Brigitte Harney is the retail manager for Harney & Sons, a second-generation member of a three-generation family business founded in 1984. Along with a retail store and restaurant at the company’s headquarters in Millerton, New York, Harney is now overseeing Harney & Sons’ retail expansion to Manhattan, with a new store and tea salon opening next month in SoHo. She took a moment to chat with us about tea: brewing, tasting, and why tea likes to “swim freely.”
How did you get started in tea?
I began working with Harney & Sons when the kids were little. My husband Michael and I had come back to Connecticut so that Michael could join his father in the business. I got involved in retail, and took it over about fifteen years ago. The retail started as a very small room in our Connecticut offices, then moved to another location that was a bit bigger, but not much. Then we moved to our location in Millerton, New York, which is a lot larger. We’ve been there for five years.
How would you describe your taste in tea—your ‘tea palate?’
I like my teas to be very smooth, and I like interesting flavors. On the green side, I like the lighter oolong, the greener oolong—I like more the floral aspect of the notes. In the darker oolong, the notes are more like stone fruit—peach or apricot. I like them, but they’re not my favorite.
I taste a lot of tea with Michael, and I try to find unusual teas, like he does. We don’t always have the same palate, so we find different things. Michael doesn’t like [the Chinese tea] Pu-erh, which is usually fermented for a certain length of time and aged in caves. But I love that type of tea because it brings back to me the fall—you know, you smell a bit of mushroom or wet leaf in the fall.
The last time I went to Japan, I found a tea called Tencha. It’s not very popular in Japan but it’s very good, so we brought it here to the States.
How many teas do you stock?
In the store we have at least 250. We also do mail order. We have a catalogue that is published three times a year, and a website. (laughs) The website does three or four times the business of the store.
Harney & Sons has a tea called “Brigitte’s Blend.” Tell us about that.
Michael blended it. He took two of my favorite teas—at least, they were my favorites at that moment. It’s a full-leaf assam that has a nice roundness to it, and then he added another assam from Sri Lanka–a beautiful estate tea that has a lot of gold and silver tips in it, much more mellow than most Ceylons. So that is blended in Brigitte’s Blend, pretty much 50 50. And that’s very good. (laughs)
What’s your favorite tea these days?
It’s still assam in the morning. A nice breakfast tea blend. It has what they call a broken leaf. So it’s little stronger, for a morning brew. To wake you up.
For afternoon, I like some of our oolongs or darjeeling. We have a wonderful darjeeling that is up in the elevation. It’s called Himalayan Orange. It doesn’t have an orange flavor, that’s just the name of the tea. And it has a nice, almost citrusy flavor. But it’s not added, it’s just the way the tea leaves taste. And that’s very nice for the afternoon.
Personally, we like the tea just loose. We throw the loose leaf in one pot, brew it in that pot, and then decant it into another pot. We think that’s the best way, but for some people, that’s a little tricky, the cleaning and making, so we recommend infusers. A lot of people come [to the store] and they want to get the tea ball, the cute little spoon, or the new tea tubes, or whatever they call those. And they’re very attractive, but to make tea, they’re not very good. The best way really is for leaves to swim freely and expand.
What does it mean for a tea to be ‘up in elevation’?
The teas that grow in higher elevations have a slightly lighter body. They sometimes can become a little more astringent faster, so we have to adjust not so much the water temperature as the brewing time. A comparison would be that a black tea would be like a red wine, and a darjeeling would be a white wine. Color and body will be different.
Water temperature, brewing time… Can you give us some advice on brewing a really good cup of tea?
It depends on the tea, but it also depends on the person. When people come into the store, we give recommendations, but it’s up to the person to adjust it according to taste.
Usually for black teas—and this is true because the tea is so much darker, and it will take longer to release the flavors—we recommend high boiling water, as close to boiling as you can, and an infusion of between four to five minutes. It all depends on the size of the leaves. Maybe you do four minutes with a broken leaf and five minutes for the longer, fuller leaf. You’ll want to try to pre-heat the teapot, because you want to keep the vessel and the water as hot as you can. Sometimes you remove your kettle from the stove and [the water temperature] will drop, unfortunately. But you try to keep it as hot as you can.
That would be for the black teas. For the green teas, it’s different. For the Chinese green, we brew them at 175 degrees for three minutes. If you use too hot a water on something that is green, you’re going to scald it, and if you brew it too long it will be so bitter that people are not going to like it. That’s one of the reasons why people usually go, ‘Oh! Green tea, I hate it. It’s too bitter.’ Green tea needs less time and less heat.
The Japanese green is different. They are so green that sometimes we brew them even faster, like between one and two minutes.
How do you know when it’s done?
Use a timer (laughs). I know it’s awful to say, but we time the teas. You want to do it right.
What are your best-selling blends?
At the store, the top seller is Hot Cinnamon Spice. For me it’s too much—it’s very sweet from the cinnamon, and very spicy from the cinnamon and orange that are added. But as far as flavored teas are concerned, it’s our top seller, and then the second runner up is Paris. We were doing that as a private blend for a retail client, a hotel. And then when we tasted it, we said, You know, that tea tastes like Marco Polo from Mariage Frères. You know that tea?
Yes (laughs). I know it well.
Okay, so obviously, it’s not the same thing. We don’t know their secret. But it’s pretty close. It’s one of our top sellers, aside from the Hot Cinnamon Spice.
With some of our flavored teas, we add fruit or flowers to the loose tea. The apricot tea and the peaches-and-ginger tea have pieces of fruit. So does the black currant. We have a rose-scented tea that’s flavored with essential oil but also has petals, so you can see them as well as smell them.
In Millerton, our store has the tasting room, where people can sample the teas before buying them. Sometimes people will see a tea on the shelf and it’s a beautiful tea, and it will be $20 for four ounces. That’s quite a lot of money. So it’s better if they can try it before they buy it. We encourage that—they can taste any teas, but it makes sense especially for those types of teas that are more expensive or unusual. And then we can teach them how to brew it so they can really enjoy it. Because sometimes they’re going to grab it because it sounds interesting, and they don’t know how to brew it and they just think it’s … awful (laughs).
Also in the store, we do something which is kind of nice, a step toward helping the environment: we refill people’s tins. When we sell [loose] tea by the pound, we encourage people to bring their tins back. And we give them an extra discount on the pound price. People like that a lot. They really enjoy the fact that they don’t have to throw the tins away.
Will you be doing that in the new store in SoHo?
Yes, of course. We’ll do refills. The only difference with SoHo is that we cannot have the same kind of restaurant that we have at the Millerton store, because we have some restrictions with our building. So when we open, we will offer more what they call ‘cream tea’ in England, which is scones with cream and jam. And then we will come up with ways to offer different things that don’t require a full kitchen.
Is there anything you don’t do with tea?
Personally? (laughs) I don’t add milk or sugar. I drink it straight. Because then you can really taste it, all the different flavors that are in it. You can pick up on the note of citrus fruit, or the notes of a flower. And if you put milk or sugar, you cannot discover those different aromas.