Friday, January 8, 2010

Harney and Son's Factory Tour

Rarely, very very rarely, I get a chance of a lifetime. Sometimes it falls into my hands, sometimes it takes some work but overall it is a beautiful experience. When I originally emailed the Harney and Sons company about a factory tour, I didn't think they'd get back to me. They are a busy company, and a large one to boot. I'm a small reviewer; I don't even have a business card yet. But, when John and Mike Harney emailed me back, the founder and his son respectively...I was in a bit of a shock. They had readily agreed to give me a tour. Of course, I had to be difficult and have a pretty miserable schedule. Old Man Winter decided to intervene a bit as well and throw snow at me both days I was to go. But, after quite a bit of jockeying I was granted access to my haven of havens: the Harney and Son's Tea Factory. And the experience was magical.

When I was eleven or so and I first got into tea, the first place I went to was Harney. Recommended by a friend who's cousin worked there, we managed to get a tour of their old factory almost ten years ago. It was small and in a rather nondescript building. How the times have changed. In the almost eleven years since I first went the Harney and Sons company has experienced a huge boom. They are now carried in Starbucks around the world as well as many fine restaurants, hotels, and stores. They're...kind of a big deal now. But, magically, they still retain the good-natured charm and care for their product that they had back when I went as a child. This, combined with an extremely keen business sense, has made them what I think of as an industry giant. And I got to tour their factory.

The front of the building is paneled with glass, the snow crunching almost merrily underfoot as I and my mom (she wouldn't miss this for the world) went to the factory. We had a 1pm appointment but after tasting at their Tasting Room and eating at their cafe in Millerton, we still had a decent bit of time. We figured we'd arrive early and we'd wait for our tour guide. Oh, our tour guide? His name was John Harney, the founder.


The entrance had two cases of old tea pots like the one on the left here. John explained them on the way out, saying that they were, at this point, a few hundred years old. You may notice that they're pretty huge and you may wonder why. These pots aren't just used for tea, actually. They're used to hold hot water. Kettles of this size were used to hold a rather large amount of water to be kept hot over a fire throughout the day for a variety of tasks. John said that when he was a boy and he lived on his family farm that he had the same setup: a large kettle of water always piping hot and ready for anything. He said that after coming in from the barns he would pour a large bowl full of water and wash his hands in it.

On the picture above you can see the small buzzer to the left of the cabinet. We pushed this buzzer and asked to be admitted for our appointment at 1pm. A short wait and the door buzzed open. As soon as the door opened...the smell of tea wafted out. It was an amalgamation of all the teas they had: green tea, black tea, and every flavor you could think of came surging through the door like the last desperate cavalry charge of a battle. It was deliciously tantalizing. We went into what looked to be an office and there we met the king of Harney and Sons, John Harney himself. A warm, genial, and cheerful man; he was awesome. To be completely honest with you, I wanted to hug him. No lies. I settled with a firm but giddy (on my end) handshake. Down to business. The room we were actually in was the call center for Harney and Sons. They took all the orders from their hotline as well as compiled online invoices. We then stopped by the catalog room, where to lovely ladies were hard at work creating the catalogs that I loved, do love, and will love to flip through. We then donned fashionable headgear (hairnets!) and went into the manufacturing section of the plant. It was...massive. Over 80,000 square feet massive. After entering the main door we came upon the online order racks. Huge wire racks on wheels held the invoices and orders for a dozen or so people and there were several available.
In the background here are the wire racks and all around me were the pull-shelves were workers were busy pulling the required teas and putting them in the wire racks. We then went past the boxing machine that boxed up all of the items for shipping as well as weighed them to calculate appropriate shipping charges. Next, we came to this beauty:
Let's play a game called: Guess What This Is. Is it for filling balloons? Is it for making your voice sound really high? Is it powdered tea that can be sprayed onto you like a fine perfume? Nope. It's actually a nitrogen injection machine used for certain types of green tea. Oxygen oxidizes tea, which is what we want. Sometimes. Other times it is significantly detrimental to the flavor and longevity of tea. This machine allows for packaging of green tea in a nitrogen environment, a relatively inert gas that will preserve flavor, color, and extend the life of the tea. We then continued on to the mixing drums.
The massive gray thing in the background is the mixing drums, used to thoroughly blend teas. The guy in the foreground is a worker that happened to smile at just the right time. Thanks guy! Anyway, when we walked in they were working on a special, custom blend for a customer who is pretty famous and also has a line of medicinal teas through Harney and Sons. It was apparently a pretty exclusive blend as John was loathe to show me the mix but finally relented due to my charming persuasion (well, not really but it makes me feel special). It was cool because the entire time we walked around the factory there were tiny trails of fine tea that had seeped out of boxes, barrels, and crates like this trail we found leading up to the mixers:
That's my shoe (blue) and John's shoe (black). Sorry about these pics, I was kinda in a stunned reverence the entire tour. Breathing, walking, and watching were difficult tasks to accomplish at the same time. Amazingly enough, those two mixers were the SMALL mixers.
This huge beastie was the large one. John said that it could hold something along the lines of 500-700 tins of tea at the same time. As you can see, it was so large it requires stairs. That's pretty awesome. After the mixing bins we came to one of the cooler machines in the factory: the teabag maker. Here are some pics:

