From Hello! mag to Moate: Raising a glass to rural enterprise

It’s a long way from London and Hello! magazine to making Kombucha – a raw fermented tea – in Moate, Co. Westmeath, but for Tracy Armstrong and Ronan Coughlan it’s been a worthwhile journey. After six years in London the couple and their young son were spurred to return home after the Brexit referendum.

Tracy has a background in marketing and distribution and spent the last six years working as a circulation marketing manager for Hello! magazine. Ronan’s background is in art, business management and sales. He is the master brewer of KO Kombucha.

Tracy is from Mayo and grew up in Brickens, Claremorris. Ronan is a native of Offaly. His family moved to New York for 10 years and then returned to settle in Westmeath in his teens.

“We made the decision to move home with our two-year-old son, Rian. A big part of our decision was so that our son would grow up around grandparents and cousins in Ireland,” said the former Hello! magazine employee.

Both of us wanted to start our own business for quite some time, using the wealth of experience we had built up but we weren’t sure what that would be. We are both passionate about fresh, healthy, nutritious food and how it makes you feel.

“Ronan discovered kombucha in London through trying to fix his own immune system and this inspired him to become a home brewer four years ago,” she said. “Kombucha is part of the fermented foods group which are now being scientifically proven to improve gut health, aid digestion and immunity.

“KO Kombucha was born when we saw an opportunity to merge several areas of passion and put something beneficial out into the world. Through trial and error, many tests with friends and colleagues while studying the art of fermentation, KO Kombucha started to grow organically from there.

“KO Kombucha provides a premium offering in a new emerging market. Many people feel that because kombucha is healthy it shouldn’t be tasty; we don’t agree. We thrive to keep our kombucha at optimum level with a short shelf life to ensure it is consumed fresh and alive. We brew on demand in small batches to a market that is thirsty for more.”

In the summer of 2017, Tracy’s parents drove a small van with the family’s possessions, including an 8L jar containing their original organic symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast, back to Moate. “We had been working behind the scenes in London for the past six months developing our branding, flavours and route to market,” Tracy said.

“Once we were home, we converted our spare room into a micro-brewery and the KO journey continued. The business was launched in December of 2017 with three flavours – original, strawberry and blueberry.

Brewed and bottled by hand

“Our simple ingredients and brewing technique create a deliciously consistent wild ferment. KO is brewed and bottled by hand in small batches using organic tea, organic sugar and whole organic fruits.

“We gained 100 stockists in our first year, a mixture of independent health food stores, cafes and restaurants. We also sell direct by the case and offer free delivery within Ireland,” she said.

“We have funded the venture through personal savings and also with the help of Westmeath and Offaly LEO and the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers programme. We moved the business from our spare room to the Ferbane Food Hub in July of 2018, where we rent a purpose-built food grade unit to produce our product,” said Tracy.

“Volumes vary from month to month. We are a new business so our volumes are increasing every month while we work out the patterns. It is just for the Irish market at the moment. We are stocked in 100 locations around Ireland, a mixture of health food stores, cafes and restaurants.

We would eventually like to see the drink stocked in pubs as a healthy, non-alcoholic option as our aesthetic sits beside the Craft Brewers of Ireland. Currently we are just in Ireland, north and south, but we would like to export next year [to] the UK to start, pending Brexit, and then into Europe.

Being a small lean start up model business, the couple said, is a challenge. “I think a lot of businesses are geared towards big business and when you’re not putting in huge orders it can be harder to source the raw materials you need in smaller quantities.

“Moving back home after being away for six years left a large hole in our professional and personal networks in Ireland, so this is something we had to build up again, one by one,” Tracy said.

“Our aim is to build a domestic brand over the next year, grow our footprint in Ireland and establish KO Kombucha as a premium kombucha in Ireland. We are currently considering different options for growth that involve various approaches to funding requirements. In this time we also plan on developing an export strategy for the product as we see it working well abroad.

“The kombucha market is experiencing tremendous growth worldwide and showing no signs of slowing. As we scale, we plan to keep the brewing process exactly the same, perhaps with just more hands on deck, and being one of the very few kombucha companies offering untampered, real, raw live kombucha.”

Operating from the midlands strategically as a location has been great, according to the couple. “The product is distributed by Independent Irish Health Foods. However, we do deliveries ourselves also and being in a central location means you can be in most places from the midlands in around an hour.”

Leaving behind Hello! magazine and the vibrancy of London has been an adjustment. “The pace in rural areas is slower, so coming from a city to that has been an adjustment. It takes time for people to come around to new trends. Once people see something as being more established they get on board, but at the start explaining a new, different idea can be tough. You have to stick to your game plan and that’s what we did.”

For more information, see: kokombucha.com.