By Lorna Reeves • Photography by Sarah Arrington
Making tea is a family affair with royal rewards.
Two-lane country roads wind through the beautiful rolling hills of New York state en route to Millerton, a sleepy village near the Connecticut border just a two-hour drive from New York City. The scene is picturesque, cozy, and inviting. At the heart of the township is world-renowned tea blender Harney & Sons whose connection to several of England’s historic royal palaces is perhaps not widely known.
Besides a tasting room, a boutique, and a café housed in a charming building on the town’s main street, Harney & Sons has a state-of-the-art factory at the junction of Routes 22 and 199 on the outskirts. Flanked by older country homes, farmland, a produce market, and a wooded landscape, the almost-80,000-square-foot building seems a bit out of place, yet inside this large facility, some of the world’s finest teas are blended and packaged.
As the sweet aroma of tea permeates the air, modern equipment at some stations is awhirl filling silken sachets while other machinery packages teas in traditional tea bags. Teas intended for sale as loose leaf are packed by the ounce in tins. “Loose-leaf teas go in the black and gold tins,” explains our tour guide, master tea blender John Harney. He is noticeably proud that the business he started in the basement of his home in 1983 at age 53 has grown to what it is today—exclusive tea purveyor for the United Kingdom’s Historic Royal Palaces and to many luxury hotels, including The Dorchester in London and The Waldorf Astoria. The tea company now employs more than 90 people, among them, two of John’s sons.
Michael Harney, his father’s first hire, is responsible for the financial end of the business and for sourcing teas globally. “He goes overseas to find the best teas in China, India, and Japan. Then, he has to taste the tea when it arrives at our factory to make sure it is what he bought,” John says. “And my son Paul is in charge of our production facilities, which run in two shifts. He brought us into a new world, one of tea-packing machines. . . . They allow us to offer the best-tasting teas in convenient ways.
“I still don’t know how to turn one on,” he adds with his characteristic hearty chuckle, “but they are efficient and have helped the company grow.”
From a loft above the work floor, the scope of the operation is apparent. Orders are being packed from the hundreds of shelves lined with tea-filled tins, pouches, and small boxes. Forklifts zip back and forth, moving their precious cargo to loading docks from which it will be shipped worldwide.
For customers making the trek to Millerton, a visit to the tasting room is a must since the factory isn’t open for public tours. In a country blue building with white awnings at the corner of Route 22 and Main Street, the tasting room is easy to spot. Here, every tea Harney & Sons produces is available for sampling and purchase.
On weekdays, customers are permitted to select up to two teas for tasting at no charge, in addition to the “teas of the moment” staff picks. Weekend customers may taste a tea of their own choosing in addition to the teas of the moment and the flight of three teas. These weekend tea trios are grouped thematically according to seasonality. Recent themes have included Chinese green teas, European cities, holidays, and staff favorites.
Michael’s wife, Brigitte, oversees the tasting room and selects tea accoutrements and other merchandise to sell in the adjacent boutique, which functions as a connector to the café their son Alex manages. A popular spot with locals and visitors alike, the café serves lunch and afternoon tea daily and, of course, the full range of Harney & Sons teas.
In late 2010, the Harneys opened a tasting room and tea shop in New York’s SoHo district at 433 Broome Street to great reviews. Similar in concept to the company’s Millerton locale, the new shop is not equipped for food service, although baked goods are available for purchase to enhance the tea-tasting experience. Brigitte and Michael’s son Emeric manages this location.
“I recently spent a couple of hours at our SoHo shop helping Michael and Emeric get ready for a tea-tasting group from Cornell. The event went off perfectly,” says John. And Michael agrees that the shop’s open floor plan makes it ideal for other group tastings. “We’d be happy to do more of these types of events,” he says.
When he reflects on what it means to have a third generation of Harneys involved in the company, John is amazed and pleased. “That’s what a family business needs to replenish the leadership,” he says thoughtfully. “My love of tea has spread to my family and our customers worldwide. I know that we have a tradition of tea that will endure.”
To learn more about Harney & Sons teas, go to harney.com, or call 888-427-6398. For more information about the Millerton shop and café, dial 518-789-2121. Harney’s shop in New York City’s SoHo district can be reached by calling 212-933-4853.
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Harney passed away in June 2014 at age 83.