Danielle Muzones

Welcome to Sarap Stories - your space for Asian American representation, inspiration, and insights from real AAPI makers in the Sarap Now marketplace.

Headshot of Hannah Bae, founder of Halmi, a brand of sparkling beverages.

Credit: Vero Suh (@verosuh)

Ginger ale enthusiasts: this is your sign to have a Halmi.

Inspired by a traditional Korean spiced punch, this sparkling drink flavored with cinnamon, ginger, jujube, and persimmon tastes unlike anything we’ve had before (in the best way possible). Plus, it has a magic way of easing the gut, so you can indulge without worry when you have Halmi in-hand.

Hannah Bae, a Queens, New York native, founded Halmi in search of a deeper connection to her Korean roots and with the people around her.

The result of her introspective 2020 spent testing recipes in her Manhattan apartment is more than just a drink – it’s a story of an Asian American experience that seeks to honor the old while embracing the new.

Learn how Hannah scaled from bottling drinks for family and friends to stocking more than 85 (lucky) locations across the U.S. with her iconic cans, and why you should make space in your drink fridge for Halmi ASAP.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Halmi sparkling beverage being poured into a clear glass from the can.

Credit: Alice Pang (@aepang)

Tell me about yourself - your name, pronouns, and brand.

My name is Hannah Bae, my pronouns are she/her, and my brand is Halmi. Halmi is a sparkling beverage that’s inspired by traditional Korean flavors and made with premium, high-quality ingredients.

Do you identify as AAPI or an immigrant of Asian heritage? What were your experiences like growing up or immigrating to America – whichever applies?

I identify as AAPI or Asian American. I was born and raised in Queens, New York, so I was surrounded by immigrant communities of all different backgrounds. When I was growing up, my friends and I all went over to each other's houses, tried new foods, and experienced each others’ cultures. It was a privilege to grow up in a true melting pot.

My parents immigrated here from South Korea in the 80s, along with my mom's five siblings and her parents. They came to America for more opportunities, or because they were following family here. Everyone had different reasons.

I grew up across the street from my grandparents and they watched me while my parents went to work.

Childhood photo of Halmi founder Hannah Bae and her grandparents.

Credit: Hannah Bae

Pursuing an entrepreneurial path

My parents were of that ilk that I should find a steady nine–to-five, keep my head down, and have as much stability as possible. That's what I did for about a decade. I was a product manager working in the digital media space.

In Queens, with immigrant communities all around me, it was inspiring to see people and members of my own family starting businesses either for pure survival or to fulfill a desire to see what they could do with their skills. I was inspired by all the work they put into their day-to-day life, as well as the rewards they reaped. I was surrounded by entrepreneurship, and it became ingrained in me.

Childhood photo of Halmi founder Hannah Bae.

Credit: Hannah Bae

What was your “A-ha!” moment that inspired you to create Halmi? Walk me through what led you to launch the brand.

The inspiration behind the idea

For years, I had an ongoing list on my phone filled with ideas. I knew that if I ever started something on my own, certain attributes had to be accounted for: something to do with Korean culture; it needs to be creative; a physical product I can share with people. Whenever I had an idea, I put it in there.

When 2020 hit, that’s when I started thinking about what else I could do more seriously. My family was in Queens and I was in Manhattan, so we were only a short bridge away, but I still couldn't see them. It was very stressful, and it was making me extremely anxious and causing flare ups in my stomach. I was not feeling good.

Photo of Halmi founder Hannah Bae and her grandparents at Hannah's wedding.

Credit: Hannah Bae

I started making recipes that my grandma used to make at home to soothe my stomach. My family is also obsessed with soda and ginger ale, so I started mixing traditional Korean ingredients in a SodaStream. The drinks came out delicious and not too sweet. I loved being able to control what I was putting in my body versus drinking a ton of ginger ale with 30 grams of sugar and questionable ingredients.

I realized there was a gap in the market for a sparkling beverage that has healthier ingredients, lower sugar, lower calories, unique flavor combinations, and tells the story of Korean flavors and culture in a way that hasn't been before, especially within the Asian American experience.

A can of Halmi sparkling beverage in front of a market's drink refrigerator..

Alice Pang (@aepang)

I began brewing and bottling the drink that eventually became Halmi. It gave me a reason to see my family and friends again, even if I was dropping bottles at their doors and running away so we could stay 6 feet apart.

Obviously, running a business is extremely difficult, but with Halmi, I felt like I was really putting my stamp on something.

The inspiration behind the idea

Our first flavor, Cinnamon, Ginger, Jujube, Persimmon, is inspired by a traditional Korean spiced punch called SuJeongGwa that's been brewed for generations. It’s a very, very traditional drink – like Korea's national beverage.

