The story of Harney & Sons is the entrepreneurial dream: a business that began in a basement and becomes a thriving global enterprise. The Harney & Sons line of fine teas is blended and packaged in a 90,000-square-foot warehouse in Millerton, and 200 employees staff a bottling plant in Hudson. Their two shops – one in Millerton and the other in SoHo – each include a tasting room, retail area and café. (The SoHo café serves tea and baked goods, with a bistro-style lunch menu offered in Millerton.) And if success is measured in part by the loved ones you bring on the journey with you, Harney & Sons fits the bill there, too: The company remains family-owned and managed, as it has been since the late John Harney launched the business in 1983.
His sons, Michael and Paul, are at the helm these days. Michael has been the buyer and master tea-blender of Harney & Sons for more than 25 years, traveling the world to meet with tea producers. His Harney & Sons Guide to Tea (Penguin Press, 2008) is a comprehensive resource for the tea-drinker interested in developing and refining his or her palate. Paul Harney is the creator of the company’s signature sachet teas and line of organic bottled teas and juices.
Michael’s wife Brigitte manages the retail shops. Their sons Emeric and Alex are, respectively, in charge of company marketing and executive chef/manager of the Harney & Sons Café in Millerton. John passed away in 2014. His widow Elyse serves as éminence grise, says Michael, with additional family members Griff and Mason (sons of his other brothers) running the blending room and online shipping.
The company offers more than 300 tea blends, including a line created by John Harney for the Historic Royal Palaces of England, an independent nonprofit that looks after six royal properties (including the Tower of London and Kensington Palace). Michael says that his father was always proud that the family teas were served in the UK, especially the royal palaces. Each unique blend pays homage to tea’s imperial history.
The focus at Harney & Sons is to pass on their passion for tea to a broad audience and deliver a superior tea-drinking experience. “We try to do what my dad taught us:” says Michael, “actually serve good-tasting tea. And not everybody does that in the tea business.”
The way it’s done is to buy great tea to start with. “Tea is a plant that converts the sun into sugars. If you buy the right tea, it has slightly higher levels of sweet-tasting substances.” The variations in the plants depend on where they’re grown and how they’re handled. The taste of tea derives from a combination of cultivation and production techniques, and is influenced by the geography of its origin; altitude, humidity, light and temperature are just some of the variables. The correct brewing temperature and time are also factors in the taste of a tea, as are the flavors infused through blending a variety of leaves with dried fruit, flowers, herbs and spices.
John Harney got into tea-blending through a neighbor, Stanley Mason, who had retired to the Salisbury, Connecticut area, where John was proprietor of the historic 1806 White Hart Inn. “Stanley was a third-generation tea man of English descent,” explains Michael. “His grandfather started in the tea business in London in the 1860s, and his father passed it down. They were a little bit like the Lipton family in the sense that they ran a grocery store and then became more specialized in tea.”
Stanley Mason started a small mail-order tea business in Connecticut and convinced John Harney to serve his blends at the Inn. “He taught my father about tea, and of course, it was a different version of tea than exists today. China wasn’t open, and there was a lot of what I call ‘British legacy teas,’ which were dark and took milk and sugar well.”
John began serving Mason’s teas at the Inn, which, according to Michael, “was a little bit of work in the 1960s,” when customers weren’t as interested as they are now in the subtleties of tea. Mason taught John how to blend teas himself, and eventually sold his tea business to Harney in 1970.
Harney & Sons was founded in 1983 with just six different tea blends. The company name was a bit of a misnomer at first, with the brothers not officially on board until years later. But maybe John was just optimistic; after all, Michael was packaging teas for his father’s business in the basement at age 15. “He also didn’t want people outside the family telling him what to do,” says Michael.
John Harney was originally from the Buffalo area. After attending Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, he moved to Connecticut in the mid-’50s to work at the White Hart Inn, and stayed. The company headquarters in Millerton are just across the border from Connecticut. The town of Millerton is a destination for many visitors, who come to experience the small-town charm and its shops, movie house, art galleries and restaurants.
The Harney & Sons location at 13 Main Street is a “three-part experience,” according to Michael: the tasting room, where people can sample and learn about teas; the retail section, managed by French-born Brigitte Harney, who supplements the tea products with a selection of elegant home goods and lifestyle items; and the 25-seat café and lounge, where visitors can relax and enjoy a bite to eat. The café offers soups and salads, along with a variety of sandwiches and entrées that include grass-fed beef sliders, a vegetarian curry bowl and mushroom risotto.
Lunch is served Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Lounge hours are Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Harney & Sons, 13 Main Street, Millerton; (518) 789-2121, www.harney.com.