I opened the long slender menu, thinking it was the wine list. It was a drinks list, but not wine. At Harney and Sons Cafe in Millerton, NY the drink is tea. About 230 teas were listed: green, matcha, oolong, or black; blended or single variety; all available iced or hot.
We had toured the 90,000 square foot blending-packaging-warehouse facility just before lunch and now were thirsty for tea. On information overload from the tour, we were looking forward to a cuppa, but this list was daunting.
Consulting with our charming waiter, we showed him a photo of white peach matcha being blended on our tour. “That one’s delicious,” he said and whistled up a carafe of it over ice. The bright green color and authentic peach
aroma was much admired by nearby tables.
Harney and Sons, master tea blenders, started in the basement of the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, CT in 1983. Innkeeper John Harney learned the business from tea merchant Stanley Mason and began blending and shipping six types of tea to other hotels and Inns. The enterprise has grown from the basement of the inn to a thriving national and international brand for fine and flavored teas.
Harney and Sons is a multi-generation family business. Founder John Harney passed away in 2014 but is still listed as president and is honored with a parking spot out front. His two sons, Mike and Paul, are
now in charge. Mike’s wife Brigitte and their sons Alex and Emeric work there too.
Family members travel the world for tea: Paul representing the company across America; Brigitte to Europe; and everyone to India and China to select teas for the catalog.
Our tour, led by Rob Russotti, revealed the scope of the operation. Bales of China Black Tea, the foundation for Harney’s blends, were stacked to the ceiling – and it’s a high ceiling. Boxes, bins, and bags of flavorings like orange peel, lavender, and ginger are kept near the blending room.
Blending is done by strict recipe with all the ingredients being tumbled until thoroughly mixed. Smaller production teas like our white peach matcha are blended in rotating drums that look like small cement mixers.
Two 100 year old tumblers, looking like large industrial laundry dryers, handle bigger loads. One of them is dedicated exclusively to Hot Cinnamon Spice. A mix of three types of cinnamon, sweet clove, orange peel, and china black tea, it’s the biggest seller in the Harney lineup. A large almost two-story rig does the really big loads. The aromas are enticing.
Elaborate machines then fill and label tea bags and tea sachets. Looking like miniature pyramids, the sachets have enough space inside to allow full size tea leaves to unfold as they steep – just like loose tea. Tea bags, on the other hand, hold finely cut tea in their cramped quarters.
Tea – bag, sachet, or loose – is measured and packed in Harney’s signature square tins. With roughly 275 different varieties, there’s a lot of logistics involved in keeping the tea, packaging, and labels straight and then getting the orders out.
We learned that when tea is first picked, its green. In a drying and oxidizing process called withering, the tea progresses to oolong, and with more withering becomes black. All the same leaf, just withered more. Matcha is specially grown and finely ground green tea, which brews to a bright green color. Tea flavor, like fine wine, is a result of plant type, growing place, and cultivation techniques.
Each tea in the Harney collection is briefly described and rated by Mike on a one to five scale for briskness, body, and aroma to help you pick among the hundreds of choices.
In Millerton, there’s a tasting bar, retail store, and cafe all under one roof. When we visited, Amba Ceylon and Soba Matcha were offered for tasting. It’s pleasant to spend some time learning about proper brewing, discussing the provenance of the tea, and tasting.
The gift shop carries an extensive selection of Harney teas as well as tea accessories, books, and hostess gifts.
Outdoor seating nearly doubles the size of the small cafe. Sandwiches and salads are named after Harney family members. Bertram (same name as our son), a grilled chicken sandwich with avocado, Nodine’s bacon, and tomato on whole grain bread was a good match with green salad. As you would expect in a tea restaurant, scones with clotted cream and jam for dessert were some of the best I’ve ever had.
Millerton is about 75 miles due north. We took the drive up Rt 22 in New York and came back on shady Rt 7 along the Housatonic. If you don’t want to go that far, Harney and Sons has a tea shop and cafe in SoHo on Broome St in NYC.
The teas, of course, are available at Harney.com and from their informative catalog.