These days, it's usually given to you after a heavy meal at a Korean restaurant to help you cleanse your palate and help with digestion.

Jugs of SuJeongGwa from Halmi founder Hannah Bae's recipe testing days

Credit: Hannah Bae

It’s funny, because I actually didn't like SuJeongGwa growing up. It's really potent. As a kid, it was extremely sweet and strong, but as I've gotten older, I've definitely come back to it. Now, I find it so delicious. It’s so good.

When I was thinking of what the first flavor should be, I immediately thought of this beverage. My grandma used to make me something similar to help my sensitive stomach, but with the flavors of jujubes, ginger, and cinnamon. We also ate persimmons all the time. I was inspired by these nostalgic flavors, as well as the history of this beloved, traditional Korean drink.

Naming the brand

Halmi is a nickname for halmoni, or grandma in Korean. This brand is not only about my Halmi, but also for all halmonis out there, whatever that means to you. It doesn't have to be a person. It doesn't have to be your grandma. It's about that feeling of coziness and nourishment.

Halmi founder Hannah Bae's grandmother holding Hannah's mother as a baby.

Hannah’s grandmother and mom. (Credit: Hannah Bae)

Tell me about a challenge you faced while growing the brand. How did you overcome it?

In the beginning, the biggest challenge was understanding this business, how Halmi fits in it, launching, and seeing what the next steps are.

The food and beverage world has a steep learning curve. I wanted to bring something I brewed at home to real customers and had so many questions. What are the best practices? What is the terminology that manufacturers use? I had no idea. I spent a lot of time researching and doing my homework.

I learned that there's so many different ways to go about something. At the same time, there's stringent rules from the FDA. It was hard to navigate that on my own while also making sure that I was building something that I wanted to build, versus what I thought should be built based on what other folks were doing.

A facility where Halmi cans are made.

Credit: Hannah Bae

Over the last two years, the bigger challenge was figuring out how I can sustainably grow this business in a way that makes sense for my customers, while staying true to my mission. I'm still bootstrapping it on my own right now.

I recently started a fellowship program with Naturally Network called the Naturally Network Minority Owned Fellowship. It's 16 of us who identify as minority founders in the earlier, emerging stages of our businesses. It’s an amazing resource because they have so many folks who have knowledge around growing a business and the nitty gritty things that you can't find anywhere else unless you're just talking to someone who's gone through it before.

Halmi founder Hannah Bae at a sampling table.

Credit: Justine Lee (@justyfication)

I also talk to customers as much as I can. I try to do as many in-person markets or sampling events as possible to gather data. I ask a lot of questions to get to the root of their thoughts and what leads to their decision to purchase (or not).

Then at the end of the day, I condense that feedback into actionable items. It’s super helpful for keeping me organized and prioritizing what I should be doing moving forward, as well as what I should move on from doing because customers tell me it’s not what they’re looking for.

On the product – we haven’t tried anything else like it. What was the recipe development process for this like?

It was a lot of fun and a lot of time in the kitchen. To make the recipe, I tested at-home recipes for SuJeongGwa that I found online, and the packaged versions I found at Asian markets. I didn’t want to make an exact replica – I started with that flavor profile because I knew that it was so unique and tied into the Korean identity. I tasted everything and picked out what I liked from them and what I didn't, so that I could make something new.

A pot of boiling ingredients for recipe testing iterations of Halmi sparkling beverages.

Credit: Hannah Bae

I made hundreds, probably thousands, of batches at home, getting bulk cinnamon sticks and as much ginger as I can get, dried jujubes, fresh and dried persimmon, as well as so many different types of sugars like agave and brown sugar. It was trial and error until I was happy with the flavor. It was a lot of boiling ingredients together in big pots, and making sure you don't boil it too much or it can get a little bitter. And then balancing that out with sweetness.

For the first few iterations, my husband and I were the only taste testers because it was the pandemic and people couldn’t come over to taste with us. We have really different taste preferences, which was helpful. I eventually started to bottle 'em up and then share them with people for unbiased feedback.

Halmi founder Hannah Bae dropping Halmi bottles at her friends' homes during the pandemic. A dog is on her lap

Credit: Hannah Bae

At the same time, I was talking to manufacturers, formulators, and folks who could help me take my home recipe and scale it up. The end result is actually very different from my home recipe. There was a lot of back-and-forth for a couple of months trying to figure out the right balance of all these different flavors, as well as sugar content.

Finally, after around eight months, we came up with something that I'm proud of. The recipe that we have today evokes that nostalgia of the original drink while also being different and holding its own.

A woman holding a can of Halmi sparkling beverage and winking.

Credit: Garnish Studios (@garnishstudios)

What advice do you have for aspiring AAPI entrepreneurs? Anything you wish you knew when you started?

