Brewing usually conjures up images of beer of spirits, but not in Ferbane where it's kombucha!
Ferbane Food Campus is where Tracy Armstrong and Ronan Coughlan brew and bottle small batches of the fermented tea drink which is growing in popularity for health conscious people looking for a low-sugar alternative to fizzy drinks, with the added bonus of being scientifically proven to improve digestion.
It's a long way from Hello Magazine and Sothebys for the couple with strong links to nearby Cloghan and Streamstown, not far from Moate, who since returning home from London have turned a hobby into a thriving business and now supply 100 outlets nationwide with their three varieties of KO Kombucha.
In the summer of 2017 they returned home with their son Rían (2) determined to set up their own rural business, and by December KO Kombucha was up and running, with the couple initially brewing from their spare bedroom in Moate.
In July of this year, they moved into a unit in Ferbane Food Campus, where they can brew, bottle and label their organic product for sale nationwide.
“Ronan heard about kombucha (while in London). He heard about the health benefits associated with it and then started drinking it himself. Then he started brewing it, and he went on to study fermentation in London so he's the head brewer of the product,” Tracy explains.
Fermented foods have enjoyed a huge upsurge in popularity in recent times, due in part, to the growing interest and research into gut health. Kombucha, a slighty effervescent, slightly sour drink has become popular among the health-conscious who are looking for an alternative to sugar-laden fizzy drinks with the additional health benefits of probiotics and antioxidants.
“It was always Ronan's thing that just because something is healthy, it doesn't mean it doesn't taste good. He set about creating a kombucha that tastes good and then we were selling to our friends, and colleagues in London. Then we settled on a couple of flavours we liked and afterwards we decided to move home.
“We saw a gap in the market in terms of what was available in Ireland. We think healthy and delicious should go hand in hand," Tracy adds, saying they have perfected blueberry, strawberry and original kombucha, and they hope to add to these varieties in the near future.
“It's really simple ingredients, basically tea, water, organic sugar and the Scoby, (which stands for ‘symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts). That's what kombucha is, it is basically fermented tea brewed over two to three weeks."
The pair then set about pitching their healthy drink at independent health food stores, organic shops and cafés around the country, and found an impressive following, amassing 100 stockists in the first year, notable names among them like Fallon and Byrne in Dublin, Shell's Café in Strandhill, Café Rua, Castlebar and JP McMahon's Tartare Café and Wine bar in Galway alongside local stockists.
The couple have really pooled their skills to make the business work. Tracy looks after the marketing and sales sides of the business, while Ronan is the brewer. Both draw on experiences gained in London working with
big names in their respective fields.
“My background is marketing and publishing so I worked for Hello Magazine for six years, I was managing the magazine's presence in retail, circulation, marketing. Obviously, it is a different thing now but the same principles apply having a product at retail and how the process work. Previous to that, I was in Dublin with Harmonia (a magazine group)," she explains, adding that Hello Magazine was certainly an "interesting place" to work.
"The experience I got in London was amazing and for Ronan too, he's done loads of different things. He's worked for Sothebys, the Tate, he has a Masters in Art and Policy Management. He was managing a business for a guy too in London dealing with French ceramic tiles.
“Then he started brewing the product so we are kind of using all the areas we've worked in."
She says the government initiative, Back for Business, was also very useful in in terms of providing a great support network at the start as it is targeted at returning emigrants who wanted to start an enterprise, and provided workshops on marketing, company structure and a mentorship programme which they found invaluable.
The availability of a unit in Ferbane Food Campus has been fantastic for the fledgling enterprise, Tracy stresses.
“It's great to have a ready made food grade place that we can produce it and the space. We were coming from a spare room to have that space. We can scale up now, we've already scaled up from the spare room to Ferbane and now we can continue.
Looking to the future, Tracy says it's all about growth for them and promoting awareness of kombucha with tastings and events all over Ireland, and she can see a situation in years to come where the product is stocked in pubs as an alcohol free alternative.
“A lot of people still don't know what kombucha is. It's a new, emerging market. It's very much at the beginning of it. People can see a year on though that we are in 100 locations, there is a demand for these products and that demand is only going to get bigger,” Tracy predicts. “2019 is about building on that and hopefully getting into every county in Ireland,” she ends.
KO Kombucha products are available in The Organic Store, Birr, Tullamore Food Fayre, Kilcruttin every Saturday 10am to 2pm, The Little Coffee Hut, Sragh, Tullamore and Conway & Co High Street, Tullamore, or online by case on the www.kokombucha.com website.