Mike Harney Spills the Tea: All in the Details

by Mike Harney December 01, 2020 7 min read 25 Comments

Mike Harney Spills the Tea: All in the Details

For this second installment of Mike Harney (that’s me) Spills the Tea, I thought our audience might be interested in why some teas with similar names or categories or origins can be very different. It’s one of the things I love best about the tea business: the nuances of teas, the subtle things that make a not-so-subtle difference. Some of that occurs naturally, some it is the art of blending tea. For a tea nerd like myself, this is all fascinating stuff. Hopefully, it is to you, too!

I’ve put together a list of some teas and then broken down their differences for you. I encourage you to take some time to be mindful of the different aromas and tastes you experience the next time you sit down with a cuppa. It makes doing so that much more enjoyable. Up first...

Earl Grey, Earl Grey Supreme, Earl Grey Imperial, Winter White Earl Grey, Viennese Earl Grey

Earl Grey is the original blend of this genre. Our recipe was devised by Stanley Mason (who you will remember from our Harney History blog as an older British gentleman who got my Dad, John Harney, into the tea biz) and he handed it down to Dad. The rest are versions:

  • Earl Grey Imperial uses teas from around the former British Empire and is stronger.
  • Winter White uses white tea as a base so it is lighter.
  • Viennese Earl Grey was given to me by a Viennese tea man - it has darjeeling in the base teas, so it has a bit of a lighter and floral edge.
  • Earl Grey Supreme is a customer favorite. They just love this particular blend of lovely teas, handfuls of white tea and a bit extra of lemony bergamot.

Irish Breakfast, English Breakfast, Special English Breakfast and Supreme Breakfast

Well you have breakfast most mornings, so we offer options. You can keep to your tried and trusted start to the morning, or you can change it up.

  • English Breakfast. Stanley Mason passed his version of English Breakfast down to Dad, and that is an old-time version of black teas from Keemun, China. It is lighter than the current breakfast teas drunk in the UK.
  • Special English Breakfast. If you need something stronger and want to drink it with milk and sugar, please consider our Special English Breakfast that uses very strong CTC teas from Assam and Kenya. I call it English English Breakfast.
  • Irish Breakfast. Our version of Irish Breakfast is based upon an old recipe that our forefathers carried with them across the sea (just a bit of blarney from a Harney), but it is made with a stronger tea from Assam, India. Since they are made in a traditional method, they are not as strong as the teas from Kenya, but they are sweeter. I drink Assam tea most mornings, so I am a believer.
  • Supreme Breakfast. My brother Paul came up with Supreme Breakfast, and it is the best of both worlds: a lovely Hao Ya B (from the same area as our English Breakfast) and a high-end Assam (same area as our Irish Breakfast Tea).

Matcha Jobetsugi, Matcha Senjunomukashi, Matcha Unjonotomo

Matcha is the ground tea leaves that we get from my friend Tsuyoshi from Uji, Japan. They are very nice teas that you can whisk up into a foam, so none are a culinary matcha that one uses for lattes and muffins. They are good, better and best. It turns out the closer you get to Uji, the better the terroir (a fancy French word for “environment,” my wife is French so it’s ok if I use it).

  • Jobetsugi (thin grade) is grown about 20 miles outside of Uji,
  • Senjunomuksahi (thick grade) is grown a bit closer, and
  • Unjonotomo (extra thick grade) right on the banks of the Uji gawa (river in Japanese).

The terroir affects  the amount of umami in these matchas. Umami means mouth-filling sweetness in English (not really, but it might as well). None of these matchas are ordinary, just a question as to how much you think umami is worth to you.

Ceylon Vintage Silver Tips and Chinese Silver Needle

Both of these whites look sort of similar, except the Ceylon is a bit more bleach blond and combed straight, too.

  • Chinese Silver Needle is the original and grown on the hills of northern Fujian Province. They do it the old-fashioned way with the fat buds of the Da Bei tea plant (translated as Big White) plucked in the middle of the spring. They are left in the sun for a few hours and then put inside until they slowly change from green to white. This happens because the chlorophyll pigment is not mature, so it cannot be fixed green like green teas. Since there is a bit of time before the buds are dry, there is some chemical oxidation, and that adds a touch of fruity flavors.
  • Ceylon Vintage Silver Tips, in contrast, is a side job. Only some plants in the mountains of Sri Lanka develop the big buds. Then they do it totally differently than in China. The buds are steamed and then dried; this makes for a simpler sweetness. The brew reminds me of one of my favorite things, warm maple sap before some New Englander boils it down into syrup. 

