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May 11, 2010 6:54 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Long Island man on a mission to promote his all-natural tea

May 11, 2010 6:54 PM

It started with 12 teaspoons of sugar, or rather, the desire to do without them. In 2008, Ray Smyth, a long-time tea enthusiast and budding entrepreneur, wanted to leave his nine-to-five desk job and branch out to start his own business. It wasn’t the right time to open a bar or a restaurant, which had long been his dream, he said, so instead he took up his passion for iced tea.

Two years later, Mr. Smyth is now the proud founder of Montauk Beverage Works, a company that prides itself on its all-natural—with no added sugar—fair trade ingredients. His first flavor, black tea with lemongrass, can be purchased in 35 stores from Stony Brook to Montauk.

For the company’s sole employee, that’s a long drive up and down Montauk Highway, hence the company name.

Mr. Smyth handles the marketing, distributing, sales and product development and uses a bottling company to produce the tea.

“There are lots of mom-and-pop stores on Montauk Highway throughout the length of the island,” he said. “I was stopping at every one, dropping off cases of my iced teas for whoever wanted to try it.”

Locally, those stores include Montauk Beer and Soda in Montauk, Damark’s Deli in East Hampton, and Schmidt’s Market in Southampton, where it sells for between $1.50 and $2.50, Mr. Smyth said.

Mr. Smyth, 28, of Massapequa said that growing up he had always brewed his own tea rather than drink store-bought tea, but he did have a penchant for cranberry juice.

“I always used to get cranberry drinks when I was like, 10 years old. I wanted it straight up, I thought it tasted better,” he said. “As you get older, your taste matures and you really realize what you’re putting into your body. I slowly came to realize that 12 teaspoons of sugar in one bottle, which you’d drink during lunch and another during dinner, that’s a heck of a lot of sugar.”

Mr. Smyth said he spent a year at home in Massapequa researching flavors and perfecting his tea recipe. His black tea with lemongrass is brewed with whole leaf Nilgiri tea leaves, grown in southern India, and Ceylon leaves, grown in Sri Lanka. To that, he added lemongrass instead of lemon, because it is less acidic, he said, and a touch of agave nectar, a raw sweetener that is made from the same southwestern plant as tequila. Mr. Smyth said that at this time his ingredients are not organic, but he hopes to move that way as soon as he starts to turn a profit. He’s shooting for the end of the year.

With his first product out, Mr. Smyth’s next big project has been to develop a second flavor, he said.

“I ended up really slowing down this summer and was just trying to figure out what I did right and what I did wrong,” he said. “I realized at that point I needed a new flavor.”

He said people are starting to respect his brand, but they are looking for more variety. He started with about 20 promising new recipes, he said, and with the help of family and friends has narrowed it down to three finalists.

He chose a lighter-colored, non-sweetened tea brewed with oolong tea leaves, grown in China, with hints of lime, orange and lemon zest. He said a third flavor should be soon to follow.

Mr. Smyth, who will be moving to East Hampton permanently this summer, said he hopes to strengthen his brand on the East End with more tastings and other promotions. His first was last month, at the Green Living Expo in Brentwood, where Mr. Smyth, flanked by neatly lined rows of Montauk tea, manned his own table. As visitors stopped by, intrigued by his slogan (“Soda is so over”) or the welcoming look of his tea label (a stick-figure surfer heading toward a wave), Mr. Smyth answered questions about his product and doled out sample tastes.

The comments were all positive on Saturday during the last hour of the expo.

“That’s really refreshing,” said one taster.

“Very good,” another decided.

“Clean,” said one more.

Even other exhibitors at the event approached Mr. Smyth and asked to take home some of his product. They offered to bring them to delis and pizza parlors farther west.

“The basis of what I’m finding,” Mr. Smyth said. “Is that people really want a tea that’s not inundated with sugar. My product is, in my opinion, better than anything else, quality wise, that’s on the market.”

And as far as the tea drinkers that are still hooked on sugar, Mr. Smyth said there’s only one excuse.

“I have to convert them,” he said. “I still have a lot of work to do.”

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We had some cases donated here at Stony Brook Southampton -- it's delicious!
By Stony Brook Southampton (2), Southampton on May 17, 10 10:10 AM