John Harney, patriarch of Harney & Sons Tea and Bon Appetit’s 2005 “Food Artisan of the Year,” has earned the title “master tea blender.”
Some men are men of letters. John Harney, however, is more a man of titles, among them: “food artisan,” “former marine,” “inn-keeper,” and, of course, “master tea blender.”
But then, he is, at 75, a man of many talents, many blessings, and much volume. Anyone who has had the occasion to be on the receiving end of one his phone calls can attest to that, as can his employees, who clearly adore him. “Is he here?” a caller might hear a Harney & Sons employee ask a fellow employee 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, storeowner, and finally, the owner and proprietor of a renowned tea company. More recently, he is also a lecturer on tea and co-author of the cookbook Eat Tea: A New Approach to Flavoring Contemporary and Traditional Dishes, which helped earn him his latest accolade, Bon Appetit’s 2005 “Food Artisan of the Year.”
Mr. Harney has kindly taken the time to reflect with TeaTime readers on how he came to earn all of these titles—as well as a 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 ten 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. Statistically, tea has proven helpful in the treatment of tumor and cardio-vascular problems. We follow all the studies that are conducted and disregard most of them. However, the Specialty Tea Institute and the Tea Association of the USA has given its stamp of approval to findings that indicate tea’s health potential—from cancer to coronary disease—is astronomical. More detailed information is available on their website: www.teausa.com.
q. How is Harney & Sons preparing for the future?
a. We have moved from 100 square feet to 99,000 square feet in the past 22 years. 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 two-cup and one six-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!