On 20, March 1919 a baby was born in rural Cuba. He grew up on the family farm in San Luis where he became one of the best tobacco growers. Over his life he sold more than half of his production for use in export quality cigars, the best on the island.
At ten years old, he started smoking cigars. He contentedly told me that this year he celebrates eighty years of cigar smoking. He neatly glosses over the fact that he is also turning ninety. On the 20th of March most of the key figures in the Cuban cigar industry turned out to wish Alejandro Robaina a happy birthday at his home among the tobacco fields. Don Alejandro is legendary among tobacco farmers. His advice is sought not only in Cuba. Growers and passionados from around the world journey to his farm to talk with him and gain a little glimpse into his immense knowledge. The Cuban cigar industry, in 1997, decided to honour him by naming a new brand of cigars after his family farms, Vegas Robaina. These unique tasting, full-bodied cigars feature his leaves as wrappers.
These days the management of his farm is done by his grandson Hiroshi, under the careful eye of the family Don. Whenever Cuba wants to try an experimental seed or technique, they turn to the expertise of the Robainas. This year is no exception.
The Robainas are experimenting with a synthetic cheesecloth, a material that shades the growing wrapper leaves. It is supposed to be stronger than traditional cloths and more even in its structure. Alejandro reports that he approves of the material and the leaves growing underneath are large and thick.
Last year Alejandro grew an experimental seed called Capote #1. He grew it to the specifications of the Institute of Tobacco but unfortunately it did not hold up well under fermentation. Through this kind of experimentation, the Robaina family has had their hands on most of the innovation in Cuban tobacco since 1845, when the family first set up their farm in the Vuelta Abajo.
This year’s tobacco crops have been widely varied across Cuba’s growing regions. Many farmers did not plant seeds this year because of hurricane damage to their curing barns. Many nearby farms had sub-standard sized plants or no harvest. The Robainas showed tenacity. They fixed their minimal damage and grew a large crop.
Each day, Alejandro smokes about four fumas. Fumas are the cigars made of local leaves. Because of a surgery, he did not attend the Festival del Habano in February but he is steadily recovering, appears to be is in good health and is clearly in good spirits. Happy Birthday Alejandro!
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2009. Read more