Part 3: The Happy Few


G.S. Haly Co., Grace Rare Tea, Bigelow

By James Norwood Pratt

The first of these I met was the leading U.S. importer of fine teas, Michael Spillane of the San Francisco’s venerable G.S. Haly Company. From age nine, he had learned tasting at his mother’s knee after Marie Spillane was widowed and left her husband’s tea-importing business to run. His colleagues in the trade made sure the business did not fail while she learned—and she learned fast and taught her son. After college, he went into the business full-time and inherited not simply contacts but relationships around the world with firms and families that had been dealing with G.S. Haly Co. for many years.

Michael taught me the rudiments of tasting and the language of the trade—for instance, that Formosa oolong exhibits “no peaks, no bites.” One did not say “Taiwan” in those days, and Japan sencha was called “spiderleg.” But the new flavored teas Mike was importing from Germany produced most of G.S.Haly’s profits.

Also exceptional was Richard Sanders, owner of Grace Rare Tea. Grace, which sold only loose leaf teas by the half pound, had been the top-quality U.S. tea brand since its founding in 1954 by Dick’s former roommate at Harvard. Like Dick, the company and the teas were unapologetically elegant and old-school. The U.S. trade was all teabags all the time, and such firms and individuals were condescendingly dismissed by the Tea Association of the U.S. as dealers in “specialty tea.” In fact, they constituted almost the whole of the US “specialty tea” business, at most 1 or 2 percent of the total. About the only other “specialty tea” came from Bigelows, the US firm famous for “Constant Comment,” and imported British lines like Twinings, Jacksons and Fortnum & Mason.

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One thought on “Part 3: The Happy Few

  1. tionico

    My first experience with quality loose leaf tea was buying from Freed,Teller, and Freed, on Polk Street in San Francisco. back in the mid 1960’s. People I stayed witn in “the City” got their coffee (roated whole bean, which they brewed in a Chex after gringing by hand in an ancient wall mount mill). Runing low, the Dad was asked to make the perioduc pilgrimage to Freed’s to restock. I wil never forget stanidng in that retail store’s shopspace.. I bought perhaps three “safe” teas and my love affair of a lifetime with quality tea was born. Years later, as I was getting into business to sell green coffee, I decided that, since I also knew tea, I’d carry that as well. Ilearned of GS Haly through a mutual contact, rang them up… in the parry and thurst of “breaking the ice” I was asked “how is it that you, a coffee person, know so much about tea”. I explained my early experience with a loose leaf retailer in San Francisco, and my lifelong exploration of tea. “Who might that retailer have been?” I told him, he responded “well, we are THEIR parent company”. I responded “well,then, I have no further questions, how do I order? Since then I’ve mewt Mkie in person, spent time with him at their facility, shared teas in their cupping lab, and been brought along much further on my tea journey. Not only do GS Haly KNOW tea as few others do, they are dedicated to sharing everything they are able to bring along those of us “stil llearning” (which SHOUD include everyone still breating and drinking tea). It was actually through Mike Spillane I first became aware of Norwood. Mike had a few copies of one of his early tea books, signed by Norwood. He sold me one of them, now a permanent part of my tea literarture collection. A few years back I had opportunity to sit under Norwood for trwo days of intensive history lecture, then extsnsive cupping of the teas we’d examined the previous day. What a delight to experience a broad sample of the world’s classic teas with a guide as experienced as is Norwood Pratt. The experience was rather dear in price, but well worth it.

    The tea market here in the US is all agog over the latest herbal, fru-fru, “healthy”, teas…. and I shall ever remain thankful for the early introduction to quality loose leaf traditional teas at the hands of Freed, Teller, and Freed early on, then later under the sure guidance of Mike Spillane at GS Haly. LIttle did I know, way bac when, that I was joining a very small, exclusive “club” in favouring high quality loose leaf tea. Now I am the one delighting my own customers by introducing them to the classic standards, weaning them away from “the bag”, broadening their horizons, and, into the bargain, saving them money. If anyone had suggested I’d be doing this fifty years on from my first purchases at Freed’s, I’d have declared them barmy.