Authenticity Prioritized: Jon Huber and Crowned Heads Cigars
Crowned Heads Cigars

From working at a temp agency to co-founding Crowned Heads Cigars, Jon Huber's journey is one marked by authenticity, inspiration, and borderline obsession. He's the type of person who's all-in on his interests; there's no such thing as mid-range, 50% devotion. "That's just me," he says. "I've never done anything half-ass." Over the years, Jon's learned to channel his zero-to-100 disposition appropriately. Benefits include quick proficiency when exploring new interests as well as a creative mind that can connect seemingly disparate ideas, but such learned wisdom comes from valuable, if not sometimes painful, experience. "It's a blessing and a curse at times when you get into something and do it to excess."

When it comes to cigars, though, Jon's relentless tenacity has paid dividends and helped him succeed where others might have failed or given up. Crowned Heads has become among the most recognized and lauded boutique cigar brands since its inception in 2011, yet Jon doesn't come from a generational cigar family; he didn't grow up walking between tobacco rows; his parents didn't run a tobacco shop that introduced him to the hobby at an early age. Instead, Jon's foray into the industry is as grassroots as it comes, and without such an unwavering stubbornness regarding his interests, it's likely Crowned Heads wouldn't stand on the echelon it does today.

Jon jokes that he's spent his life simply trying to find peace and quiet for his family and interests, but that people keep following him. Born in San Francisco, he moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, back when L.A. — while still a large city — wasn't the megatropolis it is today. At one point, he rented an apartment that overlooked Melrose Avenue for barely $700 a month. It was a nice spot, quieter back then, but soon after the show Melrose Place debuted in '92, everyone wanted to live there. The population exploded exponentially.

Jon Huber

Jon's desire to leave grew proportionately with the ingress of newcomers. He made his exodus in the mid-'90s, moving two-thirds of the way across the country to Nashville, which, at that time, was considerably smaller — much like when he moved to L.A. As Jon puts it, "There was such a great underground vibe: The music scene was thriving, and it was a great place to live. And then about 10 years ago, it started exploding, and the last five years have been ridiculous." It's not that Jon avoids people; the hustle and bustle and massive population concentration of city life just aren't his style, but that's been the trajectory of his life. "I move somewhere, then everyone else goes there, and then I move somewhere else and... You get the idea."

You can hear the longing in his voice for a place with character and spirit, with soul and authenticity, and such elements have trouble existing without a certain level of intimacy and privacy — in the same way that a fine-dining restaurant makes use of limited seating, select staff, and intentional ambiance to create an exclusive, intimate eating experience. They could serve the same food across a massive venue and with a highly efficient, sterilized workflow, but the experience wouldn't be the same. Some character would be lost. "Big cities are like fast food," Jon says. "People just want to consume them, digest, and then move on to the next meal." His desire for authenticity extends beyond where he lives, and it's a trait Jon prioritizes across all aspects of his life, not least of which are Crowned Heads cigars.

A Passion for Cigars

When Jon moved to Nashville, his focus was on leaving L.A., and the opportunity of Nashville presented itself. That was the extent of the opportunity, though, and he hadn't yet solidified a game plan for what exactly he wanted to do in this new home. In the midst of working unfulfilling, short-term jobs, Jon reflected on what he wanted to devote his time and effort to, and this soul-searching revealed a passion for wine and cigars — two things that exhibited the ideals that Jon cared about. "Both wine and cigars were agricultural products made by hand, necessitating a relationship between humanity and earth.," he says. "There was a sense of tradition and romance about each of them."

His interest in cigars eventually outpaced his interest in wine, but not without first visiting vineyards and considering the potential of entering the industry. After realizing that the massive amount of machinery involved in wine making wasn't the romantic notion he envisioned, the idea became less appealing. Plus, after deciding to abstain from alcohol, it became difficult to justify devoting time, energy, and money to a product he wasn't fully invested in. It wouldn't be authentic. "Cigar making is the complete opposite though," says Jon. "It's done pretty much the same way today as it was 200 years ago. Everything from seed to shelf is more or less accomplished by hand, and that aspect in particular completely hooked me."