Picture one is a large picture of the machine. The wheel in the middle crimps and folds the bags as well as gravity feeds them in (there is a box of tea behind the machine with, literally, a vacuum hose in it that sucks it into the gravity hopper). The smaller, silver wheels are there to feed the bag material, which can be shown in huge spool form in the second picture. The third is the final product that the machine spits out: it even goes so far as to fold, glue, and pack the boxes as well. Pretty nifty stuff. This mega monster can crank out 350 tea bags PER MINUTE. That's almost six a second. But this isn't what Harney is really known for. They were one of the first, if not THE first to use silk sachets. Why silk sachets?

If you've ever made a fine cup of loose leaf tea, you'll know that when water is added to tea it expands and creates more surface area for the water to draw out the tasty, tasty chemicals and oils in tea. But what happens if you cram large leaf into a tiny bag? It can't expand. Sachets allow for the use of larger (and generally higher quality) teas that can expand. Also, since the packaging is silk, the tea bag can be brewed a few times instead of the one-off brewing of a standard paper one. Also, I don't like the taste of brewed bleached paper in my tea but that's just me.

This machine:
is actually part of a long line of machines. John said that the two machines that manufacture and package the individual sachets were from Japan and the one that boxes the individual sachets into a vendor box was from Italy. He said that it took several thousands of dollars and quite a bit of time to figure out how to link them so that they would work fluidly as an assembly line. Here is the sachet packaging line:

You'll see in the picture that the lonely little sachets enter from the maker on the left (which is pictured above) into the packager, and get spit out on the right in a neat little tea-envelope. Here's the individual sachet packaging machine:
The ladder going up is actually for the workers to feed the gravity hopper. John said something interesting: these sachets aren't filled by weight but by time. Each portion is pre-weighed in the hopper above (by the ladder) and then the sachets are filled by length of time the doors on the hopper above open. I found that extremely interesting.

Another thing that I found interesting was that Harney and Sons does private tea blends for companies. This is more my fault for thinking this as I always viewed Harney and Sons as the smaller company I toured so many years ago. John showed a few samples of tea in a variety of types (and quality). To be honest, the Harney and Son's tea was, he said, only about a nickel more than some of the packaged stuff for other stores. Boggled my mind why anyone wouldn't use the Harney stuff as opposed to the relatively cheaper stuff they were purchasing. But then again, for some its all about profit rather than the tea itself. A shame, really and a sad mark of our times. But I wax philosophic.

Finally, the piece de resistance: the stock of tea. It was awe-inspiring. Let me enlighten you:
The man on the left is John Harney, master tea blender. On the right is Mom, who puts up with me. Both equally famous. If you're reading this, ma, can you get more cider? Thanks.

Here's even more tea stocks. It was stacked many pallets high and half the building had a second floor for storage. I would have liked to see where they kept the pu-erh cakes but I was honestly too awe-struck to say a thing so it's my fault entirely. One of the coolest things was the fact that Harney and Sons has entered the RTD market (ready-to-drink beverages). My favorite premium version of the Arnie Palmer comes from Harney. Not overly sweet like the Arizona one (except it costs more) it is a refreshingly tart mix. Seen here are the MULTIPLE PALLETS OF TEA BOTTLES:Look at that smorgasbord of ready-to-drink tea. I could have wallowed in it. And that's barely all of it. There were another few sectors with more tea as well as juice lines they came out with for Au Bon Pain.

As we walked along, John pointed out the many pallets of loose tea, sachets, tea bags, and bottles of tea going to different countries. Some were close, like Canada. There were also pallets to the Dominican Republic, Columbia. There were also lots of pallets ranging across the United States as well, from California to right near home in Albany. And I couldn't help but smile. I feel like I've seen this local company grow up to become a trusted brand name. I still remember when they were mixing their teas in an old cement mixer instead of the industrial drum mixers. I remember watching them pack tins by hand and seeing only the handful of tea boxes and barrels lying around. As I have grown, so have they and I'm certainly glad to have grown with them. It warms the cockles of my heart to see a local company do so well. So, thank you Harney and Sons Tea Company for entertaining my inquiry of a tour. You returned it back to me in spades, truly. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you know that you'll have in me a customer for life.

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