A family-run business launched over thirty years ago in upstate Connecticut, Harney & Sons (433 Broome Street), purveyor of fine teas, now runs two shops — one in Millerton, New York, a small town of less than 1,000, and the other in SoHo where pedestrians numbers in the thousands every half hour. Recognized by Food & Wine as one of a handful of the top tea shops in the world, Harney & Sons is a tourist destination as well as a neighborhood boutique.
The business now spans three generations, all actively involved. Founder John Harney’s son Michael authored The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea, which was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for best beverage book of 2009. Tea sommelier Emeric Harney, grandson of founder John Harney and a master tea blender, holds a monthly tea class (think Tea 101) and tasting after the shop closes at 7:30 p.m. The class is two hours and costs $50 to explore 28 teas, their history, processes, and points of differentiation, particularly from a tasting perspective.
The SoHo shop is an experience — the central section of the space, a long tasting bar, affords customers the chance to taste one of 250 options for free against a backdrop of an apothecary display of teas. In the back, a lounge offers afternoon tea fare, wifi, and student discounts.
I dropped into the shop last weekend to poke around, and had the good fortune of meeting Emeric Harney while there. He agreed to answer a few questions about tea in New York, how restaurants serve it, his customers in SoHo, and trends.
We’ve seen the New York specialty coffee scene grow vigorously over the past half decade. Where are we in terms of the New York tea scene?
The New York tea scene, in my opinion, has always been here. Before we opened our shop in SoHo, there were companies like Miriam Novalle’s T Salon, Ito En Kai, Takashimaya, Wild Lily Tea Room that all provided great teas and were very successful. The way tea is presented and being offered now is changing. Ready-to-drink beverages are offering better tea options, with less concentrates and less sugar. Also, we see tea houses like ours, Press Tea and even Teavana Fine Teas and Tea Bar innovating how tea can be enjoyed, be it steamed, iced, carbonated, in a milkshake, in a float, or even in our food.
What is your perspective on the state of tea service at restaurants? This seems to be a challenge in terms of ensuring the proper water temperatures. Is this a growth area for restaurants or more of a niche?
As a company which started in foodservice and hospitality (my grandfather and father attended the Cornell School of Hotel Administration), we have a great appreciation for tea service in restaurants. We know that tea temperature is highly important to enjoying tea, but also we are aware of how a restaurant operates in terms of time, energy, and space. Our company has developed different tools that restaurants can use to prepare tea to the right specifications for a proper cup. Unfortunately, I am not sure if many restaurants will accept these or implement them or even go the extra mile and steep the tea before bringing it to the table. But the tea and coffee presence in the food industry is growing at a steady rate.
What is the customer mix in your SoHo location in terms of tourists and locals, and foreign tourists versus Americans? How strong are the differences in tastes among Americans and other countries?
It’s a pretty even split as far as foreigners vs. Americans in our customer base here in SoHo. We have a strong pull towards eastern tourists, customers who already have a tradition and familiarity with tea. They enjoy purchasing our tea as souvenirs. I think this might also be related to the great work our exporters are doing in other countries. As far as tastes are concerned, both Americans and foreigners have a strong inclination toward our flavored teas, specifically fruity and cinnamon teas. These are a great starting point to get introduced to the idea and preparation of tea, and frequently we find that then our customers will eventually explore the single estate teas and unflavored teas we offer.
What consumer trends are you seeing in terms of types of tea, tea products, tea-making equipment, etc.?
We’re seeing many more people incorporate tea in other aspects of artisanal products, be it in candles, soaps, food, chocolates, or even candies. Tea has so many applications and so many unique colors and scents, and people are realizing that increasingly. As far as equipment goes, there are innovations in different methods of infusing or steeping tea. There’s a company called Steampunk that uses a method of steaming tea leaves rather than steeping them in water. Also a big emerging trend is matcha. Consumers are drinking it iced, hot, with milk, in ice cream, in whipped cream, or even braised on their chickens or in their cream cheese. As a powdered tea, it has so many applications and is highly versatile
Are there any consumer misconceptions or knowledge gaps that will enable people to better enjoy tea, whether that be drinking outside of the home or brewing at home?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about tea is caffeine content. Most teas are less caffeinated than coffee; in fact, they are equal to about one-third to one-half of a cup of coffee. Furthermore, there’s an important amino acid called theanine present in tea. It stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin, which will counteract the effects of caffeine. Another misconception is that white tea is the least caffeinated of tea styles! The temperature and quality of the water used to prepare tea are just as important as the quality of the tea itself. It’s important to pay attention to the temperature suggestions, brew time, and serving recommendations for teas. If you’re enjoying tea out, it’s important that your tea have the water poured over it rather than added to the water. The pouring of water ensures that the tea is completely submerged and thus steeping fully.