John Harney and Bruce Richardson at World Tea Expo 2009

The tea family lost one of its patriarchs this week with the passing of John Harney. John was the founder of Harney & Sons and one of the pioneers who helped light the fire beneath America’s tea renaissance beginning at the end of the 20th century.

Monday morning, John – in typical fashion – stopped at a roadside stand and bought all the fresh strawberries available before heading to the office. Like Santa at Christmas, he doled them out to employees before returning to his Connecticut home that afternoon. He died quietly later in the day.

Anyone who has a vocation in specialty tea should thank John Harney for a portion of their success.

San Francisco writer Norwood Pratt collaborated early on with John. Norwood described the proliferation of the teabag as “the race to the bottom” for contemporary tea drinkers. “Tea had been drained of its romance,” he recalled. Norwood was the author of one of America’s first books on wine, The Wine Bibber’s Bible. He eventually set forth writing The Tea Lover’s Treasury, a collection of tea essays steeped in the romance of tea’s colorful history and its influence on art and culture. 

The book appeared in 1982, just before the dearth of good tea in New York City finally came to a climax with this New York Times editorial, Tea Snobs and Coffee Bigots, from November 30, 1983:

“…four-star tea is hard to find. Even when found, it can be elusive, as we’re reminded by a tea drinker we know: ‘Once, after lunch in a nice midtown restaurant, I got my tea, in a nice china pot. I poured it, lemoned it, sugared it and sat back, content. After a few minutes, with my cup now half empty, a solicitous bus boy came over and refilled it – with coffee.’”

The Times article was read many times over in Salisbury, Connecticut by John Harney. The former Marine and graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Management had recently bought a small tea business, Sarum Tea, from his mentor and local English ex-patriot Stanley Mason. Mason and his father had apprenticed themselves to the London tea trade at an early age and Stanley’s brother had been president of England’s renowned Brooke Bond Tea Company. John was sure that Americans could rekindle their love for quality loose-leaf teas.

With the Times article and a copy of Norwood’s Tea Lovers’ Treasury in hand, John made a call on the food and beverage director at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. He convinced the hotel that he could train the staff to make proper tea, as they had done decades ago, and serve it on Saturday afternoons in the lobby lounge. For years, he made his way to New York to speak with guests and encourage the afternoon tea staff. Before long, his success at the Waldorf sparked interest from other hotels across America, and the renaissance of afternoon tea in America quietly began to flame. 

Shelley Richardson, John, and Jane Pettigrew. Philadelphia 2012

By 1993, John took notice of the first telltale wisps of hope rising from a new tea revolution smoldering across America. Shelley and I met him at a benefit tea in Louisville where I was put in charge of preparing Harney teas for a tasting session hosted by John. He was impressed that someone in Kentucky actually steeped his teas properly and we became fast friends. He organized a tea summit in Salisbury, Connecticut, and invited everyone he knew who possessed a love for specialty tea. Forty people joined him for the inaugural event, including Nancy Lindemeyer, Jane Pettigrew, Norwood Pratt, Pearl Dexter, Joe Simrany, and Marcus Wolf. John asked me to be one of the speakers. I look at that event as the beginning of my tea career.

Those ranks of tea lovers doubled with the next meeting and attendance eventually swelled to nearly 300 jubilant teaists in 1996 when the weekend event was held in Rye, New York. Encouraged and energized with the knowledge that there were others across the country who shared their passion for tea, these dedicated disciples spread the new tea gospel to the four corners of America and the modern tea movement was launched.

Meanwhile, Harney & Sons continued to grow. John loved to tout the fact that he supplied tea to the Buckingham Palace gift shop and London’s grand Dorchester Hotel. It was his way of letting the British know, “The Americans are coming and we’re serious about tea this time!”

John greets Dorothea Johnson in an illustration
from the book Children’s Tea & Etiquette.
More than a professional acquaintance, John was a dear friend. Phone calls from John – often out of the blue – began with him saying “How’s it going, Rev?” (He took great delight in knowing I had a seminary degree.) He would say he was fine and ask if I had seen Norwood Pratt, Jane Pettigrew, or Dorothea Johnson lately. He usually called them as soon as he hung up the phone with me. The conversations were positive, encouraging, and always filled with laughter.

I still remember the details of many of the meals and meetings I was fortunate to share with John: seated with the Harney clan following a tea summit in Rye, eating Chinese food in San Francisco along with Norwood and sons Michael and Paul, sharing a quiet dinner in Atlanta with Jane Pettigrew and Dorothea Johnson, or hugging and laughing as we greeted each other at World Tea Expo or a Fancy Food Show. He loved to introduce me by saying “This guy sells tea in Kentucky. If you can sell tea in bourbon country, you can sell tea anywhere!”

Well, John, I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t encouraged me all those years. If you can sell tea to the British, I can sell tea to Kentuckians. 

After Norwood and Valerie Pratt called today to tell me of your passing, I kept up your ritual by immediately calling Jane, Dorothea, and a few others in our long-standing tea family.
They were all sad but soon chuckling as we recalled your jovial spirit over the years. And we all agreed – you are fine.

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