Like Father, Like Sons: The Hudson Valley's Harney Tea EmpireSep 08, 2014
Cocktail and dinner parties have long been dominated by oenophiles discussing the buttery, jammy, oaky and vanilla flavors of wine, but tea time has arrived. This moment seems somewhat overdue given that tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world aside from water. On any given day, more than 158 million Americans are drinking tea, but few of us were putting much thought into it, until recently. Harney & Sons, based in the Hudson Valley town of Millerton, has done more to usher in the new era of intellectual, sensual and spiritual exploration of all things tea than anyone since the Chinese. Harney honors tea’s origins as a health-supportive quaff comprised of heterogeneous loose leaves that can be consumed in a number of ways and for a variety of purposes. Like many great companies, Harney & Sons began with humble origins. The company was launched in 1983 in the basement of Salisbury, Conn.’s historic White Hart Inn by its proprietor, John Harney. Mr. Harney was introduced to the world of tea by an Englishman named Stanley Mason, who owned Sarum Tea. In 1970, Mr. Harney bought Sarum Tea from Mr. Mason, who served as a mentor until his death in 1980. Seeking to elevate the standard of handcrafted loose teas in America — and offer his compatriots a window into the history of tea and refine our palates for prime leaves — Mr. Harney began mixing his own hand-blends and serving it to the guests at the inn, many of whom had never heard of loose leaf craft tea blends, much less sampled them. Three decades later, and following the June 2014 passing of John Harney, the company has seen three generations of family members incorporated into the business, opened a 90,000 square foot warehouse production space in Millerton, N.Y. that employs 155 people (the company as a whole boasts more than 170 employees), and opened two tasting shops (in Millerton and New York City). The more than 300 blends of Harney & Sons tea are served everywhere from London’s Buckingham Palace to middle America — Harney & Sons is available on the shelves at Target. According to Michael and Paul Harney, both company vice presidents and also John’s sons, the company’s stratospheric growth has been surprisingly organic and seems to lack any of the discord that often burns through the tales of red-hot businesses. In fact, the corporate headquarters of their global empire often feel more like a big family room. Everyone’s involved, everyone knows, or wants to know, what everyone else is doing, and absolutely every decision is discussed and debated before a final judgment is rendered. “The most important person at the factory is Finn,” said Paul Harney, about his 7-year-old son, who from an early age, like the rest of his family, began throwing in his two cents. “He’s quite bossy, and once ski season was over we knew he was going to be here all the time, whipping us into shape.” The communal spirit of Harney & Sons’ corporate philosophy extends to the community as well. Paul, who has masterminded several new lines of products for Harney, also spearheaded Harney’s corporate giving program. “It was Paul’s idea, and we all loved it,” Michael said. “In 2006, we joined One Percent for The Planet and committed to giving back 1 percent of our profit to environmental groups. We decided to support some of the groups in our backyard, including Scenic Hudson, the Appalachian Trail [Conservancy] and the Columbia Land Conservancy.” Arguably the other 99 percent of Harney also is devoted to benefiting others. The company unveiled Jane’s Garden Tea in honor and memory of their friend and neighbor, who had breast cancer. Created to reflect her love of gardening and her vitality, the green tea blended with rose petals is floral and delicate — Spring in a cup. For every tin sold, $1 is donated to the Jane Lloyd Fund and the National Breast Cancer Foundation. John and Michael — speaking excitedly at the same time, under and over each other, completing each other’s sentences and cheerfully interrupting each other — tell of their latest, greatest company project: Rob Jones. One of Harney’s longtime employees — one of the many people who has been with Harney for almost two decades – ran into Paul’s office one morning last year after spotting Mr. Jones, a double amputee and Iraq War veteran, bicycling on the road, followed by a caravan of trucks and supporters. Seemingly always ready to open their doors to a new, worthy cause, the Harneys invited Mr. Jones to visit the Harney & Sons plant, and now supply Mr. Jones and his team with tea and coconut water for their journey as he bikes across the country to raise awareness and funds for war veterans. The feel-good family, community and earth-friendly vibe is indubitably grand. But how does the tea measure up? I sampled a variety of Harney’s teas and conducted an informal tea taste test with a group of NYSOM readers. While none of us is a Tea Master — or, quite frankly, knew that such a designation existed until we launched our experiment — it was clear that Harney & Sons Tea is leagues away from your basic grocery store brand. Our tasting “notes” ran the gamut from obvious (Jane’s garden tea is “grassy, but in a good way”) to offbeat and obscure (the Earl Grey “tastes like a sun-filled birthday party at a fancy beach town feels”), According to Mike Harney, there are three attributes by which tea should be judged: briskness (or mouth-puckering astringency), body (created by amino acids or dissolved solids in the tea) and aroma (which can be manipulated by skilled tea blenders and is arguably the most important characteristic, as our sense of smell is much stronger than our sense of taste). Read more about Mike’s tasting and rating system here. The tasting group I convened was struck by the complexity, floral notes and richness in all of the teas we tried (including Earl Grey Imperial, the Plain Iced Tea and Chocolate Mint), but interestingly, the group favorite was unanimous: Earl Grey. A blend of black teas naturally rich in Bergamot, it’s lemony and assertive — like other Earl Greys you’ve had, but better. Harney & Sons has several lines of loose tea bags, organic teas, sachets, Tea Collections (including specialty tins like Jane’s Garden Teas and their Earl Grey Imperial which is part of the Historic Royal Palaces line), bottled iced teas, organic juices, tea ginger ales and coconut water. The products are widely available, and we encourage you to stop by the company’s tasting rooms for the full experience.