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Hybrid Tobacco: Where Nature Meets Nurture


By: Lindsay Heller

Farming high-quality tobacco is no easy task. Whether on its native soil, or transplanting seeds in foreign land, there are only so many factors one can control; even if a crop escapes the wrath of Mother Nature, there are many ways things could go wrong during fermentation. What if I told you there are brands who seek to push the envelope by making this painstaking process even more complicated? Welcome to the world of hybrid tobacco.

Master Blenders are always searching for new combinations and distinct flavor profiles, and highly-skilled agronomists are there to answer the call. Technically speaking, nearly every tobacco seed grown today is a hybrid of sorts: as plants naturally self-pollinate, bees take the pollen from a male plant and transport it to the female varietal, which is packed with seeds. At 300,000 to 400,000 of them per ounce, one tobacco plant can make up to one million seeds. To create a new hybrid, however, cross-pollination is done methodically—literally taking the bee and chance variables out of the equation.

If you think back to Biology class, you might remember the name Gregor Mendel and the concept of hybridization. An Austrian monk, Mendel cross-pollinated pea plants in the mid-19th century. Publishing his findings in 1866, he became known as "the godfather of genetics," and his work laid the foundation for unique prospects whether you're talking human, animal, or plants.

Although hybridization is becoming increasingly more common, not all farmers engage in the lengthy practice as it's not cost-effective. More than simply crossing plants, from start to finish the process takes more than seven years. After choosing specific seed varietals you pollinate the plants, implanting some 20 seeds from the mother into the ground. Of those 20, a common split would be 12:8, where 12 plants resemble the mother. Once the preferred plant is selected, the farmer would then let those plants self-pollinate amongst those with the same characteristics repeating the process throughout seven to ten growing cycles, each time weeding out any specimen that doesn't appear as intended. It may take up to a decade for a plant's characteristics to be "fixed," but after that time, those seeds will grow crops that are essentially identical each time.

Given that each hybrid is proprietary, so is the process per brand. Others are very vocal about why their tobacco stands out from the crowd (Plasencia, Davidoff, AJ Fernandez, Aganorsa) but there are others who refuse to discuss a single detail (Padrón). The most common reason for hybridization is taste, but it's worth nothing that the process creates increased defensive measures against diseases like the dreaded black shank and blue mold viruses. Whatever the paramount impetus may be, let's look at a few noteworthy hybrid leaves used by your favorite manufacturers. 


This wrapper first rose to prominence in 1990s Cuba, as it replaced the original Corojo-seed made famous on the island. Habano 2000's origins stem from a mix of El Corojo and a mellow Cuban cigarette tobacco called Bell 61-10. This hybrid was crossed more than once, which allowed the Corojo to dominate as intended for use on premium cigars.

The seeds quickly made their way out of Cuba, and in 1996, the first Nicaraguan crop was planted by Nestor Plasencia. Despite his many years of experience, the initial yield surprised Nestor, as the leaves were almost as thick as Broadleaf with a musty quality; unbeknownst at the time, Nicaraguan Habana 2000 requires more fermentation to achieve the desired results, leading to a lot of trial and error. It imparts a strong, earthy flavor on a blend, but Plasencia will tell you he's often more pleased with the strain's ability to resist blue mold. (Before this hybrid, he could lose $10M worth of tobacco in a day to the virus.) Non-Cuban Habana 2000 is mostly grown in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador, and featured in popular cigars such as AJ Fernandez's San Lotano Oval Habano and the AVO Domaine.


Criollo is literally the Spanish word for "Creole," denoting a person of mixed ancestry, so applying the same term to a hybridized tobacco plant works just as well. Criollo is one of the "native strains" in Cuba, dating back to at least the 15th century. Once it was cross-pollinated with Rosado, Habano Criollo was born, a subtler-than-Corojo but still highly flavorful wrapper leaf. Your palate will experience notes of pepper, fresh bread, cocoa, cedar, nuts, and delightful bits of natural sweetness with this varietal. 

Fans of Davidoff know what Head Agronomist Manuel Peralta cultivates an exclusive strain of Habano Criollo dubbed "Aromatica Dominicana," specifically for the extravagant Royal Release blend. From start to finish, the entire process takes 10 years; to ensure the highest of quality, Davidoff uses the same top eight rollers to assemble each cigar. If you prefer something a bit bolder and more fiscally responsible, then look to Joya de Nicaragua, as different versions of Habano Criollo adorn their Antaño 1970, Cabinetta, and Cuatro Cinco blends, respectively. 


AJ Fernandez is a fervent fan of cross- pollinating tobacco strains, and with farms all throughout Nicaragua, he has a plethora of soil types and microclimates in which to experiment. His Bellas Artes blend is aged for three years, but more pertinent to this conversation, it contains two different, yet individually extraordinary hybrid leaves. AJ calls the wrapper Rojita due to its rustic, reddish undertones, and it's comprised of Connecticut 8212, Corojo 99, and Havana 2000; to make things even more dynamic, underneath is a Havana 92 binder grown in Quilalí, an area known for producing black tobacco. Bellas Artes translates to "fine arts," which is exactly how one should sum up the inner workings of this extraordinary blend.

Aganorsa Leaf is another vertically-integrated Nicaraguan brand, and their impressive team of Cuban agronomists have worked for many years on what is now called Corojo 2012. Grown from Cuban sees in Jalapa, owner Eduardo Fernandez describes this luscious leaf a Sun Grown capa "with personality." Thicker than Corojo 99, the new varietal is rich, slowly and naturally fermented in special cedar trunks until maturation to ensure the most flavor and an even burn. Making its debut on the third Guardian of the Farm line extension, the Cerberus, members of Elite Advantage were able to procure boxes of this premium puro months before its national release.

Although having tobacco of the highest pedigree is important, it's only one part of the equation when making a great cigar. Whether tobacco is grown in an area native to its strain, it's transplanted to another country, or it's cross-pollinated to create something new and exciting, a farmer needs more than just the seeds. In the age-old debate over nature vs. nurture, when it comes to tobacco, one might argue that these two factors are equally as important.

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