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A Tale of Two Seeds

By Mark Bernardo

Criollo and Corojo - twin legacies of Cuba’s historic cigar making heritage - are the hottest leaf varieties out there, and they’re more different, and similar, than you realize.

“Everything old is new again” may be an overused phrase, but for those who follow the evolution of fashion, or automobiles, or architecture - for anyone, in fact, who’s ever seen his favorite (or least favorite) childhood TV program remade into a big-budget movie - its accuracy can scarcely be debated. The swinging of the cultural pendulum, between fascination with the new to nostalgia for the old, is a phenomenon that touches nearly all fields of industry. Cigar making is no exception.

Take the case of the hottest “new” tobaccos in the premium cigar market, Corojo and Criollo, both of which are not really new at all, but rather new versions of very old strains from Cuba. Their popularity is testament to the allure and fascination that the cradle of cigar making still holds for cigar makers and smokers alike, no matter how much of an identity that nations like Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic have carved out for themselves and their native tobaccos.

Interestingly, however, the Cubans themselves no longer use either of these venerated seeds, at least in their original form. Several factors - most notably yield and susceptibility to leaf diseases - led the island’s agriculturists to the creation of hybrids, crossbreeding the original seeds with others to create more resilient tobacco. For the most part, these hybrids have taken over the names and roles of the originals, and most cigars sold in the U.S. that use the names “Corojo” or “Criollo” incorporate these seeds rather than the increasingly rare Cuban originals. Most, that is, but not all.

Like most matters in today’s cigar business, the authenticity of the names “Corojo” and “Criollo” is a matter of wide debate, with the truth falling somewhere in between marketing and reality.

Whereas the first U.S.-sold cigars to use the term appeared less than a decade ago, the story of Corojo actually hearkens back to the 1930s, to a farm in Cuba’s legendary Vuelta Abajo region named Santa Ines del Corojo. There a tobacco farmer named Diego Rodriguez first developed the seed, which was named for the farm (or vega) where it was born. For many years, Corojo proved to be the ideal wrapper leaf for many Cuban cigars. But, as recently as the 1990s, the strain’s notorious vulnerability to tobacco-ravaging diseases such as Blue Mold drove Cuba’s genetic engineers to create crossbred seeds that would not only be disease-resistant, but also make for a comparably great cigar wrapper.

The first of these experiments that most American cigar enthusiasts became aware of was Habana 2000, which was widely touted, and aggressively marketed by cigar manufacturers, during the height of the 1990s cigar boom. Habana 2K, as it became known, was actually a crossbreed of true Corojo and a Cuban cigarette tobacco called Bell 61-10 (At one point, it was incorrectly rumored to have been a Cuban seed/Connecticut shade cross). Whereas some good cigars today still utilize the Habana 2K wrapper (the Henry Clay Habana 2000 actually uses it in its brand name as well), this overhyped hybrid seemed to fall out of favor in the “post-Boom” era, mostly due to widely reported burn problems, and manufacturers’ claims that it was difficult to ferment. Then came Criollo ’98 and Corojo ’99, which have been described as improvements on Habana 2K and, in some quarters, also rumored to be Cuba/Connecticut hybrids.

Christian Eiroa, the second-generation cigar master who runs Caribe Imported Cigars in Danli, Honduras, is firmly in the camp of those believing that only true, non-hybrid Corojo is worthy of the designation. His Camacho cigars are made entirely of authentic Cuban-seed Corojo and Criollo tobacco grown by his father Julio in Honduras’s Jamastran Valley. “We got our Corojo seeds directly from Daniel Rodriguez, the grandson of Diego Rodriguez,” he says, referring to the seed’s creator. “We have been growing Corojo and Criollo since the 1960s. We refuse to use hybrids and call it Corojo.”

Knowing the seeds’ origin, it is difficult to dispute the Eiroas’ cigars as the most direct descendants of the classic Cubans of yesteryear. However, as the Cubans are not in the business of exporting seeds, the methods of attaining them would fit well into a Cold War-era spy movie. “There are always people willing to smuggle seeds,” Eiroa reveals, speaking generally. “Normally, they have pouches inside their belts, or inside the zipper of their pants. Basically, anywhere that you or I would not think of.”

Asked if the Corojo seeds used in his cigars are still susceptible to the diseases that essentially wiped the strain from its native Cuba, Eiroa simply responds, “Yes. To every single one.” However, the seed’s ingrained weaknesses may be somewhat offset by its adaptability to the Honduran climate. “From our experience, this tobacco yields exceptionally well in the Jamastran Valley,” Eiroa explains. “This is rich soil here that loves to give strong, full-bodied tobacco. Corojo also needs the sun. It loves it.” The cigar-tasting community feels largely the same about the Camacho Corojo (Cuban-seed Corojo from wrapper to filler) and the Camacho Havana (Criollo wrapper and Corojo filler and binder), two of Caribe’s most popular Honduran puros.

