We sat down with the founder of Raw Culture Co, Maryann Chen, to discuss her innovative product, and how she traded in the boardroom for the start-up sphere.
Hi Maryann! Can you please introduce our audience to the journey that brought you to found Raw Culture Co?
Unglamorously, it was the process of ageing that inspired me to create this product and to found Raw Culture Co! As I was approaching 30 and keeping myself busy as CEO of a boutique consulting firm, I noticed some changes to my body, and to how I was feeling in general. No longer could I live the fast-paced “work hard play hard” lifestyle without direct consequences to my health and wellbeing. It was then that I started to implement some serious changes to my lifestyle to increase the quality of my life.
This is when I learned about new research that provided insights into the significant reduction in our gut bacteria due to our modern lifestyle and how that directly impacts our health. In the modern world, we overuse preservatives in food, we over-sterilise and pasteurise our food in order to mass produce and distribute on a large scale, and in addition, we overuse antibiotics in both our food and in healthcare, which all plays a huge part in reducing the amount and diversity of probiotic microbes in our digestive system. This research indicated that the significant reduction in the population of probiotics in our gut and colon has a direct correlation to premature ageing, poor digestive health, obesity, immune system deficiency, allergies, mental health issues, fatigue, cancers and other diseases that are becoming increasingly common. To me, this all made perfect sense, and the more I looked into this topic, the more I realised that I needed to introduce probiotics into my diet somehow.
I subsequently discovered kefir, which literally means “feel good”, and its origin can be traced to eastern Europe and Turkey. It is the most potent naturally-derived probiotic in the world, nothing else surpasses it. Kefir is made using kefir grains – which are a small gelatin like solid that is a symbiosis between yeast and good bacteria. Kefir grains come in two varieties: water and milk. I purchased some water kefir grains in Byron Bay, Australia, and started making my own batches at home. I realised after a while that I was actually brewing a low alcohol drink (2% – 3.5% ABV) and soon I was swapping my wine in the evening for my kefir brew. This is when my life changed.
The alcohol produced is a natural bi-product of the drink, and actually means that the probiotics and yeast combination of the kefir are really active – alive and natural. In a nutshell: healthy alcohol. That’s how I decided to commercialise this product and create my brand: Raw Culture Co.
From a corporate life to your own venture in a niche segment, we can say you took quite a leap! What was your motivation to trade the two and how did this impact your life as a business person and individual?
This has been quite an adventure indeed! I traded a business suit and a boardroom for a fermenter, a hair net and hours in the kitchen. I always wanted to create something and commercialise it, but I was waiting for something I truly believed in, something authentic and impactful to others. When I discovered this product and started trialling successful recipes at home, it was a natural choice for me to pursue this. This product is genuinely healthy and an alternative to other alcohol; something someone can drink at any time, enjoy and socialise with – without getting sloppy and hungover in the morning; while at the same time it’s actually really good for you! This is exactly what I needed in my life and I think this is what a lot of people need in their lives. The impact on my life has been very significant: I have never learnt or failed so much all at once, been frustrated so much and believed so much in my own product to keep pushing even at times against odds.
The easy way would have been to do what everybody does: artificially controlling a product that is meant to be natural. Most health and food companies fit their product into the market. I wasn’t prepared to do that, I wanted to create something authentic that works.
Financially, true: start-ups are tough. I had to make a great deal of sacrifices and tough decisions at different times. This experience has been incredible, and I have a product that I am very proud of. Personally, I’m very happy with my choice. I’m challenged every day. I’m constantly failing and learning, which has really helped shape me both professionally and individually. I also get to do a lot of things I never thought I would in my professional life, such as shooting a kick-starter video, which we will be pushing out at the end of March. I also get to shape the ethos of my company; environmental impact is very important to me and I get to make a difference by using sustainable materials in the production and packaging of my product, supporting less waste through encouraging our customers to reuse our bottles.
How does your consulting background help you shape the work you do today?
