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Owl's Brew Ice Tea Mixers

GOOD COMPANY

That’s the Spirit

The founders of Owl’s Brew pour their hearts into mixing a different kind of drink.

By Embry Roberts

That’s the Spirit

By Embry Roberts


“Not your cup of tea” isn’t usually meant as a compliment. But really: Owl’s Brew products are not your average cup of tea. The line of tea-based mixers and ready-to-drink “boozy teas” is upping the ante on what grandma used to serve with scones. Oh, and it’ll get you tipsy. So there’s that.


The Magic of Mixology

It all started in 2010, when Maria Littlefield and Jennie Ripps met working at marketing firm in New York City. “Jennie developed this love for tea,” Maria recalled. “She was so fascinated that she could drop something into water and make this delicious beverage with all these vitamins and antioxidants. She was always trying to get me interested in it, and I was like, ‘Eh, whatever.’ And then she was like, ‘Well, what do you think about tea and booze?’ And I was like, ‘OK, that sounds like fun.’”

The two began playing around with tea-based cocktails, reinventing bar classics with home-brewed mixers. “Instead of a cranberry juice and vodka, we would make a cranberry tisane and vodka. Instead of vermouth, we would use rooibos,” said Maria. “We realized that instead of covering up the flavors of spirits, which is what a lot of us try to do with orange juice or grapefruit juice or whatever, tea – because of its botanical nature – enhances the flavor of a spirit, so you end up with a really balanced cocktail that has all these different elements.”


Welcome to the Tea Party

The women started hosting weekly “tea parties” for friends and colleagues. As word spread in their event-heavy industry, it wasn’t long before catering requests began rolling in. “We did the premiere of ‘Twilight’ in New York… We were flying to Sundance and the Super Bowl,” said Maria. “It sounds really glamorous, except that we were literally fresh-brewing tea in buckets for thousands of people.”

Sometimes, that meant setting up shop in a tiny hotel bathroom (“there was tea everywhere!”), or patiently pulling enough water to make thousands of cocktails from a department store’s automatic sink. “The TSA must have thought we were up to no good,” said Maria. “We would check bags of loose-leaf tea, plus bubble-wrapped agave and lemon juice. We always had a little inspection sticker.”
Not only did working the event circuit help the women perfect their brewing methods, but it also confirmed there was, indeed, a thriving market for tea-based tipple. In 2013, they launched their first product: a line of mixers that are all-natural, low-calorie, and – if their sales have anything to say about it – really freaking tasty.


Drink Wise

The name is a symbolic nod to their slogan, “Drink wise” – a belief that even those who like to party should be able to take pride in what they put in their bodies. “People want to have a cocktail, but still want to feel good about the ingredients that they’re having,” said Maria. “We fresh-brew the tea. We use whole, real ingredients. The sugars are from cane sugar or organic agave or real fruit juice – something that your body knows how to process.”

After all, as Maria pointed out, it was high time the mixer industry caught up with shift toward premium spirits. “People are entertaining at home and want to have that craft cocktail experience… So you buy high-end vodka, but you’re still pouring cranberry juice, or a cocktail mixer with high fructose corn syrup or color dye,” she said. “We saw a huge gap there.” Factor in a booming wellness industry surrounding drinks as well as food (think $12 green juice and fancy single-origin coffee), and they had all the proof they needed that these products would find their audience.

Five years and a second line of canned beer-tea blends later, it’s clear that they were right. Owl’s Brew, once limited to specialty natural markets on the coasts, can now be found at major retailers nationwide.

Business wins notwithstanding, the most gratifying piece for the founders has been hearing how a drink can mean so much more. “One woman emailed us and said, ‘I just want you to know that you’ve changed my life! I never liked beer before, and I can finally have a beer with my husband at night,’” said Maria. “She felt like she was part of the moment now, with something she actually enjoyed. Another lady was like, ‘I love your products so much I shower with it every night. It’s my new shower beer.’ Stuff like that makes you feel really good about what you’re doing.”

Owl's Brew Wicked Margarita cocktail mixer

For Rich and for Pour

“Some days you’re over the moon with excitement, and other days you’re like ‘oh my god!’” said Maria of running a business. “Putting together a cohesive product that tastes how you want it to taste, using what you want to use, that looks the way you want it to look is really challenging. We always say it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle, and then when you get to the end you’re missing a piece… There’s everything from getting your recipes scaled up for a production facility to, ‘How do I make this bottle black?’”

For that reason, she encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to embrace outside help. “Any time you get the chance to bring someone valuable onto your advisory board – formally, informally – they can help you avoid a lot of mistakes and challenges and hardships,” she said. “There’s no ego in saving time, right?”

At the same time, “You know your business the best,” she insisted. “You’re gonna get a lot people telling you different ideas and different advice, but if it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right. Or not right for you. Even if it comes from someone who you think is more senior, if you don’t understand it, double check.”


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