He had smoked cigars when living in L.A. mainly when playing poker with his friends, and these cigars were typically of the cheaper, machine-made variety. It wasn't until Jon moved to Nashville that he truly began diving into cigars as a hobby:

"My interest in cigars really started when I was heading back to California to spend a holiday with my family. I wanted to bring a gift for my father, and as I'm driving, I'm racking my brain for ideas — you know, a good 'guy' gift kind of thing. Suddenly, I pass Uptown's Smoke Shop, and I figure cigars would be a good choice. I go into the store, and as I enter the humidor, I'm completely overwhelmed. The aroma of cedar and tobacco mixed together feels like an epiphany, like home. I knew right then that I had to explore deeper."

After this unexpected inauguration, Jon began visiting Uptown's every week. He found a copy of Cigar Aficionado magazine and read it front to back, learning all he could, and Jon would rate each cigar he bought from Uptown's and document his tasting notes, gradually training and expanding his palate. This gravitation toward cigars coincided with his time of self-reflection, and in a seeming gesture of fate, he discovered that CAO Cigars was based in Nashville. Jon wrote a letter of intent and was invited to interview. CAO founder Cano Ozgener needed someone to supervise the shipping department, and Jon welcomed the opportunity, proved his merit, and eventually became a marketing executive.

Crowned Heads Established

In the late 2000s, though, Jon recognized that his time at CAO was ending. Ozgener had sold the company to Scandinavian Tobacco Group in 2007, and by 2010, CAO was being merged with General Cigar Company. With such dramatic changes occurring, many at CAO sought other ventures, and Jon's co-worker Mike Conder approached him about starting a cigar company together: Later that year, Crowned Heads was born.

Many theories and rumors have ping-ponged internet forums regarding the meaning behind the Crowned Heads name. Some have posited that the "C" and "H" stand for the initials of Mike and Jon's last names; others have theorized that it referenced the crown and head of a cigar. The truth, however, is much more abstract, random even. The name is an obscure reference to The Wizard of Oz. Jon and Mike struggled to agree on names and there were trademark issues with the ones they did like, but one day as Jon was watching The Wizard of Oz, he noticed the signage across Professor Marvel's caravan when he first meets Dorothy: "Crowned Heads of Europe ... Past, Present, and Future" The phrase captured his attention, and he texted a picture to Mike asking, "What do you think of 'Crowned Heads'?" Mike, obviously, was a fan.

Jon's always been a fan of the classic film. "It's a fascinating movie, especially with the various conspiracy theories associated with the making of it. Plus, it's just iconic, and I've always been a fan of film in general. That's why I happened to be watching it at the time I noticed 'Crowned Heads.'" Just a few months after announcing the name of the company, Jon and his wife, Laura, happened to buy their first home together. On the outside of the storm shelter was a sticker that read, "This way to Oz" with pictures of Dorothy and the Tin Man. Serendipitous affirmation.

Furthermore, Jon didn't want the name of the cigar company to dominate the narrative; he wanted the cigars to stand on their own within a brand name that could apply to a vast portfolio and was vague enough that people would ask questions. Even more so than film, Jon boasts a deep passion for music, and he wanted to approach cigars from a similar perspective: "The cigar company would be the band, and the various cigar blends would be the albums — each with their own 'sound' or flavor. So, Crowned Heads is the band in my mind, with Four Kicks being the debut album, followed by Headley Grange, etc."