Hot Cinnamon Spice and Hot Cinnamon Sunset

  • Hot Cinnamon Spice. One of the early Harney blends was Hot Cinnamon Spice. A friend of our dad told him about this blend, and we are thankful to Josh many times a day because it is our top seller. It is a mixture of black tea and several types of cinnamon flavors, orange peel and cloves. Our father said it reminded him of his favorite childhood candy: Red Hots. And the good news is that there is no sugar or other sweetener, so even my diabetic son can enjoy it. 
  • Hot Cinnamon Sunset. Why Spice and Sunset? Ah, that is one that we need a philosopher like Aristotle or Plato to help with. Actually, our best customer back many years ago said that she wanted to change spice to sunset. And since we were a tiny company and wanted to please this customer, we agreed. So the only difference is the last word, otherwise it is the same popular blend. 

Chai, Indian Spice, Organic Rooibos Chai

When I joined my father in the tea company many decades ago, I learned that tea came from India. Little did I know about tea. Later I learned that Indians loved to mix their spices with milk and sugar. And that they call it chai (just like southern Chinese do-- but that is another story).

  • Indian Spice was my first attempt, which is a strong black tea with a few spices. It does taste good with milk and sugar.
  • Chai. Later, someone asked for a different version, so we added more spice and a hint of vanilla, resulting in our Chai tea.
  • Organic Rooibos Chai. Since our Chai tea was so popular, we made this caffeine-free herbal version using organic rooibos with many spices and natural cardamom.
  • Chai Hara. “Hara” in Hindi means green, so we use a south Indian green tea along with those warm chai spices and cardamom to make a wonderful chai for green tea lovers.

Lapsang Souchong and Smoke Tea

A category all their own, you either love ‘em or you don’t. Think campfire in a cup.

  • Lapsang Souchong (aka Zhengshan XiaoZhong-- think about it and it works) is an ancient tea from high in Wuyishan mountains of Fujian, China. I have visited this restricted place about five times, and it is so pretty with the pine trees rising into the fog. The teas are slowly oxidized (turned black), so all sorts of lovely flavors have the time to develop, then baskets are hung over smoldering fires. It is a bit like they make hams in Virginia. This tea has become beloved over many generations; Queen Victoria had a sweet spot for it, even when the British were making their own teas in India. We chose a Lapsang that has an assertive smokiness. Yes, there are smokier teas out there, but that is why I get paid the big bucks to make these decisions.
  • Smoke Tea. On a recent trip to Taiwan, my tasting buddy, Elvira Cardenas, and I were introduced to a similar tea. It does seem that Smoke tea is more assertive. Obviously, the different location and tea type make up some of the differences.

Scottish Morn and Scottish Afternoon

When the cold fog settles over the Highlands of Scotland, it is hard to tell the morn from the afternoon. Both of these teas are strong enough to warm a soul up there.

  • Scottish Morn is the stronger of the two. Something that you can stand a spoon up in.
  • Scottish Afternoon is definitely lighter with the addition of darjeeling and also a bit more sophisticated.

Tower of London and Victorian London Fog

A Tale of One City! These two teas have different origins and very different flavors, the only bond is the city along the Thames River.

  • Tower of London is part of the original Historic Royal Palace blends and is a black tea with fruit and citrus notes accented by natural honey flavor. (On a trip I led to London two years ago, we were able to cut the long line and see all the royal jewels that are stored in the Tower of London. I hope to repeat  that trip after the COVID is in the rear view mirror.)
  • Victorian London Fog (VLF for the cognoscenti) was the winner of our Reader’s Choice award a few years ago. I’ll be honest, I did put my finger on the scale to make it win. And no one has complained. People love black tea with vanilla lightened by lemony oil of bergamot and accented by French lavender. 

