The Chocolate Factory, in Dubiln’s North inner city, was once just that; producing confectionary classics like Toblerone and Mint Crisp. While Dublin’s first concrete building may have lacked the whimsical eccentricity of Willy Wonka’s domain, and no golden ticket was needed to visit, today, now home to a community of creatives, there is something quite magically going on within this vast complex.
Bubbling and fizzing away in a laboratory of sorts, one resident, Gerry Scullion, a former scientist, has concocted a refreshing alternative to commercial sodas, Herbel Crest; a healthy soft drink that’s low in sugar and calories, but high in probiotics and flavour.
TheTaste chatted to Gerry about the magical ingredient, kefir, that gives his drinks their sparkle; the culture of collaboration in Chocolate Factory; and about rebranding to officially give his drinks the title they deserve; King of Kefir.
Tell us about how the idea for Herbel Crest came about?
I was always tinkering with drinks, fruit beers, some country wines from elderberry, sloe, strawberry, blackberry and even the odd tincture. I was made redundant in July 2012 from an industrial contractor. Like a lot of stories you hear, some of us are faced with a time in our life when you feel somewhat lost and even disorientated. But it gives you a chance or in my case forced me to ask why and for what am I getting up every morning? I knew that I wasn’t going to be happy carrying on the career path that fallen in to over the previous years. Changing direction away from your comfort zone as such presents many challenges, the primary one for me was huge fear, but I persevered.
I decided to make healthy soft drinks. The motivations were I don’t like the big brand high sugar, high carbonated and high in artificial flavour drinks. I like my craft beers but I if went to a pub, there was essentially very little of interest to drink if I was driving other, than the usual Lucozade or cokes, and let’s face it there are only so many you can stomach in an evening.
So I spent 10 months at home in my apartment kitchen developing recipes. I shared my apartment with two others, and, in fairness, they didn’t seem to mind too much, the hundreds of bottles cluttering up the counter tops and the wet floor if the bottle filling went wayward.
It turns out it’s not that easy to make a tasty healthy soft drink when you remove sugar! And to complicate things further I wanted to remove the need for forced carbonation, i.e. the use of a soda stream to make my drinks fizzy. So I looked at traditional root beer production, champagne production, and bottle conditioning as used for by some craft beer makers. I eventually found a culture called water kefir that I could use to fizz up my drinks in the bottle. I also started using stevia plant extract as a sweetener.
How is Herbel Crest different to a regular soft drink?
So essentially I make a soft drink which is low in calories, high in flavour and sits well in the belly, a great benefit of the water kefir culture. Water kefir is a live natural symbiotic culture of friendly and beneficial bacteria and yeasts.
You built your production kitchen in The Chocolate Factory, what were the challenges you faced when setting up?
Challenges are many and there is always a new one. Firstly I had to find a space/unit to make and develop my drinks that meets the required hygiene standards. After some searching, I ended up in the Chocolate Factory on Kings Inn St where I built my own little production space. I built the pilot production kitchen myself and it took nearly two years, and even though this took longer it, meant I could afford to do it for a lower cost.
You also run the day to day operations in The Chocolate Factory, what does this involve?
The Chocolate factory is a diverse collection of artist, designers and makers. The people that are here now are very committed to their craft and this creates an energy that inspires creativity. We are not a co-operative but it seems to work! Working here for me means trying to create a safe and comfortable place for people to nurture and develop their businesses. It has been and continues to be a challenging building, but it has a rich heritage and it is nice to be a part of those breathing life back in to it.
In The Chocolate Factory you emphasise a culture of collaboration, has this been helpful to the growth of Herbel Crest?
Collaborations are something we try to encourage. Even if it’s just someone to bounce an idea off or lament about on some of the harder days! From my own experience, when I was not long in the building, I met an extremely talented artist, from Sligo, called Conor Gallagher. One day while helping him with something, he asked me how my branding was coming along. I told him that I had yet to develop it. He said he had a couple of ideas for me and reverted 3 days later with a full presentation of 7 different brand ideas and we took it from there.
