John Harney, founder of Harney & Sons, a specialty tea company that helped restore the American palate for high-quality teas, died June 17 at home in Salisbury, Conn. He was 83.
The cause was apparently a heart attack, said his son Michael, vice president of the family-owned company.
Mr. Harney was part of an informal community of U.S. entrepreneurs and food pioneers who barnstormed the country in the 1980s and ’90s to acquaint restaurant managers, their patrons and the public — one afternoon-tea demonstration at a time — with the dying art of tea appreciation.
He conducted demonstrations for the waiters and waitresses at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and for the book club at the public library in Rye, N.Y., introducing the nuances of aroma, body, complexity and aftertaste in loose teas from China, Africa and India to people whose experience with tea had often been limited to what came in store-bought tea bags.
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“John became a missionary of tea,” said Peter Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the USA, a trade group.
An inveterate and jovial campaigner — he was involved in community affairs and politics, and helped secure the Republican nomination for a neighbor, James L. Buckley, in his unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut in 1980 — Mr. Harney described his tea-promoting efforts, in a 2001 CNN interview, as part entrepreneurial and part inspirational:
“All we wanted to do was get out there and convert — sort of like St. John with his gospel of tea. That’s what I consider myself.”
Though far from re-establishing tea as the No. 1 beverage in the United States (status it lost as a tragic side effect, by tea lovers’ accounts, of the 1773 tea-tax protest that ignited the Revolutionary War), efforts by Mr. Harney and his like are credited with quadrupling U.S. tea consumption in the past two decades.
Harney & Sons, which began with a selection of six varieties in 1983, expanded its catalog to more than 300 blends, many of them now standard fare at luxury hotels, including the Waldorf-Astoria and Ritz-Carlton in New York and the Dorchester in London.
The Historic Royal Palaces, which operates sites in Britain such as Kensington Palace and the Tower of London, stocks its gift shops with a proprietary line of teas blended by Harney & Sons.
John David Harney was born on Aug. 26, 1930, in Lakewood, Ohio, to William and Hildegard Harney. His father, an engineer who moved frequently to find work in airplane factories, left his children with relatives after their mother died in the early 1940s, when John was 12. As a teenager he lived with an aunt and uncle who ran a country inn in Vermont.
He served in the Marine Corps from 1948 to 1952, and graduated from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. By 1960, he had moved to Salisbury to become part owner and innkeeper of the White Hart Inn, a two-century-old restaurant and hotel.
It was at the White Hart that Mr. Harney, a committed coffee drinker, was converted to the gospel of tea. His St. John was Stanley Mason, an Englishman who had settled in northwest Connecticut after 50 years in the London tea trade. In retirement, Mason had started a small company to blend and package premium teas, and he persuaded Mr. Harney to add some to his menu.
Mr. Harney’s guests liked the teas so much that he bought Mason’s company, hired Mason as his consultant and began a 10-year apprenticeship in the tea trade. In 1983, two years after Mason died, Mr. Harney sold his share in the inn and established Harney & Sons with family help and a handful of employees.
The company now reports about $30 million in annual sales and employs 150 people. It imports about 1 million pounds of tea each year, which it sells in the United States and abroad in a wide variety of styles and packages at prices ranging from $2 to $500 a pound. It moved its packaging operations to Millerton, N.Y., in 2000.
Besides his son Michael, Mr. Harney is survived by his wife, Elyse; three other sons, John Jr., Keith and Paul; a daughter, Elyse; a sister, Susan Rooney; a brother, Jerry; and 10 grandchildren.
Mr. Harney remained modest about his expertise. But he held to two absolute rules in making a good cup of tea, whether using a camomile from Egypt or a Darjeeling from India, a tangy black Lapsang souchong or a soft jasmine blossom pouchong.
First, to use “furiously boiling water,” he told The New York Times in 1983, defining furiously (with a thermometer he always carried in his pocket) as exactly 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
Second, to make sure it is properly steeped: “Five minutes,” he said. “No more, no less.”