Jasmine Tea and Yin Hao Jasmine 

Fujian Province is the center of many great Chinese teas, so I always love visiting bustling Province. One of the jewels they make are all the different jasmines up in the eastern corner in Fuan and Fuding. There they grow special tea plants that can make big white buds (also made in various white teas). So in April and May, they pluck the tea and steam it to fix it white or green. Later in the year, the tea is shipped south to Guangxi Province, and then jasmine flowers are mixed in to scent the tea. The difference between our regular  Jasmine and  Yin Hao is two parts: the Yin Hao is a better tea because (1) it is made earlier in the year with smaller leaves and a bud that turns white (the chlorophyll is not mature), so the resulting tea is sweeter and fills your mouth up. Also, (2) there is more attention taken during the scenting phase. For six nights, the jasmine flowers are mixed to make a more floral scent. Now, we do offer many other jasmines, so this is just part of the story.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all the tea I have to spill today. Hope you enjoyed what you learned and didn’t get too soaked in the spilling process. Stay tuned to see what I overfill your cuppa with next time!

Mike Harney
Mike Harney


25 Responses

Jim Ruddick
Jim Ruddick

January 12, 2021

Very nice job Mike. Especially like the story about the Hot Cinnamon Sunset. Who would have guessed. Waiting for another of your tea trips with Onward Travel.

Donna Sterlace
Donna Sterlace

January 12, 2021

Thank you for the lesson on the different teas! I love learning about my favorite beverage! I have been drinking Harney & Sons teas for decades and my favorite is the Earl Grey Supreme. My new favorite is Victoria London Fog. When I would receive your catalogs, it was how I learned about teas and how they are processed.

Vickie
Vickie

January 12, 2021

Wow! This is a keeper to help me make choices when I order. In early 2008 I enjoyed visiting Harney Tea Room with my daughters. We now all live in Oregon, and I still order all my teas from you. Good old faithful CTC Assam is used for hot or iced tea. For morning tea, however, I mix two parts Assam with Jasmine and Green tea – wonderful! I’ve tried many of the teas through the years, but this information you’ve shared will lead me to try new ones! Thanks!

Donna Sterlace
Donna Sterlace

January 12, 2021

Thank you for explaining these differences! I have been a fan of your tea for decades! Your tea catalogues are very educational for learning about teas and how/where they are grown and processed. I always learn something new! My favorite of your tea is the Earl Grey Supreme. For a tried and true Earl Grey fan, this tea is hands down the BEST! I also love the Victorian London Fog blend. I tell all tea fans I meet about your website!

Jennifer Moore
Jennifer Moore

December 28, 2020

Thank you for this. I’ve always struggled with figuring out the differences of similar teas!

janice A park
janice A park

December 28, 2020

Thank you for explaining the differences between some of my favorites. This info will help me to choose my teas upon my next purchases. Love Victorian London Fog and Tower of London. I didn’t see where you explained the difference in the Royal English tea and the other English teas. I prefer the Royal English as it is so smooth and fills my mouth, love it. Thank you I enjoyed the article very much.

Peggy
Peggy

December 28, 2020

You must have read my mind! I am a lover of Earl Grey, but like a strong bergamot aroma and taste (I use only 1 sugar cube, no milk to preserve the flavor). I was going to ask which of your EG blends was the strongest, but looks like you just answered my question. My guess is the Earl Grey Supreme. I tried the Imperial and the Supreme and I did think Supreme had more bergamot flavor. I just ordered Father’s Day blend, so will see how that stacks up.
I am so glad I found your company. So many choices and excellent service. These informative emails are very helpful too!
Many thanks and wishing you all a healthy 2021!

Dianne Burke
Dianne Burke

December 28, 2020

Thank you very much. I had wondered.

Pam Lander
Pam Lander

December 28, 2020

I love all the Harney and Sons teas that I have tried. It was such an honor to read this article from Mike Harney! Thank you so much for sharing, and if you ever need a panelist or praise from your greatest fan, I am probably your best choice!

Annette DuCharme
Annette DuCharme

December 28, 2020

“ Our father said it reminded him of his favorite childhood candy: Red Hots.”

Omg! That’s it! That’s what Hot Cinnamon Spice reminds me of! I was never able to put my finger on it! Thanks, Mike.

Cynthia Williams
Cynthia Williams

December 28, 2020

It’s been such a treat to read your blog and learn more about the teas I like. It also inspires me to try something new.
I have several of your mugs and cups and think they’re pretty great too.
I do have a quick question regarding your mess tea bags. I’m wondering if they have an environmental impact and if so why they are used? I’m hoping you tell me they don’t leave traces of plastic fibers in my tea. Thanks so much for being so informative and spilling the tea.

