beverages

It's happy hour for tea

April 3, 2014: 11:48 AM ET

With Americans drinking more tea now than ever before, the brewed beverage has been popping up in the most unlikely places -- including the bar.

By April Guilmet

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Owl's Brew tea

FORTUNE -- For New Yorkers Jennie Ripps and Maria Littlefield, their latest foray into the tea trend began during happy hour.

Ripps, whose background is in marketing, founded The Teaologist, which is now known as Brew Lab Tea, in 2011. The company specializes in creating custom and private label tea blends for restaurants, hotels, and retailers.

Over cocktails with her business partner, Littlefield, the ladies realized one avenue of tea had yet to be explored: one's own mini-bar. "People are drinking in a much more sophisticated way nowadays," said Littlefield. "We were drinking these amazing cocktails in these amazing cocktail bars in the city, which couldn't compare to what you'd be making at home."

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Ripps and Littlefield, who met while working for a celebrity-marketing firm some years back, began whipping up some cocktail-inspired brews of their own in their Midtown kitchen.

"We tested out our blends with our friends for quite some time," said Ripps. Things really steeped from there.

Last summer the women launched Owl's Brew, looking to the "wisest" of birds for their inspiration, and the boozy brews were a hit at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York last July.

Ripps said that the cocktail mixing industry is ripe for disruption. "Other cocktail mixers are syrupy, contain several other mixing steps, and were meant to make one spirit. But this is a new way of thinking about how you mix."

Billed as the first-ever "tea crafted for cocktails," the blends are brewed in micro-batches and bottled for pairing with spirits, beer, or wine. Brewing their natural teas with purified water, fresh fruits, spices, and herbs, Ripps and Littlefield developed several mixer flavors, such as Coco-Lada, a pineapple and coconut-infused black Chai tea blend, and The Classic, an English breakfast tea infused with lemon peel.

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From organic, herbal blends in bags to ready-to-drink brews by the bottle to bubble teas to tea-infused food products, teas and their accoutrements are selling off the shelves. According to statistics compiled by the Tea Association of the U.S.A., tea imports have increased during the past two decades. In 1990, 170 million pounds of tea were imported to the United States; in 2012 that number had increased to 277 million pounds.

In keeping with that trend, Owl's Brew products have quickly secured distribution around the country. "The day we launched we got picked up pretty quickly," said Ripps. National retail chains such as Whole Foods (WFM), Fairway Market, Westerly Natural Market, and Gracious Home are currently carrying the brews.

Littlefield and Ripps noted The Classic pairs perfectly with gin or vodka, while Coco-Lada goes well with rum, though the sky is the limit when it comes to crafting some truly tea-licious cocktails.

"We've been really lucky but also right on trend," said Ripps. "Truthfully, we thought it would take us several months for things to pick up."

What's next for Owl's Brew? The company recently launched a sampler gift set featuring some of its most popular flavors, while a custom summer blend for the Williams-Sonoma retail chain is currently in the works.

"It's a white tea with watermelon in it," Ripps said. "It's perfect for summer."

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