By JIM McCUNE
June 10 is just another Friday for most of us. For Kyle Chandler, founder and brewmaster of Long Island’s Subtle Tea Company, it’s a major holiday: National Iced Tea Day.
Not that he’s celebrating alone. Tea is second only to water as the most consumed drink on earth. In the United States, what’s known as ready-to-drink iced tea makes up 85 percent of total consumption, with sales spiking during the summer months.
Sweetened or unsweetened, flavored or not, iced tea has been America’s go-to warm-weather drink for more than 100 years. In the past decade, however, the RTD tea market has grown 15 fold and now tops $5.6 billion.
Chandler’s niche is hand-crafted, carefully flavored teas, the result of an epiphany he had while working a local beer festival. Nothing against craft beer – it’s Chandler’s second-favorite beverage – but what to drink when you need a breather from all those amber flights?
“My mom used to make this awesome, ice-cold, sun tea for my Dad and I,” he said. “I never forgot that as the most refreshing drink I had ever had.”
An engineer by trade, Chandler turned his home kitchen into a test lab, brewing hundreds of one-gallon nanobatches.
“I used my engineering skills to test ingredients and precisely develop and record my recipes, temperatures and steep times,” he said. “I transcribed each batch’s empirical data into precise brewing logs, which were extrapolated into flavor and aroma spreadsheets. That’s how I honed our signature, subtle flavors.”
Well, that and an awful lot of tasting.
“There were many times when it was four in the morning, and there I was, alone in the darkness, rocking back and forth on my couch – totally buzzed on caffeine because I’d brewed all day and all night and had consumed gallons of tea. But it was worth it.”
Chandler founded the Subtle Tea Co. in late 2013, initially selling his creations by the cup at local beer festivals. He also registered for Stony Brook University’s food-focused business incubator at Calverton, where Subtle Tea became the facility’s first beverage.
“I didn’t have to worry about insurance, building a facility, drainage, town permits, none of that,” Chandler said. “On Day One I was already learning how to scale-up my recipes, develop new flavors and sell.”
Chandler’s main ingredient is organic black tea, which packs around 20 milligrams of natural caffeine per bottle, or about as much as a quarter of a cup of coffee.
Recent studies suggest people who regularly consume three or more cups of black tea per day have reduced risk for heart disease and stroke. Other studies claim it lowers bad cholesterol, reduces risk of heart attack and lowers blood pressure.
Kyle sets up his own equipment for each new brew session at the incubator, including assorted kettles and a 400,000 BTU burner. He also invested in a large delivery truck, affectionately known as Subtle Jerry, to service what is now dozens of retail locations across the Island, including delis, breweries, wineries, farm stands, natural food stores, restaurants and bars, plus local events.
“The incubator is an amazing gift from NY State and SBU,” Chandler said. “It really allowed us to get our startup off the ground at an affordable hourly rate. The incubator’s resources, mentorship, and state-of-the-art commercial food processing facility were mission-critical to our success. We’re very grateful.”
Chandler’s vision for Subtle Tea is to keep growing the business organically, account by account, with scale leading to increased efficiency and, after that, who knows?
“Maybe someday we’ll have our own brewery,” he mused. “That will take working directly with brewing equipment manufacturers to customize their current equipment to brew iced tea.
“Maybe someday we’ll have our own sales team, distributor and financial investor. I’m working towards it all.”
Check out Subtle Tea on tap, in the bottle, or online at thesubtletea.com
McCune is director of the Craft Beverage Division of Melville-based EGC Group. Reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org or at 516-935-4944.