Michele Krupka
Michele Krupka

December 28, 2020

Thanks for comparing and contrasting various teas. It was a good way for me to learn the differences of the teas I am most likely to select. I like strong teas with a Kenyan base. We had a tour of your facility in the summer 2019 and loved it! You even have a teapot made by my son, Ben Krupka. Love my Harney teas.

Mary Lee Caloiaro
Mary Lee Caloiaro

December 28, 2020

I have been drinking your tea for a number of years. I order 5 or 6 different teas by the pound. I favor strong black teas such as CTC Assam, Irish Breakfast, Scottish Morn, Special English Breakfast, Earl Grey Supreme and my new love, Tower of London. I have tea tasting in my home and have surprised many “anti tea” drinkers. Recently a woman who had tea in my home claimed it was the best she had ever tasted and is now planning on ordering. I gave her a lesson on the proper way to brew it , so she will not be disappointed. I have visited your store in SoHo on a visit back in 2019. It has been at least 12 years of ordering teas and will continue!!!

Julia
Julia

December 28, 2020

Thank You for sharing your knowledge of teas. For me it was very interesting I enjoyed the read. I drink about 4-5 cups of tea a day. Now I know more about what I’m drinking.

Mrs. T.L. Cays
Mrs. T.L. Cays

December 28, 2020

Incredibly helpful article as I’m always trying to decide which Earl Grey, which English Breakfast, etc. by reading reviews, but you don’t know the person’s individual tastes or preferences. Reading it as Mike has set forth the distinctions will allow me to order the right tea instead of making a costly mistake. Thanks, and this will get printed out and kept in my tea file with all my previous Harney orders from many years of hit and miss tea drinking exploration.

Julie
Julie

December 28, 2020

This is perfect! It really helps in my understanding of the different blends. I can’t wait to try them armed with this knowledge helping me find those subtle flavors.

Lynn Schmitter
Lynn Schmitter

December 28, 2020

I really enjoyed this article! Years ago when you were still in Salisbury, a young woman helped me figure out what I didn’t like about the English Breakfast tea. She separated out each ingredient for me to try…Bingo…Chinese black is not my cup of tea! I drink your Scottish Afternoon morning and afternoon…I buy it by the pound. I always think I might venture out and try a new tea. I try the ones that you offer in your new shop…but I find that Scottish Afternoon just can’t be beat. Thank you for the blend!!

Phyllis R Nelson
Phyllis R Nelson

December 28, 2020

Thank you! Very entertaining and informative.

Teresa
Teresa

December 28, 2020

This article is informative and helpful but stops just short of being enough…I guess I’ll just have to try them all myself!

Lorenzo Rausch
Lorenzo Rausch

December 28, 2020

This was very informative! Thank you. I am a huge fan of all your teas.

NORRIS TINGLE
NORRIS TINGLE

December 28, 2020

As an inveterate coffee drinker (mostly Keurig K-cup flavors), and being married to an inveterate tea-drinking wife, we were given some Harney tea sachets from one of our sons who is—of course—an inveterate tea drinker. My coffee consumption has dropped considerably in favor of your teas. Candidly, I detest flavored coffees, but love the variations in tea. Your explanation of the tea blends is very enlightening and informative. Don’t stop. We unwashed former java drinkers need re-education camp too. Thanks! (I love Earl Grey Supreme and Formosa Oolong. Wife loves Darjeeling and Paris)

phil bryon boutwell
phil bryon boutwell

December 28, 2020

can U send me 1st installment plse?

we went to your showroom for a sample and to purchase some;
and then to factory 15 yrs ago- so nice a tour and history .

Pamela Ramsey
Pamela Ramsey

December 28, 2020

Truly enjoyed your information presentation. Fuel for thought and enunciation.

Kathy Cody Vanacoro
Kathy Cody Vanacoro

December 28, 2020

Thank you for this education on the different teas….can’t wait til COVID is behind us and I can once again visit Millerton for my tea tastings

Judy Roberts
Judy Roberts

December 28, 2020

Thank you for explaining all the variances n your teas. It has helped me understand why I ‘ll e your teas so much. Glad to know the difference between the Earl Grey’s, VLF, Hot Cinnamon Spice and Sunset. Every day I drink about 6-8 cups of your loose teas. Every time a different type. Yes, at age 80 I do as my Grandmother Benoit drink it out of a China tea cup. She always carried one in her purse wherever she went. No I don’t do that but it has crossed my mind. Thank you for your glorious teas. Most times I travel to Cape Cod to Cook’s Store to buy them. They have a wide selection too.

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