Last year, we did our first “Ask Mike Anything” post, and we had so much fun we decided to do it again this year! I love seeing your questions and hearing your comments about our teas that are so complimentary and kind, they would make Scrooge’s heart grow two sizes larger!
I wish I could answer every question we receive, but this year your response was overwhelming, with over 100 questions sent. Even I get tired of hearing myself talk for that long! So we just chose a few for me to sit down and chat with you about. Again: thank you for loving tea and being part of the Harney & Sons community. Without further ado, here we go!
Q: How can Hot Cinnamon Spice be so naturally sweet-tasting? I love it and drink a lot of it, so I'm hoping for a healthy answer.
MH: Well, Hot Cinnamon is by far our most popular tea blend. It is an old blend that we inherited. The old recipe did include both natural and artificial cinnamon flavors. However, there is no sugar or other sweeteners. So it should be just fine for your health. I know several diabetics who have drunk it for years.
Q: Which tea is the most highly caffeinated? How does that level compare to a cup of coffee (approx.)?
MH: Matcha would be my recommendation. You are drinking the whole leaves chopped up rather than a steeped brew. So Matcha can have up to 80 mg of caffeine versus 96 mg in coffee. Green tea can have up to 40 mg per 8 oz. mug. Matcha does have theanine, which helps moderate the “caffeine high.”
You may ask yourself, why is there caffeine in tea? Turns out that it prevents bugs from eating too many of the tea leaves. The bug gets a buzz and buzzes off. And the tea plant lives another day!
Q: I am a writer and make a cup of tea to enjoy while I'm working, but I have a tendency to get into a groove, and by the time I take my next sip, it has gotten rather cold. Microwaving makes it bitter; adding a bit of boiling water dilutes it. What's your tip for keeping a big mug of tea hot for an hour or so?
MH: I agree that tea can get cold quickly, especially this time of the year. So we put our tea in an insulated pot. However, a tea cozy would serve the same purpose. An hour later, even that tea is a bit chilly, so I do give it a jolt in the microwave. Another option would be to make a bain-marie (a type of heated bath) using hot water in a pot.
Q: What’s the status of sachets that are compostable and not nylon? I last read (but could easily have missed something!) that you were trying to transition your machines to use a new sugarcane-based material and that 40% of sachets were now the new material. Is that happening? How does one know when ordering if the sachets are in compostable material or not?
MH: We continue to move toward compostable sugarcane. It is not a straight line; in fact, yesterday we were discussing operational problems with a new batch of sugarcane. Most of our machines were not designed to use sugarcane, and it creates all sorts of problems. We continue to try to solve these problems. The sugarcane manufacturers have evolved their material. So we believe that we will eventually get there. (For more information, read our October 2021 Sachet Material Update.)
We are working with the Cary Institute that is nearby to try and make an industrially compostable sugarcane degrade in the common backyard compost pile. So we are funding research into that.
Q: How is climate change affecting tea production, quality, or characteristics?
MH: This has been a problem for several years. The growing season is changing. More importantly, rains are erratic. Mostly too little, but sometimes floods. Oftentimes it is much hotter than previously. All of this means that teas taste thinner and are often not as good as in earlier years.
Q: Does the taste of specific tea varieties vary from year to year, depending on growing season/weather, or is the taste essentially derived from the tea variety itself, with seasonal changes only minimally impacting the taste? (Formosa Oolong seems to taste different each year I buy it – still good, just different.)
MH: Teas do change, climate change is one reason. Also changes in weather, such as an unusual frost causes taste differences. Changes in people also cause it. Maybe the long-time manager retires.
Formosa Oolong is an old-time tea that has grown out of vogue in Taiwan. The people who made it for decades have retired. So we struggle to get it made. And that struggle has made the tea cost more than I remember it cost back when I started in 1988.
Q: What is your favorite place for “Afternoon Tea” in NYC?
MH: There is this little shop on Broome Street down in SoHo that does a great job. I forget the name of it, but it starts with an H.
Q: Would you please describe the most interesting people you have met from around the world as you explored for tea? And would you consider making a keepsake coffee table book with photographs of the tea estates/farms and the indigenous peoples of famous tea regions?
MH: So many great people. Tsuyoshi Sugimoto and Matsuda would be on that list. Oftentimes, I can not directly communicate with the tea workers, because of the language and culture barriers, but I enjoy being with them. I like your idea of the book. Maybe this old guy does have one last book in him. Thanks.
