In our new 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 Tracy Armstrong co-founder of KO Kombucha
Could you tell us a bit about the history of KO Kombucha?
KO Kombucha is a raw fermented tea, packed full of beneficial bacteria's, yeasts, acid and enzymes, now being scientifically proven to help to aid digestion, boost immunity and improve overall gut health. KO Kombucha is one of the few not only in Ireland but in Europe brewing kombucha in the traditional way using small batches, simple ingredients, the SCOBY and not made not from concentrate.
Our mission is to bring organic, healthy and delicious kombucha to the people of the world. Ronan discovered the magic of kombucha in London where we met. He was looking for natural ways to boost his own immunity and heard about kombucha on various podcasts. Living in London we were able to find it locally and what we found was either kombucha soft drinks (which have no functional properties) or really vinegary kombucha which was just not enjoyable to drink.
Ronan then did a fermentation course and this is where he discovered what real kombucha was supposed to be like. Not a soft drink and its not vinegar. More its a lightly effervescent drink. Being a passionate foodie Ronan honed his recipe and we noticed the positive addition it was to our own lives. We then started selling our homemade brew to friends and colleagues in London.
At the time we were at a cross roads in London and then the Brexit vote happened and this cemented our decision to move back to Ireland. We looked at what was on the market for kombucha and we saw an opportunity to bring a real, raw authentic kombucha to the Irish market, solving the problem of small batch production on a commercial scale. Not all kombuchas are created equal, home brewers will know this but the general public is unaware of the mass manufacturing methods used.
So we moved back to Ireland in Summer 2017 and starter KO Kombucha is our spare room which we covered to a mini brewery.
We launched the business in Jan 2018 in 1 local store in Athlone and we have built the business organically over the past 2 years to where we are now. KO is stocked in 100’s of independent stores and cafes around Ireland. We are no longer producing from our spare room, KO is now brewed, bottled and boxes from our micro brewery in Ferbane, Co. Offaly.
Why is using Irish ingredients important to your company?
Putting something truly beneficial out in to the world that we believed in was really important to us from the start. We wanted to help people and what inspires us to keep going is hearing back from our customers who are genuinely using our booch to treat illnesses such as Chron’s disease, digestive issues, ex cancer patients
So producing the product in Ireland is really important because it means we can ensure a quality product. We care about where our food comes from and the way its made and produced. With kombucha there simply isn’t anyone else making this drink in the traditional way like we do any more.
KO is made from tea, sugar, water and we flavour with whole organic fruit, nothing else.
We are both from rural locations (Mayo and Offaly) and we wanted to start a business in the country to see what could be done and to bring employment to these areas.
It's all about the circular economy, we support Irish suppliers, we buy Irish, we get our veg from our local organic farm. Now more than ever this is so important to get our economy going again.
What is the biggest challenge that you face as a food producer in Ireland?
The biggest challenge for us is the education piece on kombucha and getting people to understand the difference between real kombucha and fake kombucha, frankenbooch!! Having our handmade product compared to a mass produced soft drink which are two very different things so getting people to understand the difference is a challenge.
And this doesn’t just apply to our own business, it's an issue that affects all parts of food production and our eyes have really been opened in the past 3 years.
Getting people to think about where their food comes from and how its made is so important to us because the reality is that most food on supermarket shelves these days is built to sit on a shelf for a year rather than to improve peoples health. Mono cropping, pesticides, herbicides, mass manufacturing methods the list goes on are making people sick and the food industry and system is no different any other, built mainly for profit over people.
We feel good quality, fresh, organic food is the best way forward for people health and the health of the planet so we will continue to stand our ground on this one and continue to make fresh, organic, real kombucha!
What new trends do you see that are emerging in your industry?
Kombucha & fermented foods have been thrown into the spotlight.
The recent pandemic has given the immune system and gut health mass appeal so there is a real shift in approach with people being more proactive rather than reactive when it comes to their health and they are looking for products to support them in that.
The rise of the health conscious customer is now. A trend that was already building but Co-Vid has definitely accelerated.
People really seem to want to support real Irish independent business right now which is amazing to see. They are looking for quality and willing to pay a little extra for this.
Also buying behaviour has changed, when CoVid hit in March a lot of our lovely stockists had to close their doors and this drove customers directly to us. Luckily we were ready for this and have had been selling our kombucha online from our website direct to customer since we started.
(FYI - We sell by the case 12 x 330ml bottles for €35 - a great place to start for anyone who wants to try out kombucha for a month and see if it works for them)
Are there any major changes you would like to see in your industry?
We would like to see honest regulation with regard to real and fake kombucha.
As this industry grows so too does the competition and there is a lot of snake oil out there!
Our colleagues in the US have just published the first set of production standards for kombucha so this is promising and it means production methods such as pasteurisation, forced carbonation, heat treatments, use of kombucha concentrate or anything that can affect the efficacy of this living ancient drink, will have to be stated on the label which will allow the customer to make an informed decision when they buy kombucha.
So we would like to get to a place where this is understood, similar to buying Orange Juice, you have organic juice from concentrate or freshly squeezed organic juice and the customer knows the difference. It would be great to have an understanding for kombucha on this level.
What has running your own business taught you?
Running a business with a partner has been once of the most interesting and hardest things we have ever done. We thought we knew everything but we knew nothing! It has taught us Patience, Resilience, Limits, and about who we are as individuals and what we want to achieve in life and business.
It has really opened our eyes with regard to food production. We are both passionate foodies but neither of us had experience in the food production industry before we started out so this has been an eye opener.
Our advise for anyone else starting out with their own business would be:
Stick to the game plan - don’t get distracted.
Don't listen to the naysayers - trust your gut!
Work with your local LEO & take advantage of the funding that is available for Irish businesses. We have recently been approved for CSF funding with Enterprise Ireland so this has really helped.
Who are some other Irish foodie brands you draw inspiration from?
Vit Hit is a huge inspiration for us on a global scale. Its an Irish company and its taken a long time but what Gary Lavin has managed to do with the functional drinks category is pretty incredible.
Nut Shed are a brand we really love and Mescan beer in Mayo, both making real, delicious food & drinks in Ireland.
JP McMahon been a huge support and an inspiration for us from the start. His restaurant Tartare in Galway was one of our first stockist also and that gave us confidence to position our product where it deserves to be.
What he has done and is doing to get people to celebrate Irish Food is really fantastic.
What’s next for the company?
Well we will continue grow organically and work with Independent and Irish businesses feeding our circular Irish economy.
Kombucha on Tap is a new area of the business which we are enjoying developing. We plan to branch out into sustainability with new products and flavours.
We are building our team here in Offaly so our plan to bring employment to rural Ireland is happening.
Once we have established ourselves domestically, we would love explore export markets and establish a destination brewery, A Kombrewery & space in the midlands.
And on a personal note, we have baby No 2 on the way at the end of August so we will be juggling booch and babies for the foreseeable!
Find out more about KO Kombucha here!