When Gerry Scullion was made redundant in 2012, he couldn’t stand the idea of heading back into the sales game.

By then, he had been almost 20 years in technical sales work and chemical coating contracts, pigeonholed into a job that didn’t give him any buzz.

“I wasn’t enjoying the driving anymore, I hated the travelling,” he said, sitting in Blas Cafe on a recent Wednesday in the Chocolate Factory on Kings Inns Street.

Back in the early 1990s, Scullion had studied biotechnology at Dublin City University, and he had worked in a few environmental laboratories over the years. Perhaps, it was time to use his powers for good.

At first at home, and later at the Chocolate Factory, he began to tinker with fresh lemongrass, and cinchona bark, and stevia plant extract — testing flavours in his search for a soft drink that might take on the sugary pops and juices that dominate shop shelves.

Along the way he added a key ingredient, one rarely used in Ireland. What gives his drink an edge is kefir.

Tiny Pods of Jelly

Kefir grains are gelatinous structures packed with gut-friendly bacteria and symbiotic cultures inside tiny pods of jelly, says Scullion. “Like the Chocolate Factory, these cultures come to live together and grow.”

Most who have heard of kefir would probably think of the traditional yoghurt-like mixture, grown in animal’s milk, which for centuries has provided sustenance for shepherds in the North Caucasus region. But this is a different breed.

Kefir is grown from a fermentation starter powder of yeast and bacteria. It is treated in sugar water and grows to produce kefir grains, which are kind of gelatinous pods. When treated in milk or water, the lactobacillus bacteria eat the sugars to produce what’s known as a long-chain polysaccharides.

These transforms into the gelatine starches known as grains, which become the hosts for other symbiotic cultures. Eat or drink the bacteria and they help repair your body, says Scullion.

“It’s a great way to repopulate the healthy and friendly bacteria,” he says. “Say you’ve had a rough weekend and the fear or you’d been on a course of antibiotics, your intestines would be vulnerable because you’ve probably wiped out a lot of the good stuff.”

You don’t come across traditional milk kefir or water kefir much in Ireland.

“Although milk kefir has been produced and consumed by a small number of Irish families for generations it isn’t widely used in this country, perhaps due to limited public awareness of its health-promoting effects,” said Dr Paul Cotter from the agri-research agency Teagasc, in an email.

Water kefir isn’t around much here either, said Dr Cotter, who, along with his research students Aaron Walsh and Ben Bourrie, has conducted research into kefir and its properties.

Water kefir is thought to have originated in Mexico and developed from the fermentation of sap on the opuntia cactus, he said.

As the kefir grows in his Chocolate Factory lab, Scullion must keep a close eye on it, change the water, and be sure to use the jelly pods as soon as they’re fully formed. It takes about a week. Their taste, before being added to the soft-drink mixture, is inoffensive and slightly tart.

But we don’t actually know that much about how they work. “There is a large gap in the knowledge surrounding the exact mechanisms behind the formation and growth of these grains,” says Dr Cotter.

Milk kefir and water kefir share similar bacteria, he says. But “there has been considerably less research done on water kefir”.

That also means that we don’t know for sure what any health benefits might be. But it’s unlikely to be bad for you, if it’s made properly in a lab setting, with organic growth, he says. “It’s more likely to do you good then harm.”

The Lab

Scullion built his lab from scratch, he tells me on a recent Wednesday afternoon. From the fibreglass hanging off the roof to the metal bottle-cap machine, it took him about a year to get it all in place.

It is a far cry from the bedroom corner kit of the craft-beer enthusiast. There’s a clinical order to everything. To the left, two metal sinks and three water-treatment valves. One, he says, is for removing bacteria. The other two dispel chlorine and metals so the water, once treated, is as pure as possible.

Metal fermentation tanks hum beside what looks like a Christmas tree of sterilised brown bottles. The kefir grains are kept in two large white buckets at the far end of the lab.

When Scullion moved in, he had spreadsheets of about 50 different recipes, some more successful than others. “On quite a few occasions when I thought I had nailed a product I’d get quite excited and was celebrating but it was always premature and I’d end up dumping it.”

The Scullion method goes something like this. He mixes and juices lemongrass, ginger, and turmeric. He adds them to a fermentation tank. He pours in some home-purified water and the kefir grains. Before bottling, the grains are removed, as the live cultures will have dissolved in the mixture.

He also adds dashes of apple juice and honey. Once bottled, the dissolved kefir culture eats the natural sugars and the by-product, carbon dioxide, gives the mixture a fizz.

“It means I don’t need to use an industrial SodaStream to fizz the drinks,” he says. “The downside is that it takes another two weeks at 24 degrees to allow the culture to create the fizz.”

When Scullion first started to use these natural sugars rather than the sugar syrup that is usually pumped into soft drinks, he noticed a problem.

“The challenge was texture,” he says. “When you take sugar syrup out of a soft drink, you end up with water again essentially. So I’ve taken fennel, cardamom, all spice, berries, star anise, blended those, soaked and infused them to try and bring back an oiliness or texture.”

One of those who tasted the early batches was Trisha Harris, a furniture designer working two floors above Scullion. “I remember the first time, there was a great kick out of the lemongrass and ginger,” she says. “We got it before it was obviously bottled and such, so it was kind of nice because you saw the progression of it. The ginger’s been toned down a bit.”

Alison Kilbane also works in the building. “It’s really interesting when he’s trying to get it right,” she says. “You can just taste all the different elements and they’re all quite earthy tones.”

Scullion now reckons he’s found the right balance of flavours. Not long ago, he started to sell the blend to stores under his Herbel Crest label.

Bottling It

Next door to Scullion’s lab, there’s a chocolatier. Around the corner, two lads are hard at work on a homemade bitters project.

In the work space next to them, Kathryn Davey’s natural-dye indigo linens hang out to dry. And on and on for three more storeys. Town planners, circus acrobats, painters, charities, and etchers.

Scullion talks about all the others who use the building as we walk up the rooftop staircase to look out over north Dublin.

He points out buildings I didn’t know existed, what they used to be, and how they’ve changed over the years.

“My parents were teetotalers generally,” he said. “They told me stories about my granddad making sloe wine. He drank it, said it was wonderful but I’ve no idea whether he was ever telling the truth.”

As a child he’d forage the countryside of his native County Monaghan for wild strawberries and elderflower. It’s always been about flavours and about how best to extract them, he says.

Back in the lab below, Scullion hauls over a plastic case of cinchona bark that will go into a
second drink he produces, his own tonic water which he now hopes to distribute to Dublin pubs. Seven cafes and shops around the city already stock it, as well as the lemongrass-and-ginger soft drink.

At the health foods store Small Changes in Drumcondra, Peadar Rice says the lemongrass-and-ginger drink has been selling well. “We would serve it in the juice bar over ice with a bit of mint,” he says. “Our customers love it and on a hot, well a hot . . . on a nice sunny evening it’s a refreshing drink.”

It’s an alternative to the big-brand soft drinks, he says.

Back when Scullion was on the road, hawking chemicals, he says he didn’t really like where he had found himself. “I was just fed up with that,” he says. “I couldn’t see a future [where] I could enjoy doing that work anymore.”

Even the mention now, three years later, that he might go back to chemical sales one day makes his heart sink, he says.

Despite days banging his head against the wall trying to finesse recipes, and all the uncertainty that goes with treading a path that is a lot less clear, he plans to stick with it.

“You throw everything up in the air and you see where it lands,” he says. “You catch what you like but there’s a lot of stuff you want to drop.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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