Q: What is your go-to evening tea for each of the four seasons, and why? And as an aside, do you drink them prepared differently (e.g., some with honey or sugar, some black, some with milk)?
MH: Honestly, I drink wine and not tea at night in all four seasons. I drink so much tea during the day, making sure that you get great teas, that I do not have room for more. If caffeine is not a problem, a mellow oolong would make sense to me. Say an Ali San from Taiwan. If caffeine is a problem, I would recommend Verveine, I love the lemony flavor.
Q: How would you recommend a tea newbie get into drinking different kinds of tea without buying tea they might not end up enjoying?
MH: We do offer samples of many teas. Not all of them, since that proved too difficult for us. We do give advice as to what others have found enjoyable, we call them Best Sellers. I wrote a book called Harney & Sons Guide to Tea that addressed mostly teas without flavors added to them.
Q: What kind of tea would you like to make that you don't already? (I assume many ask you what your favorite flavor is, so this is more of an if you could make any flavor... what would it be?)
MH: Hmmm, there is nothing stopping me from making a tea that I don’t have. So I do not have an idea just now. But you are making me think.
Q: What is a favorite tea for Christmas?
MH: I would say that Holiday is my fave. It was my first tea for this season.
Q: Hi Mike! I love your teas! Any chance you can create one that tastes like champagne? I once had one in Europe made with black currants and lemon but have never been able to find one close enough with the same effervescence and flavor.
MH: You know back in September, I was working on a champagne blend for tea. Then life happened. So when things calm down later on, I will resurrect this possible blend. One that I had not considered in August.
Q: So I understand we graduated from Cornell together! Class of ‘77? I don’t even remember where I got that information but is it correct? If so, where did you live? Major? I majored in American history and then went to medical school! Lived on North campus for two years, then Cook Street in Collegetown. Great company! Love your tea! Hope all is well.
MH: I did graduate from Cornell, which is high above Cayuaga’s waters. I was not smart enough for history or med school. Rather I graduated from The Hotel School (just like my dad). First year was West Campus then North Campus, finally off campus for two years. Please send me your name, we work with Cornell for many things. We did set up a scholarship in memory of our father, John Harney. We do give money each year to the Cornell Botanical Gardens. And I am up at Statler Hall working with the current generation of kids a couple times a year.
Q: Mike, how did you get involved with the tea business? I know it says on the tins a little of that history, and I read a lovely article about 'The Love Story Behind Harney & Sons Fine Teas' written by James Norwood Pratt but I don't know if you've ever spoken about that for this chat and would love to learn more about this. If you have covered the above already, my second question would be - what's a day in the life for you at Harney & Sons like? What sort of decisions do you enjoy making at work? Is it all glamorous tea tasting and visiting international locales? How much time do you spend building the business, and is it still just as exciting as when you started? Thanks so much Mike!- from a fan also named Mike.
MH: Mike- Thanks for those kind words. I had not read that article by our dear friend Norwood for years. So I called him up, and we discussed the years when it was just him and John Harney starting up the Tea Revolution in the early 1980s. And how Elyse, his wife, was there to support him with love (and her broker commissions.) I was out in Chicago running a boutique hotel but bored, so in 1988 I joined my dad. The first few years were tough, but we persevered. I had been in the wine business when I first graduated and loved dealing with beverage producers. So buying teas was a much-desired challenge. I also took over running much of the business. Our dad loved talking with people but was less excited about keeping the lights on.
Nowadays. I do taste teas either to buy them or when they are here to make sure they are up to snuff. I do enjoy trying to find new teas from around the world. Since COVID’s early days, I have not been to a tea garden. I am hoping that will change next year. I have my sights set on India. No way to get into China. Let’s hope!
I still make sure the lights are on.
One of my joys is talking with customers. Either learning from them about which teas they like or giving them a few pointers. This weekend I will be doing a private tea tasting at the SoHo store for two fellow Cornellians.
As I am up to 34 years running Harney & Sons, I do enjoy it immensely. I will have to figure out an elder statesman role in a few years. So that will keep me busy.
Q: If you could make a tea dedicated to your family, what would the ingredients be?
MH: Jeez, this is the second time that I have been stumped about a new tea blend. I will have to go revise that earlier answer. There are few that I need to think about. I need to figure out what would convey love and trust and looking out for your fellow humans. Of trying to make a blend that translates John’s original goal of making the world a little better by making tea an everyday luxury and combining that with his dear friend Chuck Feeney of giving while living philanthropy.
That seems like a tall order, so I better go back to the Tasting Room and get to work. Thanks for giving me my orders!!