Photo courtesy of Harney & Sons (www.harney.com)
Some men are men of letters. John Harney, however, is more a man of titles, among them, food artisan, former marine, innkeeper, and of course master tea blender.
But then, he is a man of many talents, many blessings—and much volume. Anyone who has had an occasion to be on the receiving end of one his phone calls can attest to the latter, as can his employees, who clearly adore him. “Is he here?” a caller might hear one Harney & Sons employee ask another while waiting to be transferred to Mr. Harney’s extension. “We can usually hear him when he’s here.”
Conversations with Mr. Harney are as humor filled, as interesting, and as varied as the details of his working and personal past. In his lifetime, the tea maestro has worked as a dishwasher, a farmer, a nightclub and restaurant manager, an innkeeper, a storeowner, and finally, the owner and proprietor of a renowned tea company. He is also a lecturer on tea and coauthor of the cookbook Eat Tea: A New Approach to Flavoring Contemporary and Traditional Dishes.
Below, John Harney provides insight into his remarkable career and his lifelong love of tea.
Q. Tell us a little about your early professional background and involvement in the tea industry.
A. In 1960, Stanley Mason, an English gentleman and owner of Sarum Tea, met with me at the White Hart Inn, where I was general manager and a partner, and asked me to serve his tea in the inn. People asked daily where the tea could be purchased. I sent guests to Stanley’s home, where Stanley could be found packing teas. In 1967, Stanley convinced me to serve only loose-leaf tea at the inn, then unheard of in the United States. Again, people wanted to purchase the tea. I knew I was on to something. In 1970, I bought Sarum Tea, and Stanley Mason became my mentor. The apprentice period lasted 10 years, until Stanley passed away in 1980, at the age of 80. In 1978, I sold tea to my first hotel, the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. They purchased English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam, Gunpowder, and Chamomile—the full Sarum Tea line!
Q. Are you a self-taught master blender?
A. Once you recognize the various grades of tea, you know which teas will blend well with others. So yes, I am self-taught.
Q. As an acknowledged leader in the industry, how do you mentor others, both your professional peers and fellow tea drinkers?
A. We have trained thousands of people in the way of the tea world by holding seminars in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Food editors, writers, and other members of the media were invited to tea seminars, as well as the general public. We train food and beverage managers and their staff regularly. The Harneys still speak to groups on the history, geography, and service of tea.
Q. What do you believe to be the primary benefits of drinking tea, and on what facts or experiences do you base your conclusions?
A. First, people like the taste and color of tea. Tea is better for you than coffee because it is lower in caffeine and rich in polyphenols. Harney & Sons is working with the Angiogenesis Foundation and Oregon State University on health studies and benefits of tea drinking.
Q. How is Harney & Sons preparing for the future?
A. We have moved from 100 square feet to 99,000 square feet, and our present campus is 22 acres, affording us the physical room to expand. We maintain offices and warehouses in Sarasota, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada. In this age of global economy, we have distributors throughout the world. Harney & Sons is under contract with the Historic Royal Palaces of London to blend and pack their exclusive private label tea.
Q. Can you describe an especially memorable tea service you enjoyed with peers, friends, or loved ones?
A. I have enjoyed many delightful and memorable afternoon teas at the Children’s Tea, Saturdays at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. I never know what wonderful conversations I will engage in with the children or the myriad of questions they will think to ask.
Q. For novice tea drinkers just discovering the beverage, what are the “must-have” tea blends and equipage one should always have on hand?
A. My favorite starters mix always includes Earl Grey and English Breakfast, Sencha and a flavored green (Chinese Flower), Oolong and Dragon Pearl Jasmine, and two herbals, Egyptian Chamomile and Raspberry. I suggest getting two teapots—one 2-cup and one 6-cup, a teapot cozy, thermometer, timer, and strainer.
Q. Tell us something about yourself most people don’t know.
A. I am truly an older man, but wise enough to have planned the succession of Harney & Sons. Michael and Paul worked in the tea business at the White Hart Inn, and then the basement of our home. Now, they direct the company in its daily operation while I have fun as the master tea blender!
Editor’s Note: Harney & Sons opened a boutique and tea-tasting room at 433 Broome Street in New York City’s SoHo district in November 2010. Look for another article about Harney & Sons in the July/August 2011 issue.