By Max Rothman
When Jennie Ripps and Maria Littlefield worked for Talent Resources, a celebrity marketing firm in New York City, they often hosted friends at their Midtown brownstone office building for tea cocktail parties. Yes, the parties were cute and therapeutic, but they also meant more than that.
Ripps had always been a dedicated tea drinker, but didn’t begin experimenting with mixing tea into cocktails until she found that the Mad Men era hadn’t ended for the marketing business, where socializing and drinking are part of the life. She liked cocktails, but she had to limit herself to just one drink to prevent a painful morning. She and Littlefield also weren’t impressed with the options; lots of cranberry juice and Vermouth.
Owls Brew founders Jennie Ripps (L) and Maria Littlefield
“How many cranberry vodkas can you drink in a night?” Littlefield said.
These realizations influenced the July launch of Owl’s Brew, a tea made specifically for cocktails. Owl’s Brew was recently featured alongside other new beverages at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore, but even before the product’s launch, things had been moving fast for Ripps, the founder, and Littlefield, a partner.
At the Fancy Food Show in New York in June, the pair met a representative from BevMo!, a liquor and beverage store chain in California. He was putting together a Halloween card and he liked what he saw in Owl’s Brew: the black, chalkboard-esque bottle, the brand name, the innovation.Without a single bottle placed on a shelf, Owls Brew had already secured widespread distribution on the other side of the U.S.
“It was one of those things that you just wish will happen,” Littlefield said, “and it did.”
Littlefield said that their marketing background enabled them to approach the beverage industry backwards. Instead of formulating the product and then gauging interest from retailers, distributors and consumers, they first blogged recipes and tea tips and logged millions of social media impressions, Littlefield said. They already understood the brand’s identity, positioning and message. Now they wait to see the direction of Owl’s Brew; a product she said has no peers in the beverage industry because of its tea base.
“There’s no preconceived notion,” she said.
They acknowledge the challenge in creating something unique with no section of its own in liquor stores. This could be challenging for consumers less willing to buy outside of their regular rotation. But Ripps and Littlefield also see these details as ways to intrigue consumers with something new and natural. Owl’s Brew is fresh-brewed with spices, fruits and herbs, contains no artificial flavors or concentrates, brewed with purified water and sweetened with natural agave. Flavors available online include Pink & Black, a tart Darjeeling, Coco-Lada, a a sweet and spicy coconut tea, and The Classic, a tart English Breakfast.
Ripps and Littlefield recognize that this kind of product will require an educational process. This recognition explains the chalkboard-esque bottle, which takes consumers back to school and clearly explains the product’s use and contents. Littlefield also said that the bottle’s look is both artisanal and cool. In New York, both traits are often vital, especially with a product as unknown as prepared tea cocktails.
“It’s always a risk to start a new category,” Littlefield said. “But I think the mixer category is just slowly starting to reinvent itself.”