A Spot for Tea

TASTE

A SPOT FOR TEA

tea

Harney & Sons pour their hearts out

BY JENNIFER BRIZZI PHOTOGRAPHY BY MEREDITH HEUER

{xtypo_dropcap}I{/xtypo_dropcap}f Harney & Son’sMillerton shop was your home, you could open your eyes first thing in the morning to a hot bracing cup of Assam, the basis of Irish breakfast tea, with or without milk and sugar to soften its sturdiness. Its steam would warm your nose and please your senses, invigorating you for the day to come.

And when that wore off you could move on and try one of many green teas, a smoky Chinese gunpowder or a citron green blend perhaps, in the genial confines of the old building’s tasting room. You could sit on an antique wooden chair, its seat soft with age, as sun splashes your shoulders and you admire the botanical prints on the walls and the hundreds of teas lined up floor to ceiling in elegant black tins like an old pharmacopoeia. On the counter, clear round globes display the “Tea of the Moment,” whether a murky moss-colored genmaicha or a golden-amber Darjeeling. This continual tea party, this celebratory air, enhances the tasting experience and fosters a feeling of being at peace with the world.

“The greatest benefit of tea,” says James Norwood Pratt at a recent celebration of tea held at the shop, “is not to your mere body, but to your peace of mind.” Pratt has been a trusted friend of the Harneys, and frequent guest for tea, for over 25 years. An erudite wit and well-known tea expert who lectures widely, he is the author of several encyclopedic works on the subject, including the 2010 James Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary. The North Carolina native—now based in San Francisco—also penned the tongue-in-cheek Reading Tea Leaves by a Highland Seer, with an introduction by James Norwood Pratt and an afterword by John Harney (Clarkson Potter, 1995). “We like how tea makes you feel,” Pratt adds, explaining how its L-theanine, a naturally occurring amino acid found in teas, soothes and its caffeine invigorates, with a unique combination of mood-altering properties.

John Harney, who founded the company in 1983, worked in the hotel industry for much of his working life before striking out on his own at the age of 53 in a new incarnation as a tea merchant.With sparkling blue eyes and a manner that is as warm as it is convivial, Harney looks far younger than his 80 years. He began his makeshift tea operation in his basement, with five kids underfoot, his small assortment of teas—stored in heavy wooden chests then—in danger of soaking up cellar odors of tobacco smoke and bleach.

Over the years since, John Harney has come to supply the most discerning clients—from retailer Williams-Sonoma, the Ritz-Carlton and the Plaza to the Historic Royal Palaces of Great Britain—with hundreds of artfully blended teas and tisanes. His family makes a major contribution to the operation, in particular sonsMichael and Paul both travel widely in search of fine teas. Paul also runs the Oakhurst diner up the street from the teashop and is in charge of Harney production logistics and sales. Michael and Paul’s two brothers and sister help out as well, along with various spouses and grandchildren—it is truly a family operation.

“We have a tradition of tea,” says Michael Harney. “This is a multigenerational commitment to having great teas and spreading the good word about these teas. Also there is less push for a quick buck, so we are investing for the long haul. Investing in our teas, our staff and ourselves, so we can do a better job for our customers.”

The Harney family now blends and produces the teas in a large factory on the outskirts of town, then sells them online, in specialty shops and in their own stores—one centrally located in the Village of Millerton and another, just a few months old, on Broome Street in Manhattan’s SoHo district.

All About the Tea

All true teas come from an evergreen plant called Camellia sinensis, which remains vigorous and harvestable for a century, although its character evolves, possessing more glucose when young and becoming tougher as it ages in order to defend itself against sun and bugs. Any hot, steeped beverages that do not come from this plant are not true teas but rather infusions, or as the French say, tisanes.

Michael Harney travels extensively in India, China and other tea lands to meet with growers, tasting, testing and expanding his knowledge of the tea blender’s craft. His book The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea (Penguin Press, 2008) is recognized as an authoritative guide. With philosophies of “accepting only the exceptional” and “a legacy of passion and excellence,” the Harneys take care to offer unique blends that employ flavorings from essential oils rather than the spray-on aromas commonly used in the industry.

Their most popular tea is Hot Cinnamon Spice, says John Harney. It’s a blend of various black teas and cinnamons with clove and orange added. He admits it’s far from his own favorite, however, and with refreshing directness also admits to enjoying coffee.

“We found their tea to be superior to others that we tried, especially their blends and flavored teas,” says Amanda Depew, owner of The Tea Shop of Woodstock, when asked why she chooses to stock the teas, which form the majority of her inventory. “The flavored teas are balanced well. The taste of the tea comes first and then the flavors open up.” She lists shop favorites like Paris, fruity with a hint of bergamot (the citrus found in the popular Earl Grey), as well as Dragon Pearl Jasmine, Vanilla Comoro and Chocolate Mint.