Corojo leaf, developed in Cuba as wrapper, can yield spicy filler when grown in the sun; conversely, Criollo, often intended as filler, makes for a tasty wrapper when grown under shade.
The Plasencias are another multigenerational cigar family involved in Corojo in Honduras, and in Nicaragua as well. Nestor Plasencia, Jr. represents the fifth generation of his family in the business. Their five factories - three in Honduras, two in Nicaragua - produce cigars for a wide assortment of companies, including several of their own brands, notably the Plasencia Organica, a cigar whose tobacco is grown and processed using no pesticides or chemicals. This method of growing requires the tobacco crop to be largely disease-resistant, which is one reason Plasencia, in contrast to Eiroa, has embraced the sturdier, modern hybrid versions of both Corojo and Criollo. “These seeds are like brothers of the same parent,” he says of the two strains. “Slightly different, but with the same genes. The old ones are very susceptible to blue mold, and almost impossible to grow.” Plasencia does acknowledge some aesthetic and physical differences between modern Corojo and Criollo: the former is especially resistant to the disease black shank; is generally sweeter in terms of taste; and is more colorado (dark, reddish brown) in color. And while it is largely grown to yield wrapper, as it was in Cuba, some Corojo ends up in filler blends as well, especially if the leaves are sun-grown, or too small for wrapper. A bit of Corojo can add some “oomph” to a cigar’s filler, as in La Perla Habana’s Black Pearl line, one of the first to utilize it as a regular ingredient in its blend.

Sarasota, Florida-based DomRey Cigar Company grows the hybrid Corojo in Ecuador for use in its Cusano Corojo brand of cigars, made in the Dominican Republic. Company president Michael Chiusano let his feelings on his brand’s authenticity be known in a 2001 interview with Smoke’s sister publication, Smokeshop, a magazine for the tobacco retail industry. “You can make an orange pest-resistant without turning it into something other than an orange,” he remarked, pointing out that the Cubans themselves were the ones who crossed their original seed over with others.

Another Corojo cigar to come out of the Dominican Republic is the long-awaited La Aurora Cien Años (100 years), a specially aged cigar celebrating La Aurora’s centennial. The wrapper was a fairly bold experiment: Cuban Corojo seed grown in the D.R., a nation still not well renowned for producing quality wrapper in large quantity. La Aurora sales director Jose Blanco reveals that the wrapper yield from the Dominican Corojo crop is only 30 to 35 percent, with the remainder going into filler. As one would expect, the cigar is quite expensive, and quite limited in quantity. In the Honduras facility owned by Tampa-based U.S. Cigar Sales, Inc., original seeds from the Rodriguez’s Cuban farm were used to grow the tobacco used in the company’s Vega Talanga Corojo series cigars, launched last year. U.S. Cigar representative Larry Palombo echoes the Eiroas’ comments on the difficulties in growing the disease-vulnerable strain: “It’s not enough to be a good farmer; you must also have luck with the weather.” Palombo offers a cagey answer when asked how the Cuban seeds got to Honduras. “Suffice it to say, we know exactly where they come from.”

One of the first U.S.-marketed cigars with Corojo in its name - and still one of the most popular - is the Punch Rare Corojo, made in Honduras by General Cigar’s Villazon and Co. under the supervision of seasoned cigar master Daniel Nuñez. Ironically, this cigar has no connection to the original Cuban Corojo seed whatsoever. Its wrapper is a dark, oily Ecuadorian Sumatra leaf that was grown to approximate the look and feel of the classic Cubans. The company acknowledges that the “Rare” in the name is more spot-on than the “Corojo,” and yet this is undeniably a cigar with a spicy, Cubanesque character.

Nuñez has worked with many different types of tobacco in his long career, and recalls seeing an assortment of first-generation Cuban seeds back around 1972 - though he believes that these are quite rare. “Most of the products I see on the market today are actually these seeds crossed with other seeds,” he says. Meanwhile, despite the fact that his Punch cigar is Corojo in name only, Nuñez revealed that he is experimentally growing genuine, original Corojo seed in Honduras, and the results have been, in his view, successful. “It is probably one of the best-tasting tobaccos I’ve ever had in my hands,” he says. “The disadvantage is that it is very low-yield. It’s a trade-off.” The perfected tobacco, which has been in the works since about 1994, will likely be used on a future limited edition cigar from General, sure to be highly coveted.

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