Continuing our Meet the Maker series, we're shining the light on the many gifted producers behind some of Ireland's best food and drink brands. Today, we chat to Mary-Thea Brosnan of Kerry Kefir.
Could you tell us a bit about the history of Kerry Kefir?
“Everything we do, we do it while valuing nature. We believe in being genuine. We value nature by using the most natural ingredients for our products. We make powerful, traditional kefir by using living kefir grains. Kerry Kefir is the most natural probiotic for optimal gut health.”
Having suffered from digestive issues for years, I was prescribed tablets to be taken before every meal for the rest of my life. I spent years looking to help my symptoms through diet until a nutritionist advocated milk kefir, a fermented milk beverage packed full of beneficial bacteria and yeast for your gut health.
I sourced kefir grains and started making it myself. Within a week, the kefirmilk had made a huge difference to my symptoms and I told everyone about my transformation.
I noticed that none of the milk kefirs on the market were made in the traditional way using kefir grains but were instead using powdered, lab-manufactured cultures.
I decided to create a premium product using the living organisms to produce the most natural form of milk kefir as it was traditionally made.
After 14 years living in Dublin, I moved home to Castleisland, Co. Kerry in October 2018 to start Kerry Kefir. I continued to work part-time as an Optometrist (I have a BSc in Optometry) before going full-time with Kerry Kefir in January 2020.
Starting the company in my parents’ kitchen, I soon moved to a converted truck container behind the house. For the first year, I sold directly to customers in Castleisland but Kerry Kefir is now stocked in six SuperValu stores and 5 independent retailers in Kerry.
Why is using Irish ingredients important to your company?
I believe in keeping things simple and natural. Incorporating traditional ways of producing and eating food is of huge benefit to everyone; both for their own health and the economy.
Nurturing a circular economy is so important right now to support the goals of sustainability. It’s fantastic to see the focus on supporting local which will help businesses flourish and will keep money circulating within Ireland.
The milk I use to make Kerry Kefir is from a local milk co-operative, only 20km from my facility. Since 1920, local farmers deliver fresh milk straight from their farms to Lee Strand’s creamery every morning! The quality of the milk is excellent. Lee Strand employ over 100 people across their various business sites. By using their milk, I’m supporting their employees and the companies sustainability goals (which are fantastic).
The kefir grains I have grown myself from the start. They have been grown in Lee Strand’s whole milk, and so they are essentially Irish kefir grains.
What is the biggest challenge that you face as a food producer in Ireland?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced is in trying to get my message across; to introduce people to Kerry Kefir. If you have not heard of kefir before, it’s unlikely you will pick it up off the shelf. Due to Covid, I have not been able to do any in-store tasting sessions. These are hugely valuable to introduce the product to potential customers, and to talk about the benefits of kefir. Instead, I turned to social media to get the information across. Thankfully, word of mouth is also a very powerful advertiser, and so this has greatly helped my small business in Kerry.
Kerry Kefir is a living product- there are bacteria and yeast literally alive in the product. As such, each batch can vary in its consistency. The microorganisms react to their environment- if it’s warm, cold, humid etc. This is very challenging, but also why I love the product so much. I have to try keep the kefir grains happy and fed all the time! If I was using powdered cultures like all other milk kefirs on the Irish market, this would not be as much of a challenge.
Another challenge I am facing is in partnering with a courier for future distribution of Kerry Kefir. Kerry Kefir is packaged in re-useable glass bottles, so the utmost care must be taken when distributing the product to the retailers. Currently, I deliver the product myself within Kerry. I’d love to find an independent courier within the different counties to distribute my product, who would also give the care required in distributing such a product.
What new trends do you see that are emerging in your industry?
There’s a brilliant focus on the importance of Gut Health at the moment. The likes of Prof. Ted Dinan leading the research in UCC in Cork and making waves with new information on the connection between the gut and the brain. Prof. Dinan’s group have promoted the concept of Psychobiotics, probiotics that have a mental health benefit. His book ‘The Psychobiotic Revolution’ is well worth the read.
Teagasc, along with APC Microbiome Ireland in UCC, are also carrying out extensive research on kefir grains and how they impact on the gut-brain axis with really positive results emerging.
People are starting to understand how the gut works, and how important it is to have a healthy gut for your overall health.
Are there any major changes you would like to see in your industry?
I would love if there was more mainstream education on how commercial food is produced, and what ingredients are used to preserve and stabilise food. It would be fantastic if everyone was able to understand and read the ingredients on packages, and make an informed decision on what they are putting in to their bodies. It’s one thing to have legislation on labelling requirements, but it’s another thing for people to actually understand what these ingredients and health claims mean. In many cases, we have no idea what we are putting in to our bodies.
It is only through my own journey with digestive issues that I learned how to read ingredients. Extensive research informed me on which ingredients and additives were possibly harming my gut. Not everyone has the time or tools available to carry out this research themselves.
What has running your own business taught you?
It’s so important to have a support network. You need people around you who believe in you and who you can bounce ideas off. It would be extremely difficult to try do it all on your own all of the time. There are so many support networks out there from your Local Enterprise Office to participation programmes like ACORNS. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
I’ve learned to ensure you are looking after yourself every day. You have to make decisions every day. If your tank is empty, those decisions seem a lot harder to make.
Keep your vision alive! Do not let go of it.
Enjoy the journey!
Who are some other Irish foodie brands you draw inspiration from?
Kerrygold is definitely a huge inspiration- they have made an incredible name for themselves worldwide! In 2019 Kerrygold reached annual global retail sales of €1 billion, record results for the brand. Kerrygold is the first Irish brand to reach this milestone making them Ireland’s most successful food exporter.
Seeing the vast array of small Irish artisan producers is also a huge inspiration; from the likes of Dingle Goat Cheese, Dingle Sushi, OrganiGo, Muckross Creamery Ice-Cream, Green Earth Organics and their local Kerry distributor Rocket Deliveries, Artfert Dairy, Feighery’s Farm Beetroot Juice…. The list goes on and on. There are so many producers working incredibly hard to bring the best produce to the people of Ireland. It’s really inspiring!
What’s next for the company?
I am enjoying the steady expansion of Kerry Kefir, where production, demand and distribution are all within my control.
Ultimately, Kerry Kefir will be available nationwide. I want this fantastic product to be available to anyone who needs it to help with their digestive ailments. This will require a new production facility, distribution partners, investment and funding, in addition to employees and a lot of hard work. All very exciting prospects and I’m looking forward to the next phase of this journey.