After several months of 80-hour weeks at a celebrity marketing company, Jennie Ripps was desperate for a smart, capable, and driven intern to help share her burgeoning workload. Little did she know that her first applicant, Maria Littlefield, would be the perfect fit for her intern position, or that the pair would become fast friends and newly minted business partners in founding the beverage startup Owl's Brew.
Once Littlefield settled into her role as intern, she began to notice that Ripps had a keen interest in tea and often spent hours of her spare time researching different strains to create her own special blends. Littlefield was intrigued and decided to join the weekly tea curation sessions with Ripps. Lazy afternoons spent chatting and enjoying their tea creations gradually turned into early evenings and happy hour.
Given their shared passion, the duo chose to forgo the vodka sodas for custom cocktails mixed with their freshly brewed tea blends and some exotic spices. The results were so unique and delicious that the pair decided to make an experience out of their hobby by hosting small soirées for close friends that featured these new tea cocktails. Word of these tasty "tea-tails" quickly spread among the New York City elite who were desperate for new, healthy, and inspired cocktails. Soon Ripps and Littlefield were being hired to create the latest must-have item for every trendy party from New York to L.A., including exclusive celebrity events at Art Basel, Coachella, and NYC Fashion Week. Littlefield and Ripps could not keep up with the overwhelming demand. There was clearly a larger business opportunity and in October 2013, they decided to mass produce and sell their most popular cocktail mixers under the brand Owl's Brew.
After many months of planning and a couple of hiccups in the production timeline, the first Owl's Brew tea-infused cocktail mixers hit the market: The Classic, Coco-Lada, and Pink & Black. Despite initial apprehension and anxiety about reception, the mixers were a huge success with positive reaction from both retailers and consumers; "it was overwhelming and so exciting," explains Littlefield. Within just a few months, distributors and retailers were jostling to carry Owl's Brew, which enabled a quick expansion to over 1,200 retail locations in 2015. "Some of our early and most enthusiastic retail partners were well-known chains including Whole Foods, Wegmans, Williams Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, BevMo, Total Wine, and Bed Bath & Beyond. We found mixologists equally receptive and they began incorporating Owl's Brew into their new cocktail creations, particularly at popular hotels and restaurants in New York, including the Standard, the Bowery Hotel, Quality Eats, and Smith & Wollensky," added Littlefield.
While thrilled with the launch of the cocktail mixers, Ripps and Littlefield are not the types to rest on their laurels. Over a year ago, they went back to the tea lab and began developing a new product: a blend of tea and beer. "We had always thought that our tea blends were wonderful when mixed with beer. And after all, tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world and beer is the third; why not combine them for a new, refreshing beverage?" questioned Ripps. After many months of product iteration, testing, tasting, and refining, Ripps and Littlefield finalized the recipe for the Owl's Brew Radler by combining 60 percent beer with 40 percent tea in four unique flavors: The Blondie, Wicked Watermelon, That's My Jam, and a winter seasonal called Short and Stout. "We thought that we knew what success looked and felt like after launch of the cocktail mixers. But, the success of the radlers was on a totally different scale. Customers called us at all hours of the day and night begging us to let them carry the product," says Ripps.
While the instant success of the radlers has been very encouraging, the process of bringing a completely new consumer product to fruition had its own hurdles and setbacks. "One of the biggest challenges we've faced so far is that we're the first to market with a beer and tea product. This is a tremendous opportunity for us, but it's also a challenge, as there really is no roadmap, and it often feels like we're putting together a jigsaw puzzle (without a picture to guide us). Everything from finding a brewery willing to take a chance on brewing tea (not beer!), to working closely with our can manufacturer to create a unique shade of ivory has been its own time consuming project."
Even so, with heavy adoption and consumer demand for Owl's Brew, it is no wonder that the company is expecting continued growth in the next five years and projecting revenues in the tens of millions within the next six months. For Littlefield and Ripps, "it's a very exciting time for our company. Launching the radler has allowed us to reach a new audience, and so far they have been loving our beer. Going from a non-alcoholic cocktail mixer to a ready-to-drink has been quite a learning experience ... but for the best possible reason."
Disclosure: Ms. Devine works for ZX Ventures, a subsidiary of AB InBev, which maintains a minority position in Owl's Brew.