seeds. It needed to be a hybrid.”

While Eiroa’s family grows tobacco in the Jamastran region of Honduras and the Plasencias are the largest growers of tobacco in Central America, with operations in Honduras and Nicaragua, Quesada was the only panelist focusing on manufacturing rather than farming. Thus, he said, “I have a lot to learn from these young men,” and described how their advances had affected his job as a cigar manufacturer. “There’s never been such a wide variety of tobacco.” Choices he is faced with include different tastes, aromas and strengths of body.

Variety, however, also creates challenges for the cigarmaker, Quesada said. He told of having to create new blends to accommodate the new tobaccos. “When you put leaves together, you don’t know what will happen. It could be successful. It could be the dumbest thing you ever did in your life.”

Manuel Quesada, maker of Fonseca and Quesada cigars.
Manuel Quesada, maker of Fonseca and Quesada cigars.

Plasencia said that part of the hybrid-tobacco creator’s frustration comes from inconsistent passing of desired characteristics when seeds are melded. The unions require careful experimentation to insure success. “You have to listen to the tobacco and learn what it is saying.” He added that the hybrid plants themselves will not create seeds of the same quality, and therefore the work of hybridizing the seeds as to be redone for each time.

Eiroa said that, while now prevalent, tobacco hybridization is nothing new. For an example, the Connecticut Shade wrapper strain that has long supplied the industry with elegant mild leaf is a hybrid. Because of the high price of wrapper tobacco, much of the focus of hybridizing is that direction, he said.

The tobacco grower’s son also described the relief provided to planters by strains resistant to fungus that is borne in the wind. “Blue mold can take your crop in a couple of days and it will take two to three years to redevelop.”

As well as designing tobacco for flavor and durability, Plasencia said, he can fine-tune a strain to take advantage of the soil conditions in the region it will grow in.

Big Smoke Evenings

2011 Big Smoke Evenings, Las Vegas

Big Smoke Saturday Seminars

Top Three Legal Cigars of 2010 Tasting
An Insider's View of Cuba Today
Today's Hybrids: The Tobacco Used in Your Cigars
Size Matters
Lunch with Rocky Patel Premium Cigar Co.

Big Smoke Sunday Seminars

Breakfast with Charlie Palmer
Roll Your Own, Seminar No. 14
The Cognac Connection

Big Smoke Weekend Photo Gallery

Slideshow: 2011 Big Smoke Las Vegas Weekend