Find out your “why” and keep it close to your heart

Figure out why you're doing it and stick to that. Be clear in your mission for your brand because it's going to be a roller coaster ride. As long as you have that goal in mind, that “why,” you can always go back to it when you need to make hard decisions for your business.

Only you can tell your story.

Everyone has a story to tell, and if you decide to tell your story in an entrepreneurial manner, then great! You might be doing something very similar to someone else, but you will stand out because it’s yours. Your story sets your brand apart from someone else’s.

It’s okay to ask for help.

I have a hard time asking for help. I always have. Growing up, it was always praised to be independent and do it on your own.

I wish I knew when I started that it's okay to ask for help. It's okay to be vulnerable because starting and growing a business is extremely difficult and you can't do it alone. There are people, places, and organizations that are very willing to give advice or make introductions, and you can give back to fellow entrepreneurs in your own way too.

Halmi founder Hannah Bae speaking on a Hangawi Korean Festival panel.

Hannah speaking on a panel at the Hangawi Korean Festival. (Credit: MAUM Market @maum.market and Alice Choi @aliceyechoi)

Representation matters. From gochujang caramel cookies to dalgona candy – Korean flavors are having a moment! What do you think about Korean representation in the food and beverage space? Is there room to improve?

It's awesome that K-anything is having a moment. K-pop, K-food, K-dramas – all of that. It’s wild that you can find Korean food anywhere, whether it's a hole-in-the-wall or a Michelin star restaurant. I would’ve never imagined that as a kid.

But, I think there’s still much more to explore. Korean food is interesting because there's so many different flavors that you wouldn't think to mix, but work together harmoniously. That’s what I'm trying to do with Halmi. I want to keep exploring more of those unexpected combinations and introducing them to people.

Lifestyle photo of Halmi sparkling beverage on a tablescape with florals and Korean bites.

Credit: Emilio Canton (@emilio.canton), Alice Pang (@aepang), Studio Chung (@studiochungfloral)

What’s something you love about your culture that you wish more people knew about?

It's wonderful that people are open-minded to Korean food and beverages these days, but I wish more people knew more beyond K-BBQ and soju. Korea has such an interesting history – how the language came to be, how our culture has influenced other parts of the world and vice versa, how the country has modernized so rapidly. I'm not an expert, but I definitely look forward to learning more and find it all so fascinating.

What are your favorite childhood snacks?

Ppushu! It's basically like ramen noodles, but in a cracker form that you mix a little powder with and eat. They're addictive. I really liked the bulgogi flavor growing up (I couldn't handle spicy stuff).

I also loved Sweet Potato Snack. They look like shrimp crackers (the skinny ones) but they’re made with sweet potato and a little sweeter.

Lifestyle photo of Halmi sparkling beverage on a tablescape with florals and Korean bites.

Credit: Emilio Canton (@emilio.canton), Alice Pang (@aepang), Studio Chung (@studiochungfloral) Comment end

The holidays are upon us! Do you have any holiday party tips for enjoying Halmi?

The holidays are Halmi’s time to shine! I love bringing Halmi to holiday parties because it pairs so well with everything.

Halmi helps you digest those really heavy foods we love during the holidays. The flavor compliments fried foods, spicy foods, and anything indulgent.

It’s amazing in mocktails and cocktails because it pairs with a lot of different flavors.

For cocktails, Halmi goes well with whiskey, mezcal, or spiced rum, as well as bitters. If you're not drinking alcohol, Halmi is a great alternative by itself and mixed into mocktails with your favorite juices and syrups. I've even made espresso tonics with it, substituting tonic water with Halmi.

A menu listing Halmi-infused cocktails.

Credit: Gina Clyne (@ginaclyne) and GYOPO (gyopo.us) (gyopo.us)

What’s next for Halmi? Anything else you would like to share?

I’m working on a new flavor! It’s going to be different in terms of flavor profile (on the fruitier side) but still inspired by Korean ingredients.

Next year, I’m continuing to expand to more retailers and stockists. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from customers about the shops they want to see Halmi in, and am doing my best to get to them!

You can find Halmi on Sarap Now, on Instagram @drinkhalmi, or at drinkhalmi.com. Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates. If you want to be the first to know about a new flavor, sign up to be a taste tester!

Check Out Halmi in Sarap Now’s Marketplace

Halmi sparkling beverage on a table with pieces of ginger, persimmon, jujubes, and cinnamon sticks.

Credit: Hannah Bae

Stock up on Halmi sparkling drinks for a better-for-you take on ginger ale with high-quality, traditional Korean flavors. It’s the perfect companion for all of your holiday eats.

1 comment
Mike Lewis
Mike Lewis

Love Halmi with anything I eat! Nice getting to know who’s behind it!

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