I actually found out about probiotics and gut health while on a business trip to Hong Kong. At the time, I was the CEO of a boutique consulting firm and with a portfolio of clients from the medical and health industry. But rather than consulting, I think it was more the business experience that has helped me in the work I do today. Understanding financial information is also a big advantage in any business, as well as the ability to build networks.
Can you explain what the benefits of probiotics are and why they are just so good for us?
Essentially, we now live in a world where everything is extensively processed, including our food. We use a lot of preservatives in processed food to ensure shelf life. We sterilise and pasteurise everything – including yogurt, which is meant to have probiotics, but how can it after you have processed it to kill bacteria? We use antibiotics in huge quantities, either in the food we eat or in health management. This has created a huge problem over time to the balance of our gut bacteria which has tremendous impact on our digestive system – which is the system that processes the food you eat in your body. It’s a pretty big part of an individual’s health and wellbeing. Due to this imbalance created by our modern lifestyle, as part of a balanced diet, we need to be factoring in probiotics.
With the breakthrough of organic, superfoods and veganism, and such a multitude of healthy-living products, the choice is sometimes overwhelming out there. What makes your Sparkling Kefir Brew stand out?
The thing about the food and health product business that I have learnt along the way is that you should question everything you buy and do your research, because oftentimes you are more likely to be buying a placebo. What makes our product stand out is simply that I did not want to compromise on the quality of the product and the integrity of my company at any stage – even when some of the problems we encountered in product development were incredibly tough to solve.
Throughout this process, often the easy way out of a problem would have been to do what everybody does, thus to try to control the product through using significant amounts of flavouring and infusions – essentially, artificially controlling a product that is meant to be natural and alive, which severely compromises the quality of the product. I wasn’t prepared to do that, I wanted to create something real, authentic, something that actually works.
I thought “What if you could have it both ways?” This product is the answer. You feel a little buzz and then you go home fresh, and you wake up fresh. Yes, you can drink, have fun and respect your body at the very same time!
We already live in a world where most health and food companies out there try and fit their product into the current market. Some good examples of this are vitamin tablets (your body cannot absorb them properly in tablet form, so they actually do nothing), yogurt (most are not only pasteurised, they have preservatives in them but still label themselves as having probiotics) and other kefir companies (if a water kefir company combines water kefir with a lot of juice, be aware! Juice is extremely hard on the bacteria and over time in a bottle it will compromise the life of the bacteria).
In the UK, one company stops the fermentation in order to stop the production of alcohol, but fermentation is required for the bacteria to be alive – it is only alive if it ferments. Then there is fruit and vegetables: did you know that the longer a fruit or vegetable has been harvested before reaching you, the less chance it will retain its vitamins? An apple may take six to twelve months after harvest before reaching the supermarket; even through atmospheric conditioning and wax coating, nutrients are lost.
I just wasn’t prepared to sell a lie, and I have fit my business around the quality of my product – how many food and health companies can say the same? What I also love about my product is the taste: it is refreshing, it has body and it relies solely on the quality of the kefir grains for taste.
The healthy alcohol concept is definitely a new one. Why do you feel is so important for the world to learn about it?
When you are in the business world, you network and drink, go out a great deal or entertain in your office or home: it is truly a terrible lifestyle health-wise, but that’s how you build relationships. Also, just like many other people, I love socialising in my personal life and going out. Unfortunately, there is a huge drinking culture in both the UK and Australia. This means that if I go out, I will drink wine or gin and then feel awful about it the next day. I don’t drink soft drink, and drinking water is just so boring.
Therefore, I thought “what if you could have it both ways?” This product is the answer to that. You have a couple of pints of my kefir brew, you feel a little buzz and then you go home fresh, and you wake up fresh – and there are significant health benefits. Here you have the two in one. I’m also allergic to alcohol – as well as approximately 30%-50% of people with north-east Asian ancestry! – which means I shouldn’t actually be drinking it in the first place. This product is also the solution to that problem, as the density is low so you can feel the buzz without flaring up the allergy. These are all added benefits most people are not aware of, and it is important to share the message: yes, you can drink, have fun and respect your body at the very same time!