Meet the Entrepreneur Betting American-Made Tea Will Soon Have Its Moment
On a recent Sunday afternoon, David Bromwich paced his friend’s kitchen in Brooklyn barefoot, waiting for some tea to steep. The alarm on his phone went off, but he was already pouring.
“It has a slight asparagus taste,” he said, slurping the hot green tea from a spoon. It did—kind of mellow and sweetly vegetal. “There are so many chemicals in tea,” he explained, 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, 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. This is more revolutionary than it sounds.
Despite the nation's history with tea, the culture of it in the U.S. is still new, explains Kathy Chan, a tea expert who works with fine dining restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park as well as 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 told me over the phone, "but when you taste a tea from the U.S., you really don't know."
This past September, Bromwich processed tea for the first time using leaves he picked in Brookhaven, Miss., 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 about $20,000 in 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 from the bush. To make sure his first harvest went smoothly, he also hired Nigel Melican and Beverly Wainwright of Teacraft in the U.K. 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).
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, he says, 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 three-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.”