Another example my product shots were taken by Brendan Ryan, who has developed a successful business specialising in e-commerce product photography.
A new venture in one of the units is from Barry Gargan and Jarrod Cuffe and they are developing a new Irish Bitters called Off the Cuffe bitters which they hope to have licenced soon. They have been collaborating with me on developing and testing flavours and as it turns out my drinks do lighten up nicely with a dash of their bitters!
Off course I can’t forget to mention Blas Café, which is where my drinks were first stocked! We are spoilt having Blas in our building as their food is a daily treat and they serve the wonderful Roasted Brown coffee.
Can you talk us through the process of making Herbel Crest drinks?
So with the freshly juiced ingredients, I add a blend of dried herbs and spice to create an infusion of the flavours. The drink is then allowed to ferment with the water kefir culture which growths on the natural sugars. Just before bottling we add a measured amount of either apple juice or organic honey to the drink and when bottled it is left to incubate for 2 weeks. This allows it to fizz up in the bottle naturally. The low level of sweetness is achieved using a small amount of the Stevia plant extract as a natural sweetener. The end result is a refreshing and tasty natural soft drink with a light fizz.
What flavours do you produce and what’s your favourite?
We are working on rebranding some of the Herbel Crest range. The new brand name for our range of drinks is called “King of Kefir”. We will be launching with 3 flavours which are Lemongrass & Ginger (which we currently produce), Chilli & Ginger and Cucumber, Mint & Thyme. My favourite at the moment is the Chilli & Ginger, it’s not for the meek, as it does have a pronounced lingering heat from the infused birds eye chillies.
Do you have any new flavours planned?
We have several recipes developed which we will bring to the market hopefully next year as well as variation of our Irish Tonic water. The Irish Tonic water will remain under the name Herbel Crest.
What is your favourite gin to pair with your Irish Tonic Water?
Our Irish Tonic is a drier tonic of low sweetness. Any of the bigger and bolder Irish gins work really well such as Shortcross, Blackwater Juniper Cask, Glendalough, and Drumshambo Gun powder gin! It works well with them as it doesn’t mask any of the floral or citrus notes as with the sweeter tonics.
Have you experimented with using the other drinks in cocktails?
Absolutely, the two that first come to mind a Whiskey Tonic with our Irish Tonic water and any number of the fantastic new Irish Whiskeys and a Dark ‘n’ Stormy which is dark rum, our lemongrass & ginger, a squeeze of fresh lime and a couple of dashes of aromatic bitters. We love drinking that out of a glass jar with ice.
As a small independent producer, has it been difficult getting the word out there about Herbel Crest, finding a distributor and getting stocked in stores and bars?
It’s being quite a learning curve, as I was not born off the food business, but I have great advice along the way. Most of the selling to date has been from knocking on doors. We are also on the Food Academy workshop programme as organised by Local Enterprise offices and Supervalu. This gives us the opportunity to present to Supervalu with eyes on a possible trial listing in a few stores in 2017.
It’s a great time for new producers as people are genuinely interested in new independently crafted products. The craft beer pioneers have broken down a lot of barriers to market and created a rising interest in artisans. I am in conversation stages with two distributors at present for nationwide distribution by the end of October for the King of Kefir range and the Herbel Crest Irish Tonic water.
Where are you currently stocked?
In a number of local independents such as Small Changes Wholefoods Store (Dublin 9), Blas Cafe (Dublin 1), Bang Bang cafe (Dublin 7), L Mulligan Grocer (Dublin 7), Drink Store (Dublin 7), Lott’s & Co (Dublin 4), Dublin Food Co-op (Dublin 8), The Green Door Pantry (Diblin 8), Supernatural food market (Diblin 2) and Whelehans off licence (Loughlinstown)
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.