RETURN OF THE NATIVE
|Nestor Plasencia Jr. (top, left) works with modern, disease-resistant versions of both Corojo and Criollo in Nicaragua and Honduras.
Though it made its first appearance in the States a tad later than Corojo, Criollo seed actually predates the former by many hundreds of years. By most accounts, it was one of the original Cuban tobaccos that emerged around the time of Columbus. (Original Corojo, in fact, was derived from Criollo seed by natural selection, and this ancient seed is the genetic base seed for both the Criollo 98 and Corojo 99 hybrids.) “Criollo” simply means “native seed,” so a cigar described as having “Dominican Criollo” or “Honduran Criollo” may have no connection to the original Cuban seed or the current popular hybrid, Criollo 98.
After the development of Corojo, the Cubans tended to use the Criollo leaf for filler and the Corojo for wrapper. However, as U.S. Cigar’s Palombo points out, Criollo grown under shade - rather then sun-grown, as is most filler - is capable of producing outstanding wrapper, with the proper care and conditions.
Henry “Kiki” Berger, the Cuban-born tobacco grower and cigar maker who currently oversees a vertically integrated farming and manufacturing operation in Esteli, Nicaragua, was among the first to see the Cuban seed’s potential. In 2001, Berger, then partner and cigar master for the Cupido brand, introduced the Cupido Criollo, using tobacco grown entirely on his farm in the Jalapa Valley. That cigar, designed to be spicier and fuller-bodied than the existing Cupido blend, was a bonafide hit with cigar smokers looking for an authentic Cuban-style taste.
According to Berger, the first seeds grown on his farm for that cigar were original Cuban Criollo seeds, exported from Cuba to Nicaragua during the time the Sandinista regime ruled the latter country. The Sandinistas nationalized the country’s tobacco industry and formed a cooperative called Tainsa, which conducted trade with the Cuban government. Berger seized the opportunity to work with the native seeds in Esteli’s rich, volcanic soil - characteristics it shared with some of Cuba’s choicest growing regions.
Berger recalls when the inspiration hit: “At the time, Cupido was looking for a rich-tasting cigar at a decent price,” he says. “My intention was to use the Criollo I’d developed in Esteli for filler, but after we harvested the tobacco, it yielded about 30% that was suitable for wrapper. After fermentation and aging, they were so beautiful and rich that we decided to use those leaves for wrappers. They gave the cigars a delightful, striking appearance, so we decided to use them for the full line. We did not expect such strong demand, because it was something different and we weren’t sure how cigar smokers would react to it.”
The flavor characteristics of this Criollo - described by Berger as “soft spice, with a light, creamy, cedar undertone” - are balanced by its genetic susceptibility to disease. But like the Eiroas, the veteran cigar maker considers the results worth the extra care needed to tend the crop. In fact, the Vegas de Tabacalera Esteli, a new cigar line from his Cuban Crafters company, includes what Berger feels is the “perfected” version of his Criollo crop. “We named them after our own farm,” he says with pride, “because the crop came out perfectly.”
If Cupido introduced American smokers to the taste of Criollo, C.A.O. established Criollo as a hot variety with their C.A.O. Criollo line, introduced in 2002. The company was striving for a cigar with a classic Cuban-style taste when company vice president Tim Ozgener came to Nicaragua to taste the first successful crop of Criollo 98, brought over from Cuba and tended in the Jalapa Valley. While not the pure, original seed, Criollo 98 is a hybrid that is resistant to Blue Mold, developed by Cuban scientists as a sturdier alternative to the rapidly-out-of-favor Habana 2000.
“When I saw this leaf, being touted as the ‘new rage’ in Cuba, I wanted samples immediately,” recalls Ozgener. “It was a wider leaf than Habana 2K, not as bitter, easier to ferment, and it produced a sweeter taste. I understood how it replaced Habana 2K as the dominant seed in Cuba.”
Like other seeds with true Cuban heritage, Ozgener admits, these seeds initially got to Nicaragua via smuggling, but once planted, the flowering buds of the tobacco plant can be cut to yield new seeds. The seeds from these plants could then take on characteristics unique to their new soil. Ozgener is among those who believe that Criollo and its “sister seed” Corojo have far more similarities than differences, and that it is the region more than the seed itself that determines its flavor characteristics. “In Nicaragua, there are two main growing regions,” Ozgener points out. “In Esteli, the soil is asphalt-black; in Jalapa, the soil is sandy and brown. Hence, the tobacco grown in Jalapa is typified by a sweetness that rolls around the palate. When you have any Cuban seed and grow it in that type of soil, it has a balance between earthy, nutty, and sweet flavors.”
Alec Bradley Cigar Company had such faith in the marketability of Criollo 98 wrapper they named an entire line after the hybrid strain. Criollo 98 by Alec Bradley debuted in 2001, extending the company’s wide range of wrapper types. Another cigar in the company’s portfolio, the Trilogy Ovation, includes a Corojo 99 wrapper that the company refers to as Authentic Corojo, indicating that the cigar makers have no qualms about the hybrid strain’s bonafides. Toraño Cigar Company introduced the Carlos Toraño Exodus 1959 cigar in 2001, and followed it up with the Silver Edition in 2002, utilizing a Honduran-grown Criollo wrapper. For a cigar intended as a tribute to all the great Cuban cigar making families (including the Toraños themselves) who fled the island after the revolution, the Cuban-seed wrapper seemed especially apropos - and the cigar’s warm reception from tasters seemed to justify the decision.
Today’s cigar makers will continue to debate the merits and drawbacks of their Corojo and Criollo cigars, but one fact seems certain: these ancient Cuban seeds have found a large modern-day audience, eager for more.
“New seeds are very few,” says Daniel Nuñez, “and all wrappers come from three basic types: Connecticut shade, Sumatra, and Cuban. Many of the industry’s hybrids have the cosmetics but not the real flavor. Today, I believe there is a tendency to go back into the past to look for real quality. I myself dream of the cigars of 100 years ago, and that’s what I’m working toward.” In other words, those cigar smokers who do not remember the past may still be blessed enough to experience it.