Yogurt could be pot luck for more in dairy sector
IN the early 1960s, my dad came home to the family dairy farm after spending a month working on a farm in Holland.
He was very impressed with the high production the Dutch were getting out of their Holstein Friesian cows and embarked on an elaborate breeding programme to improve the herd over the subsequent decades.
As an aside, he noted to his mum the Dutch appetite for a fermented milk product which they called yogurt.
A dab hand in the kitchen, my gran turned her hand to making some of this exotic concoction, and it was an instant success.
For the rest of her life, she regularly put on a big pot of fresh milk from the dairy to barely simmer on the big old Aga stove.
This did two things – it pasteurised the fresh milk and denatured the proteins so that they would create that lovely creamy texture that yogurt consumers the world over have grown to love.
Then she added in her starter culture of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptocuccus to ferment the lactose sugars in the warm milk – basically a couple of spoons of a previous batch of yogurt. The final step was to let the whole lot cool in the warm press beside the Aga.
If only my dad had realised the goldmine that was sitting in that press all those years.
In fairness to him, he was a bit ahead of his time. In the 1960s and 1970s, yogurt was only really available in delicatessens, and it wasn't until the arrival of Yoplait that Irish palettes developed a craving for this unlikely combination of bacteria and milk.
That has all changed now that some of the world's newest billionaires are making their fortunes on the back of yogurt in all its glorious forms.
Like my dad, Hamdi Ulukaya grew up on a dairy farm, but in Turkey where yogurt has been a cultural staple for hundreds of years.
Despite only establishing his US-based Chobani yogurt business in 2005, annual sales are already north of €575m, giving Ulukaya a net worth of a cool €849m. Last weekend he was crowned the Ernst & Young global entrepreneur of the year.
The 40-year-old has seen his company's sales increase fivefold since 2009 on the back of the US's growing fascination with yogurt and, in Chobani's case, Greek style yogurt in particular.
Closer to home, Clonakilty-based Irish Yogurts has also impressed judges, scooping Ulster Bank's Business Achiever award last week.
Owner Diarmuid O'Sullivan spent the first year back in 1993 working on his own and managed to process 40,000 litres of his brother's milk into yogurt. He now employs 160 to process six million litres a year and generate sales of €20m from two manufacturing sites in west Cork. He claims his business has averaged a growth rate of 12pc for the last 20 years.
It's a similar story in the midlands where the ebullient Vincent Cleary has carved out a similar revenue stream with his well-known Glenisk brand. But it could so easily never have happened.
"It was basically my father's Plan B," explains Mr Cleary. "We were trying to crack the market with a soft cheese, but getting nowhere."
The Clearys switched to making a few yogurt samples, which crossed a buyer's desk in Quinnsworth, and the rest is history.
Today, the Glenisk range is symptomatic of what has happened to yogurt over the years. Organic, low fat, zero fat, zero sugar, exotic fruits, crumb, Greek style and most recently, a pop-up shop on Dawson street that sells yogurt only. And it's flying.
Glenisk sales grew by a whopping 25pc last year and Cleary is hopeful of getting close to that again this year.
"Unbelievably, 80pc of the yogurt that is consumed in Ireland is still imported."
For a country that plans to expand milk output by 50pc this decade, it looks like an opportunity that could cater for more in the dairy sector.