John Harney

John Harney, a former innkeeper who became an ambassador of tea, promoting his specialty teas to a coffee-drinking public through his company, Harney & Sons, died June 17. Harney, a longtime resident of Salisbury, was 83. (Courtesy of Harney and Sons / August 5, 2014)

John Harney was a former innkeeper whose efforts to introduce quality specialty teas to a coffee-drinking public were highly successful.

The founder of Harney & Sons Ltd., he was an ambassador for loose-leaf tea, which he introduced personally, one boiling kettle and stopwatch at a time.

"John became a missionary of tea," Peter F. Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the USA told the New York Times in a recent obituary for Harney.

While Harney did not succeed in displacing coffee as one of America's favorite beverages, the consumption of tea has soared, with nearly 277 million pounds imported in 2012 compared to 170 million pounds in 1990. Tea is now a $10-billion to $11-billion-a-year business.

Harney, a longtime resident of Salisbury, died June 17 of an apparent heart attack. He was 83.

At the time of his death, his family-run company — five other family members work at the business, now based in Millerton, N.Y. — sells nearly 300 varieties of teas, including a special line with the British royal family imprimatur. The tea canisters with the elegant script are available in upscale restaurants as well as down-home rustic bakeries in Vermont.

Harney's tea epiphany came while he and his wife were running the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, and a customer, Stanley Mason, persuaded Harney to try some of his teas. Mason's family had been in the tea business for three generations, and he had started his own operation in Salisbury.

Mason persuaded Harney to serve loose-leaf tea at the inn. It became popular with diners, and Harney bought Mason's company, hired him as a consultant — and gave up coffee in favor of tea.

Eventually, after Harney's partner decided to sell the White Hart, Harney decided to go into the tea business, and established his company in 1983. (The inn, which has had several owners since the 1980s, closed again in 2010, but has a new owner and is scheduled to reopen soon.)

As a graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and a longtime restaurateur — he had previously owned the Covered Bridge Inn in Cornwall — Harney knew hundreds of restaurant owners. He called many of them to introduce his new passion, trying to show that his tea was superior to insipid cups of lukewarm tea brewed from bags of ground up tea stems.

He prepared his teas by steeping leaves in water brewed to 212 degrees for precisely five minutes His first big customer was the Ritz Hotel in Boston.

"Not too many people cared about tea" at that time, said Michael Harney, now vice president of the company. John and Michael Harney traveled the world to find the best teas, and imported tea from Argentina, now one of the top tea-growing countries.

Tea became increasingly popular; it had no calories, it was "slightly exotic" and it was healthy, Michael said. It also had a rich history and rituals that even today are being celebrated in shows such as "Downton Abbey."

After an illness, John Harney began drinking green tea daily. It is one of the company's top sellers; the most popular is hot cinnamon tea.

To popularize his teas, Harney convened conferences for food writers, who would come to Salisbury and taste his teas. Together with Michael, he wrote a book in 2008, "Harney & Sons Guide to Tea."

"It was a way to get people excited," Michael said.

A cookbook, "Eat Tea," co-written with Joanna Preuss, showed how to pair swordfish with cinnamon tea, or fennel with jasmine tea and coconut and Pernod, and how to prepare tea-smoked chicken baked with Indian spices, among many other dishes.

The company does about 30 million a year in sales, and in addition to its headquarters in Millerton, it has two cafés run by Harney's grandson, Alex.

"He could … convince anyone to feature his tea," said Mary Tabacchi, a professor at Cornell.

Harney likened good tea to other high quality beverages. "You would taste it like you would taste good wine," Tabacchi said, adding that Harney's frequent visits to his alma mater for demonstrations led Cornell students to make references to "Harney hot" — tea steeped in really hot water.