Popular unflavored teas include those with subtle honey notes like Panyang Golden Tips and HarSha. For spring and summer, Depew says that her customers prize some of Harney & Sons’ fruity blends, naming Raspberry Herbal and Organic Green with Citrus and Gingko as being particular favorites for iced tea in warmer weather. Depew adds that she likes that Harney’s is local and that they are family- run. “Each [of the Harneys] makes their own contribution to making the company run as it does…. Harney’s is a real tea company not based on marketing gimmicks.

Tea Is Terroir

The world of tea is akin to the world of wine, the two beverages “sisters under the skin,” says Pratt, who was a wine writer before focusing on tea and who holds court sometimes during presentations at the Harney’s retail shops in Millerton and SoHo. “Once you learn to taste, you learn to taste.” Michael Harney adds that tea should be tasted like you would taste fine wine, swishing it over your palate to aerate it and bring out subtle nuances of flavor. A mindboggling variety of taste, texture, mouthfeel, color, opacity and strength exists in the world of tea that one can well compare to wine. In tea-tasting circles you’ll hear terms like brisk, biscuity or muscat, and many more. (“Biscuity” is a pleasant aroma found in quality Assam tea, “brisk” a certain acclaimed pungency and “muscat” a black-currant like flavor found in fine Darjeelings.)

Variations in flavor are not only a result of the type of tea plant but also the way it is processed. After tea leaves are harvested, the leaves (especially those of a cheaper grade) may succumb to the CTC procedure, for “Crush, Tear, Curl,” when they dry and wither, are shredded into tiny pieces and then heated to finish drying. A more handcrafted way of processing better quality tea leaves is the orthodox method of hand-harvesting the leaves, which are first withered like in CTC, but then rolled mechanically to extract flavor. They often then undergo oxidation (originally called fermenting, which it isn’t, technically) to darken the leaves and intensify the flavors, until they are heated to stop the process. The extent of oxidation affects the tea’s taste, where black teas are fully oxidized and green and white teas not at all.

Brewing technique affects flavor, bitterness and astringency as well, with a brew that can vary according to the type of water used, its temperature when heated and how long it is brewed.

According to Michael Harney, who was Harney’s second employee, joining the family business just a few years after his father John started it up, the traditional Indian teas the British once consumed were dark, basic and unsophisticated, fine for mixing with milk and sugar but lacking in complexity. Eventually, after India gained independence

from the British, their tea growers and merchants began to experiment with blends and created a market for more sophisticated, multidimensional teas. Among these are the rich and full-bodied Assam, and fragrant, fruity Darjeeling. These teas may be sold as “first flush” or “second flush,” based on the time of harvesting. The first flush is from a March harvest and generally produces a lighter, fresher-tasting, more delicate brew. The season for a second flush is around May and June and makes a smoother, sweeter tea. Both types have their proponents.

In the Millerton shop one recent day, served from white porcelain tasting kits that include a small bowl and tooth-edged pot, there were samples of two Darjeelings: Sungma, a second flush with aromas of cooked stone fruit, and Risheehat, a first flush that was light and brisk with tropical fruit notes.

Milder than black teas are the oolongs, semi-oxidized teas in a wide variety of flavor profiles grown in China, Taiwan and now India.

Green teas are unoxidized, most hail from Japan and China. “Green tea is your ally,” says Pratt. (Founder John Harney credits the curative powers of green tea for keeping his bladder cancer at bay for years). The Chinese version is toasted in a wok; the Japanese is steamed. Jasmine tea is a Chinese green tea that has been flavored with aromatic jasmine blossoms. Genmaicha is a Japanese tea mixed with toasted rice.

White teas are made from new buds picked before they open. They are air-dried, white from lack of chlorophyll, and make a pale, mild, subtle tea with many of the same health benefits as green tea. Harney’s also sells many organic teas as well as non-tea flavored infusions and blends made from bamboo leaves, chamomile, rooibos, yerba maté, herbs, flowers and fruits.

According to legend, tea was accidentally discovered around 2737 BC by Chinese emperor Shun Nung when tea leaves fell in his water, but in the West we’ve only appreciated it for about 400 years. And, until recently, Americans have not been part of tea’s fan club, with most of our favored teas being generic iced teas. But the Harneys and Pratt see that changing. “America is beginning to discover tea,” says Pratt happily. “It has been eclipsed by soft drinks for a century, but soft drink sales are declining and tea sales are up. It was the sixth most popular beverage in the country; now it’s the fifth.”

The Harneys and Pratt have hope for the world’s most popular beverage after water. “We are going to see America becoming a tea consuming society,” says Pratt. And with attention to finding the best product and blending it with care, the Harneys seem to be riding the wave of tea’s burgeoning popularity.

HARNEY & SONS
1 Railroad Plaza, Millerton
518-789-2121 • harney.com
Store and tasting room
open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
Café with full tea service: open Monday–Saturday,
11 a.m.–4 p.m., Sunday, noon–3 p.m.


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