When Gerry Scullion was made redundant in 2012 he didn't let the grass grow under his feet. Instead he seized the moment and began work on what has developed into King of Kefir, a range of water-based kefir drinks packed with probiotic cultures that support gut health.
King of Kefir was launched in 2017 and the products are available in more than 100 outlets including Avoca, a number of SuperValus and The Butler’s Pantry. Gut health and the benefits of consuming fermented foods and drinks have moved right up the wellness agenda so Scullion’s timing is good and demand for his product is growing strongly.
“People may have heard of milk-based kefir, but ours is water-based and is a live, natural symbiotic culture of gut-friendly bacteria. Water kefir is a traditional drink and known under many different names in different cultures such as Japanese water crystals and California bees,” explains Scullion who studied biotechnology at college. This background was to prove handy, as Scullion was able to use his expertise in chemistry to produce a naturally fermented, naturally sparkling drink that doesn’t need refrigerated distribution. This is a significant plus as it takes a big chunk out of manufacturing costs.
King of Kefir contains the natural plant sweetener, stevia, and Scullion’s scientific training was also advantageous here. Using stevia poses numerous technical challenges not least because it behaves differently from sugar when it comes to mouth feel and how it affects the texture of a product.
"Our drinks are low in sugar which makes them suitable for diabetics and they are gluten and dairy free," Scullion says. "We are the first in Ireland to build a dedicated water kefir brewery and to use stevia as a sweetener in a drink. Our products are much lower in calories [10kcal per bottle] than other fermented beverages which generally use cane sugars."
Scullion is no stranger to the alchemy of mixing drinks having been an enthusiastic home brewer for years. But what prompted him to go commercial was his personal experience of finding it almost impossible to get a pleasant tasting, non-alcoholic drink that could be consumed in a pub with your mates without obviously looking like a soft drink.
“I really didn’t like the taste of traditional soft drinks because they were sugar laden, contained preservatives and were often artificially flavoured and coloured,” he says.
“I began developing recipes in my apartment kitchen for a drink to address this gap in the market; at the end of 10 months I had some fairly rough formulations that needed to be refined and scaled to test them properly.”
Scullion went on the hunt for a premises and, in 2013-2014, built a small-scale pilot production line at the Chocolate Factory in Dublin – a shared innovation hub for small businesses located in the old Williams & Woods building on King’s Inn Street. Around the same time he was asked to manage the facility and that kept body and soul together while he continued to work on his products.
“I learned a huge amount about business from taking on this role, but it did slow me down so I’m not as far advanced as I could have been at this point,” Scullion says. King of Kefir was launched through the SuperValu Food Academy programme last year and the company makes and packs its own products and employs two people.
Scullion had a priming grant from the Dublin LEO but apart from this has funded the company’s €80,000 development himself and has recently invested in a more advanced filling line to keep up with demand. Growth to date has been organic, but with all of his ducks in a row Scullion is ready to scale significantly and is hoping to raise about €400,000 to fund the expansion.