Interview with John Harney, founder of Harney & Sons tea company, located in Millerton, NY, with tasting rooms in Millerton and Soho, NY.
“I was lucky, I had the advantage that we were coming in at a time when tea was just going up. Tea started up in 1982 or '83, and we had a dozen teas and that was it. And, most of them were looseleaf. In other words, you had to spoon it out of the can and put it in the pot and all the rest of it. But, as time went on, everybody kept asking for various things, and now we have probably 250 kinds of tea. It was much simpler before!
“The tea comes from India and China, Sri Lanka, which are the Ceylon teas - which are great teas - and a little bit from Africa. Not very much, really, but it'll come back. And Japan! I forgot to mention Japan, I drink Japanese Sencha, which is a green tea, and a wonderful green tea. Takes a little getting used to, but once you're used to it, you miss it if you don't have it.
“We have a blending room, though not all teas are blended. Some of them, for instance English Breakfast, we just take it loose and pack it up. Or a Darjeeling, the same way. Or a Sencha, the same way. But, there are a lot of teas that are blended. What's taken the first place is actually Hot Cinnamon - it's been a huge seller.
“It's amazing, we do the tea for the Historic Royal Palaces in London. A member of the family always sits on their board. Five or six years now we've been doing it, and that opened our eyes to internationalism. Now we do a lot of business there. Most of the great hotels in London serve our tea - you've got the Ritz, you've got Claridges, and the Dorchester. The English are big tea drinkers, anyhow much bigger than we are. They know their teas, and they like our teas!
“Michael goes over at least twice or three times a year to Asia, because we're very particular about our tea and we have the gardens we want to go to. It's a question of selecting the tea that we want, because like anything else, there are all kinds of different quality grades, and we take the best. And, we always sell the best. And not everybody knows how to get the best, because it isn't sitting here, it's over there. But you have to find these people, because there are a lot of small gardens and small farmers - 10 acres, maybe. But it's still a lot of picking. And you might taste 50-60 teas every day. We have a Lapsang Souchong, it's in China obviously, and we might buy the whole crop, which might be only one or two chests. Then they smoke it over there, and it's just delicious, if you like smoky tea.
“And that's the point of the Tasting Rooms, here and down in Soho (NY). The point of the Tasting Room is so that people can try these different teas, and if they like it, they buy it. It's also a magnet!
“I've had a great run. I can't imagine, I couldn't have done this in the '30s or the '40s or the '50s. Or the '60s, even. In the '70s you couldn't have done it, really! I mean we did it, but that was just the awakening.”
Our interview with John Harney took place in 2013, one year before his death. The Harney & Sons web site provides a biography of Mr. Harney.
A tribute from The New York Times "John Harney, Missionary Who Spread the ‘Gospel of Tea,’ Dies at 83"