John Harney’s Tea Legacy

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John Harney, a shining beacon

MILLERTON, NY – John Harney’s legacy in tea will long retain its luster. 

Ruth Bigelow blazed the trail with Constant Comment in 1945 but John David Harney, founder of Harney & Sons Fine Teas, led the wagons west by demonstrating the commercial appeal of sophisticated specialty blends at a time when tea was predictable – even pedestrian.

HarneySonsSlideHarney, 83, passed away Tuesday, June 17. The business he started in 1983 will continue under the direction of sons Michael and Paul, daughter-in-law Brigitte and grandsons Emeric and Alexander.

In his lifetime Harney & Sons earned the respect of traditional and specialty tea vendors worldwide as both a business executive and master blender. Harney apprenticed at the side of a master. He fondly describes his introduction to tea in 1970. English-born Stanley Mason, the owner of Sarum Tea and a neighbor, called on Harney at the hotel he managed in quaint Salisbury, Conn. Mason convinced the veteran inn keeper to switch to loose leaf tea, a revolutionary offering at the time.

Harney’s fascination soon eclipsed serving tea. He began selling Mason’s tea, fulfilling mail orders in his basement as a part-time job. Mike Harney, vice president and the eldest of Harney’s sons recalls as a teenager helping “Mason and my father carry heavy wooden chests of tea down to the White Heart basement, where we would then package the tea into small metal tins. The dry black filaments looked all the same to me,” he said. Michael, 58, joined the company in 1988 and currently heads up buying and blending.

John HarneyDuring the 1970s Harney began experimenting with blends and in time went to work for Mason, who had retired after an illustrious career in tea as the New York manager for Brooke Bond tea. When Mason died in 1980 Harney continued the work and in 1983 decided to launch Harney & Sons.

He brought respectability to blends far more sophisticated than single ingredient mixes dating to the 1830s.  “Tea back then was much different,” he writes. “China had opened only recently and there were few teas coming out there in 1983. So Taiwan was the source of the basic “Chinese” teas: Gunpowder, Oolongs, and keemun. These teas did not taste like the real thing, but rather, were a version. The Taiwanese had not yet begun to make the great greenish oolongs that they do today. India’s teas were still strongly influenced by the British, so Darjeelings and Assams were dark and monotone, just right for milk and sugar,” said Harney.

“In 1983 the tea world did not offer many great teas. And that was fine, because few people drank tea. How that has changed, and for the better,” he said.

Initially Harney blended teas from several origins. One of his first was Stanley’s Blend, a mixture of Assam and Darjeeling in tribute of his mentor.

ElainesBlendElaine’s Blend, a combination of Darjeeling, Keemun, Ceylon and Assam teas, is a shining star in the Harney & Sons line. It is named for its developer, Elaine Cogan of Portland, Ore. John recalls Cogan’s scathing early-1980s criticism of the poor quality of New York’s restaurant teas, which appeared in The New York Times. Harney credits that incident with helping to launch America’s tea-drinking revolution.

He later added quality ingredients, spices and fruit and began importing higher quality Chinese teas. His daughter-in-law Brigitte opened a retail sales office in the plant and later a tea café. Today grandson Emeric manages a highly-rated tea shop in SoHo, New York City stocked with more than 100 varieties of Harney’s blends.

Harney was an effective ambassador for American’s taste in tea, traveling to England frequently and eventually landing prized hotel and restaurant clients including the Dorchester Hotel in London. His teas are even sold in the gift shop in Buckingham Palace.

The business has since grown to 170 people and occupies 90,000 sq. ft. of warehouse space on 22 acres in Millerton, NY where a new bottling facility is under construction.

John Harney accepting the first Cha Jing Lifetime Achievement Award

“If anyone could supply tea to the English palaces and castles it is the Irishman John Harney,” said James Norwood Pratt, author and long-time friend. In 2011 Pratt presented Harney with the Cha Jing Lifetime Achievement Award, at World Tea East.  “No man ever graced his profession more than John Harney has done for ours,” said Pratt in awarding the trophy.

World Tea Expo, producers of the award, agrees. From now on it will be the John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award, in honor of him.

“Harney is known for his great, good heart. . . and he will always have a place in mine,” Pratt said on hearing the news.

On learning of his death Bruce Richardson, another pioneer in the industry, said that “anyone who has a vocation in specialty tea should thank John Harney for a portion of their success.”

In his Tea Maestro blog Richardson described how Harney convinced the managers of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan that he could train the staff to make proper tea, as they had done decades ago, and serve it on Saturday afternoons in the lobby lounge. “For years, he made his way to New York to speak with guests and encourage the afternoon tea staff. Before long, his success at the Waldorf sparked interest from other hotels across America, and the renaissance of afternoon tea in America quietly began to flame,” he said.

“Like so many people, I feel blessed to have known John Harvey and to have counted him as a friend,” writes author and tea expert Jane Pettigrew.  “It was he who introduced me to the North American tea scene in 1993 when he invited me to the U.S. to be a part of his first tea conference and he also took me on a visit of all the best tea places in New York – we had such fun together – how could we not, with John’s amazing sense of humor, his generosity of spirit and his enormous kindness.  He was always such wonderful company,’’ she writes.

news_natconference_jharney_indianhat_240px.jpg“He called me Miss Jane, which made me feel so young and energetic and very, very English. My world of tea would have been much, much smaller and my enjoyment much diminished had it not been for the pioneering spirit, the enterprise, the support, and the encouragement and friendship of this extraordinarily special man,’’ she wrote.

John’s wife Elyse once told me that “John is blessed with a lovely heart. The smile in his heart is what makes the smile when you drink good tea.”

Harney served in the U.S. Marine Corps and graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Management. He is survived by Elyse and five children, John Jr., Keith, Michael, Elyse and Paul and 11 grandchildren.

Services were Friday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lakeville, Conn. Burial was in St. Mary’s Cemetery. Donations in lieu of flowers can be contributed in memory of John Harney to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

Source: Kenny Funeral Homes & Monumental Services