Part 3: THE HAPPY FEW
G.S. Haly Co., Grace Rare Tea, Bigelow
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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