Economy

Steeped In Novelty, American-Made Tea From A New York Entrepreneur

Another kind of tea party
Another kind of tea party
Tejal Rao

NEW YORK â€" On a recent Sunday afternoon, David Bromwich paces his friend's kitchen in Brooklyn barefoot, waiting for some tea to steep. As the alarm on his phone goes off, he's already pouring.

"It has a slight asparagus taste," he says, slurping the hot green tea from a spoon. "There are so many chemicals in tea," he explains, sticking a thermometer in another cup of water. "It's the processing that unlocks all the different compounds."

Bromwich, a 36-year-old product manager at Thomson Reuters, has always loved tea, tasting every one he could as a kid and later mail-ordering the leaves directly from tea makers all over the world. About 10 years ago, he got hung up on the idea of developing an American type of tea, which is more revolutionary than it sounds.

Despite the nation's history with tea, the culture of it in the United States is still new, explains Kathy Chan, a tea expert who works with fine dining restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park and the Peninsula Hotels group. So new, in fact, that a distinct, unifying style hasn't had the chance to develop among tea farmers in Hawaii, South Carolina or Washington. "When you taste a tea from Japan, or from India, you know it right away," Chan says, "but when you taste a tea from the U.S., you really don't know."

In September, Bromwich processed tea for the first time using leaves he picked in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and entered the Tea of the United States Awards, a competition for American tea growers launched by a founder of Tea Hawaii & Co. (While tea is an expanding $10 billion industry in the U.S., the majority of what Americans drink is more likely to have been grown by the world's larger producers, such as China, India or Japan.) His oolong won first place in the noncommercial category, and his green tea won second place. Next time he competes, Bromwich hopes it will be as a commercial producer.

To get his new processing operation up and running, Bromwich has invested in about $20,000 worth of equipment from England and India and hired a carpenter to build wood-framed mesh trays so he can wither the leaves as soon as they're picked. To make sure his first harvest went smoothly, he also hired Nigel Melican and Beverly Wainwright of Teacraft in the UK as consultants, and together they spent nearly a month hand-picking and rolling (during this time, Bromwich worked his day job at the information giant at night).

All in the processing

Tea, whether green, black or oolong, comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The major variations are in the processing, and they are endless. Green tea is quickly heated, which preserves its color, while black tea is bashed and bruised to oxidize and blacken the leaves.

Bromwich ordered the biggest wok he could find online and set it over a gas flame to quickly roast the leaves for his green tea, tweaking and experimenting to produce more than 20 different batches. He took detailed notes on each, some mechanical and data-driven, but others simpler ("grabbing the tea with my hands, just to see how much it clumps together"). Though a few batches turned out badly, some delicious teas were in the mix, like this asparagus-y one.

"Originally, I thought I'd buy a farm and be a tea farmer," Bromwich says, "but I grew up in New Jersey, never had any land, and don't know how to farm. It just wasn't realistic." His new plan for Bromwich Tea involves less up-front investment. Eventually, he hopes, he'll roam the country full time, processing American-grown tea in collaboration with small-scale farmers.

It sounds flimsy, but it's a lot like how superstar "gypsy brewers" such as Pretty Things and Mikkeller managed to carve out space within the beer industry. The leaves he picked last month came from tea farmer Jason McDonald's 12 acres of 3-year-old tea plants, with some additional leaves from Robert "Buddy" Lee, a well-known plant breeder who happened to have an old tea bush in his yard. If all goes well in 2016, Bromwich will be working with small-scale growers in New York's Finger Lakes region and the Hudson Valley to make teas that are … well, he's not quite sure yet.

"The same way we didn't know what American wine would taste like years ago, we don't know exactly what American tea will taste like," says Bromwich, opening another unmarked canister of the goods. "It's really exciting."

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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