executive impact

Anytime is tea time for Harney & Sons master blender

By Chris Betros

One of the hottest imported tea brands in Japan currently is Harney & Sons. Founded in New York 30 years ago and still very much a family business headquartered in Millerton, NY, Harney & Sons teas are sold in almost 60 countries. In Japan, the teas have been distributed exclusively by Wonderlily Co since 2010 and are available at around 250 retail locations and restaurants including Dean & DeLuca, high-end lifestyle stores such as Bals, Cibone and Conran, Michelin-starred restaurant Jean-Georges, the popular cafes Magnolia Bakery, Sarabeths, along with its flagship in Takashimaya department store. Harney teas are also served at many high-end hotels such as Peninsula Tokyo and a tea station at Google’s head office in Tokyo.

Emetic Harney, grandson of company founder and fine tea artisan John Harney, and himself a master tea blender, was in Japan recently attending tea seminars, tea pairing dinners, and some meet & greet events with tea lovers.

“Japan is a really big market for us,” said the affable Harney who is general manager of the company’s Soho store in New York. “Our store sees a lot of Japanese tourists because we have been in guidebooks and magazines. They come in and take photos. It’s amazing. Japanese like to buy the tea as gifts; they’ll buy 20-30 circular tins at a time for their friends back home.”

The popularity of the tea has helped the company expand around the world. “Potential distributors reach out to us sometimes by just coming into the store in New York,” said Harney. “They may have had it at their hotel and will come up to me and ask if we have distribution in their country. It’s been a great way to help us increase our export market.”

The company’s business model is to work through exclusive distributors in each country, although they have done co-branded stores. The store at Takashimaya Nagoya, which opened in late April 2015, is Harney & Sons’ first real dedicated store overseas, and is operated by Wonderlily CEO Yuri Yureeka Yasuda.

Harney said sales have been growing at a healthy 10-15% a year, with the main overseas markets being Japan, Australia, France and the UK. Business is good at home, too. “The tea culture is growing in the U.S. In particular, Japanese tea is taking a huge leap in the market and becoming popular. Five years ago, we only had one grade of matcha and now we have four. People like their daily matcha latte and that’s very exciting. You know, before World War II, 40% of the tea trade in the United States was Japanese to begin with, so it is nice to see us go back to that.”

Each year, members of the Harney family do buying trips abroad. The tea leaves are supplied by countries such as China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Indonesia, Rwanda, Kenya and Colombia…and the list is growing.

Harney has been enjoying his time in Japan and finds Japanese tea drinkers very knowledgeable. “We did a seminar to introduce the company, talking about its history and our teas. We had some interesting tea drinks, like tea soda and tea latte. We’ve done tea cocktails before in the U.S. I think what’s making tea popular everywhere is that people are using it in various ways, they are cooking with it, making cocktails and lotions, as well as drinking it.”

In Japan, the gift market is huge, as are seasonal promotions for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and a bridal line for June. In all, there are about 300 Harney & Sons blends produced and roughly 100 chosen from them for the lineup available in Japan. “Cinnamon is the most popular flavor everywhere, Japan, too. It’s our No. 1 export,” Harney said. “We have made a few original blends for Japan. We rely a lot on Yureeka's network and knowledge of her market and it’s worked out well. She has brought in custom projects with Louis Vuitton, Sony, Lexus, American Embassy and so forth.”

As a master tea blender, Harney said the most important attribute is to have a good nose for the aroma of tea leaves. Other than that, the rest is instinct and he closely follows the philosophy of his grandfather that “tea time is anytime.”

“I’ve also learned a lot from being around my father and just by tasting teas because tea-drinking is such a communal aspect. There is no right way to drink tea, other than whatever way makes you happy.”

Naturally, we have to ask Harney how often he drinks tea. “I drink 7-8 cups of tea a day. It’s a large part of my life,” he admitted. “The doctor requested me to go off caffeine for three weeks to see what it would do to my body. It was the hardest there weeks of my life. Our teas contain about 40-60 milligrams of caffeine.”

And his favourite blend? “Japanese Sencha from Shizuoka Prefecture. We buy from a family that has been in the business for four generations,” he said.

For more information about Harney & Sons in Japan, visit www.harney.jp.

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