Enjoying the not-too-sweet taste of success

Subtle Tea founder Kyle Chandler: Getting set to fill the 10,000th bottle.

By GREGORY ZELLER // Given that he’s American and draws a breath, it’s no surprise Kyle Chandler likes beer.

And given that he’s a Long Islander during the Island’s craft-beverage renaissance, it follows that Chandler enjoys small-batch microbrews. In fact, he counts the proprietors of several Island brewpubs – including Riverhead’s Moustache Brewing Co. and Patchogue’s Blue Point Brewing Co. – among his friends, and volunteers often to help them at craft festivals and other promotional events.

Chandler was working the 2013 North Fork Craft Beer Festival when he had his a-ha moment. Two or three pints into the festivities, he found himself thirsting – but not for more suds.

subtle-teas“I was thinking, ‘Man, I wish there was something here to get refreshed and re-hydrated,’” he told Innovate LI. “‘Something other than alcohol.’”

That’s when the bulb lit up. There’s a “craft revolution” underway, Chandler reasoned, and with all the craft beer, craft wine, craft cheese, craft pickles and craft everything else making the scene, “nobody is making a nonalcoholic beverage capable of standing up in that craft realm.”

His vision: A “good iced tea that fits in this world,” a hankering that traces back to Chandler’s youth. After a steamy day of playing or working, it wasn’t a pop or a bottle of water waiting to refresh him, he said, but a freshly brewed jug of sun tea, courtesy of his mother.

“When it’s hot and sweaty, you want iced tea,” he noted. “I grew up with that. It’s awesome.”

So Chandler pivoted directly to the quintessential quencher, re-brewed for the craft generation. Not just a refreshing beverage, but one formulated with the same affection – and distributed with the same economy – as other artisan products.

“Never a homebrewer” – he’s an engineer on U.S. Navy aircraft radar systems at Northrup Grumman’s Bethpage facility – Chandler spent about 18 months acquiring various kettles and pumps and hoses, securing permits and snagging a truck at auction, now a suped-up “show rig” for personal appearances. Then came tinkering with recipes, leasing brewing and bottling time at Stony Brook University’s food-focused Calverton Business Incubator, and creating a modest marketing plan.

Late last year, The Subtle Tea Co. bottled its first batch. In early October, Subtle Tea – still headquartered in Chandler’s Centereach living room – will fill its 10,000th bottle.

The Subtle Tea Co. is a true one-man show. Besides a little bottling help from his father and the occasional brewing party with friends, Chandler does it all, from selecting natural ingredients to delivering the final product.

Mr. Tea spends between four and six hours each week at the Calverton incubator, producing about 75 cases in four flavors: plum, raspberry, a caffeine-free apple-mango and a new black tea that goes by “Sweetless,” so named because “everybody has an ‘unsweetened’ tea,” Chandler noted, “and this has a little attitude to it.”

“We think it’s important to taste the tea first when you’re drinking an iced tea,” he noted. “A lot of iced teas are just high fructose corn syrup, and that’s not what you want to be putting in your body regularly.

“‘Sweetless’ is just the bold black tea,” Chandler added. “But with the other flavors, you’re going to taste tea first and then a little subtle sweetness on the back end.”

While Subtle Teas are now available in 32 Long Island stores and pubs, Chandler plans to continue bottling himself, at least for now. Automatic bottling machines are expensive, the business owner noted, and leasing time with a co-packer – another company with an automated bottling setup – is proving challenging on Long Island.

“We haven’t found a lot of local options,” Chandler noted. “We need certain fill temperatures to keep our pasteurization throughout the bottling process. And a lot of places deal in numbers – they say, ‘You have to make at least 4,500 cases,’ but I haven’t made 4,500 cases this year yet.

“There’s a place in New Jersey that can do it and another in Connecticut,” he added. “But we don’t want to move off the Island.”

Fortunately, the Calverton Business Incubator has everything The Subtle Tea Co. needs, and that’s fine with Chandler, who’s keen on remaining a local company, just like the Island microbreweries that inspired his thirst for entrepreneurial adventure. But that’s not to say the startup isn’t looking to grow.

Already billing itself as “America’s only tea on tap,” Chandler’s enterprise is introducing a new pumpkin flavor this season and lining up appearances at regional craft fairs to spread the word. The pumpkin tea is set to debut at Great South Bay Brewery’s Oct. 24 PunktÖberfest event.

There’s a definite market for artisan teas with a grown-up bent, Chandler noted, and The Subtle Tea Co. – which sells its brews not only in bottles but in kegs and growlers – is ready to drink it in.

“It’s for people who go to a craft beer festival and say, ‘I’ve had three today and I have to make sure I can get home safe, so let’s try something else,’” Chandler said. “It comes out of a tap and it looks like all the other drinks, so it’s not like you’re having a can of Nestea. You fit in.

“And you can appreciate all the flavors and notes,” he added. “This really makes sense to me, because these are worlds I enjoy being in.”

The Subtle Tea Co.

What’s It? Organic iced teas for the craft-beverage crowd

Brought To You By: Solo act Kyle Chandler – the Northrop Gumman engineer, not the Friday Night Lights star – who brews, bottles, designs and delivers

All In: $35,000 for flavor development, Chandler’s suped-up “show rig,” various kettles and hoses and other basic startup costs

Status: Now quenching at retail outlets, microbreweries and craft festivals across Long Island