Music as Inspiration

Such musical analogies personify the Crowned Heads portfolio, and many of Jon's blends are named after and directly inspired by iconic music. The Four Kicks takes its name from a Kings of Leon song; Headley Grange was once a famed English recording studio and rehearsal space used by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Genesis, and Fleetwood Mac; and Jericho Hill and Juárez both come from Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues." Most recently, Crowned Heads CHC Serie E draws inspiration from Van Halen's instrumental track "Eruption," the act of smoking the cigar and its flavor profile paralleling the song's various motifs: The short intro of bass guitar and drums mirrors the cutting and lighting process, while the intricate finger-tapping, classical triads, and arpeggios of Eddie's guitar solo are metaphorically captured in the cigar's complex flavor profile, the finish lingering on the palate like the song's climactic dive bomb.

"It's a sonic metaphor, of sorts," says Jon. "And it's similar to how I approached the Headley Grange: I was listening to Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," and during the thick, plodding, and heavy drum intro, I thought to myself, 'I want to make a cigar that tastes like how these drums sound.'" For Jon, music has an interpretive element that parallels that of cigars. "Music enables the listener to create their own storyline in their head," he says. Similarly, everyone's palates and flavor preferences differ when interacting with cigars, so when blending cigars, Jon isn't only thinking of music as an analogy for the cigar's components and overall profile but also for its experientially interpretive nature. His colleagues rarely understand this unique perspective and blending mindset, but Jon's proven track record has earned their trust during these bouts of inspiration and nuanced metaphors. "When I'm pitching these blend ideas, I'm often met with, 'Huh?' from Mike [Conder] and [Sales Manager] Miguel," he says. "But by now they've learned to give me the benefit of the doubt and trust that I'll figure it out successfully."

The Art of Blending

Ironically, Jon doesn't consider himself a cigar blender. "If I had to have a business card with a real title on it, I'd put 'Creative Director' on it. To me, I'm just the guy behind the mixing board, producing and validating the cigars — tweaking them slightly in the direction I want them to go. The guys harvesting the tobacco, cultivating it, and rolling the cigars, they're the musicians." He's familiar with what sounds best, though, and his experience and discernment provide crucial feedback in producing Crowned Heads' quality blends.

Jon cites George Brightman as an invaluable mentor early in his career. George was instrumental in the success of Cigar Aficionado and apart from personally knowing industry legends like Carlito Fuente and George Padrón, he also had an exceptional palate for cigars. "We'd be smoking together, and George would smoke four or five un-banded cigars. He'd tell me exactly what the cigars were and their components," Jon says. "He really coached me on how to pick out different flavors and discern what a great cigar is. I still send him cigars to this day, asking for his opinion, and he'll reply with a two-page report outlining his thoughts on one cigar."

Crowned Heads Cigars

To further the music analogy, Jon sees cigars as symphonies requiring harmony and balance between the various instruments. "You don't want to hear the horns louder than the winds. Nothing should stand out; it should all be this one harmonious sound," he says. "That balance is what George helped teach me, and that's what I try to do with Crowned Heads."

While George was influential in teaching Jon the theoretical side of cigar blending, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo showed Jon how to bring that theory into practice when they collaborated on Crowned Heads' first cigar, the Four Kicks. "It was like going to grad school," Jon says. "Ernesto agreed to make the cigar for us, but instead of just going to a dealership and picking out a car on the lot, so to speak, he told me to build the car." During this process, Jon spent ample time in Ernesto's factory, learning the tobacco validation process, how to test the strength of a tobacco and determine its region of origin, and discerning the distinct flavor profiles of leaf from different regions.

Jon's palate is like a bloodhound's nose, able to perfect and finalize blends, or like a music producer's fine-tuned ear. He'll send an idea for a cigar to the manufacturer, let them do what they do best, and then provide feedback. He says, "For example, this cigar doesn't have enough sweetness, so let's add some Jalapa instead of ligero. Or, this one needs something to balance out the acidity; let's try some Ometepe. I'm not the chef, but I know the spice rack inside and out, and I know what I like. I know what it's supposed to taste like and when it hits that perfect point."

