Michael Harney has been the master tea buyer and blender for Harney & Sons for more than 25 years. He, is a published author and loves to scour the globe for great teas. Author of “The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea” a book he says he modeled after wine books.
Question: Were you naturally inclined to enter the tea business created by your father John Harney or did you explore other avenues prior to this?
Michael: I was in a hotel business which was the original family business. I studied Hotel Administration at Cornell University and followed a career in this field for eight years. My father at that point started Harney Sons. While working in the hotel industry I learnt about business, worked with numbers a great deal. More importantly it taught me how to make profit. I also gained experience in the wine business at a time when Californian wines were coming into the market and I experienced the California wine business develop and grow. I observed my father in the tea business as a teenager and when the time came for me to transition into the business I thought it was stupid for me since I had a promising career going for me. I found however that the experience I had of the hotel and wine business prepared me well for the business of tea. Nevertheless, first it’s “Tea” then its business.
Question: How do you stay ahead in the business of Tea? Becoming a master taster and blender, building a reputation as one – what did it take?
Michael: As I observed my father and the business I realized the sourcing of tea was important. I realized tea has to be viewed as an artisanal product and the differences in production techniques are important. I started to apply the model of the wine business. With my finance background I made sure cheques did not bounce, leveraged my contacts in the hotel business for sales. Approaching tea from a wine stand point helped. I started to learn the traditions in the business, the different flavors, how things were made, I worked on all this when I started. There was no course for learning all this. I was tasting and thinking about the tastes, asking questions of those who were knowledgeable. My father called himself a Master taster and blender, I never did.
I pay attention to what works and what does not work. Not everybody can taste. The other day I was with some scientific people and they were counting the number of taste buds people have. I luckily have a lot of these taste buds in my mouth. That helps, but you need determination and that is not always fun. Tasting 1000 Assams in a day is no fun. Diligence is never fun but hard work.
Tea business in the US started to mushroom and we have seen people come and go, we too could have been like them. To sell in one season is one thing but to stay in the industry and be stable over time takes determination and constant development. The tea business in the US has become stable. The main thing is to cover the waterfront with good teas.
We have to look for great teas, we always try to keep great teas. I look at peoples’ websites and they have a tea I do not carry, I have to evaluate whether I want to. The main thing is to cover the waterfront with good teas.
Question: There are so many retailers selling tea. How can one distinguish between them? What sets you apart?
Michael: The volume differences between flavoured and specialty teas are vastly different, e.g. Marco Polo from Mariage Frères is popular not first flush Darjeeling from Rishi. We try to sell straight teas, lots of Japanese teas.
We focus on maintaining consistent blends – we buy from Germany, Marcus Wolfe – his father developed first flush in the 60s and he is very knowledgeable about Darjeeling and he makes a blend, we taste it and say there is too much of this and we taste against the existing blends to maintain consistency.
China remains our largest source for tea, then India. We buy quite a bit of Assam, we have a Ceylon and Assam blend, and then Darjeeling and then Sri Lanka and then Japan. Nevertheless our Japanese supplier was amazed how much we buy.
We find the Chinese tea to be a good neutral backdrop and we can use it for our blends. Our hot cinnamon is popular, as is Paris, Earl Grey, English Breakfast. Our top ten teas would be chinese tea based. Chinese tea is less brisk more mellow and so it becomes a good canvas to paint on. Assam is brisker, Darjeeling is brisk, Nilgiris now are able to do speciality type of teas and they have developed organic teas so they are gathering momentum.
Every week I get someone offering money to buy equity in our company.
Question: Tea industry trends and future? Which teas are popular in America today?
Michael: The capsule business is growing in the US, there is also a third wave of coffee with tea and we want to be involved with these. We know people are looking for traceability, sustainability. I imagine the tea my son is going to drink and procure is gong to be different from what I do today. Changes in supply and demand are happening. The demand is taking care of itself, we have to figure out what the supply can be and get bigger.