Such guidance and nuanced feedback is essential to Crowned Heads' blending process, but Jon also recognizes the need for quality factories and components. He received that advice from Pete Johnson, founder of Tatuaje Cigars. They've been close friends since the mid-'90s, and Pete impressed upon Jon the need for starting with great tobaccos. "The job of brand owners, then, is just not to mess it up," Jon says. "When you're already starting with quality materials and reliable manufacturers, it's going to be a quicker race to the finish line. You've already got a head start." It all fits into Jon's prioritization of authenticity. "People gravitate toward authenticity," he says. "They can spot bullshit pretty easily, and if you don't pretend you're something you're not, I think people appreciate and connect with that." Like a head chef sourcing top-grade ingredients, Jon's goal is to prepare and combine those ingredients in the best, most authentic way possible to fully maximize their naturally superior flavors.

Authenticity Prioritized

Jon and Crowned Heads' focus on authenticity is evident in all aspects of the business, even beyond the cigar-making process. When it comes to marketing, their branding is straight-forward and transparent. There isn't hyperbolic romanticization of cigars or highly produced, staged promotional media. Instead, Crowned Heads' merchandise is stylish and to the point, and Jon's social media presence is simply Jon being himself and sharing what he loves.

"We don't do any print ads, no lifestyle pictures of me wearing a Panama Hat and smelling a hand of tobacco. That's just not authentic to me," he says. "The cigars have to sustain their own life, and we produce cigars that we believe in and that we would smoke." Jon and Mike decided early that they didn't want to put equity into a personality or a face; they wanted to put equity into cigars that they enjoyed smoking and could stand behind. Jon smokes on a regular basis, and he shares that love and passion with others, both by producing boutique blends and regularly sharing his honest thoughts to followers on social media. It complements his all-in obsession toward his passions; he doesn't do anything haphazardly, let alone something marked by superficiality. There are two aspects of his life, though, that he does prioritize above cigars, his wife and daughter, and he's not shy about that on social media either.

Jon met Laura over a decade ago on Cinco de Mayo, and they married a year later, their relationship coinciding with Jon's transition from CAO to Crowned Heads. That timing helped lay a solid foundation for what his work-life balance would look like as the company grew, and it remains important to Jon that healthy boundaries are maintained. "Laura made it clear to me early on that she wasn't marrying me just for me to come home on the weekends," he says. "I traveled a lot for CAO and didn't want that to be the case with Crowned Heads."

Of course, Jon does have to travel several times throughout the year, but Laura and their daughter always go with him. It's these occasional trips to trade shows that merge his love for his family with cigars; otherwise, Jon maintains a healthy separation between the two. "When I'm home, I'm husband and dad. When I'm at work, I'm Jon Huber of Crowned Heads." It's a refreshing balance that keeps him from obsessing too much about cigars, a blessing that grounds him and gives him the necessary space to excel when at work. "She's incredibly supportive, more than just a cheerleader," says Jon. "She's strong and loyal, my best friend, the Bonnie to my Clyde. She's a huge blessing, and I honestly can't picture my life without her."

Jon's authenticity permeates all aspects of his life, and that benefits a multitude of people. For his family, he's a committed husband and father, and for cigar aficionados, he's a devoted blender or, rather, creative director, utilizing tobacco as a medium to create meaningful palatal experiences — like a music producer mixing a record in a way that best showcases the musicians' artistry and results in optimal enjoyment from listeners. When asked which Crowned Heads cigar he's most proud of producing, Jon cites Mil Días as the one he's currently gravitated to most often.

"As soon as I smoked the final sample in January of 2020, I thought to myself, 'Woah, this is it,'" he says. "It was so balanced, so full of finesse and nuance, that to me, it represented what a great cigar is." And yet, even as he said that, he noted that the latest shipment of Las Calaveras 2021 had just arrived from the factory and that he needed to help unload it and "get his workout in." In one breath, he modestly reflects on one of the cigars he's most proud of creating, and in the next, he says goodbye in order to unload pallets from a truck. Jon is all-in no matter his role, and he doesn't see one role as any better or more elevated than any other. It doesn't get much more authentic than that.

Crowned Heads Cigars
Category:   Cigar Certified
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