My Career: Rediscovering Mead making

Kate Dempsey, who takes part in Local Enterprise Week, this week, March 4 to 8, Co-Founder of Kinsale Mead Co tells us about her career
My Career: Rediscovering Mead making
Kate Dempsey, Founder of Kinsale Mead

Name: Kate Dempsey.

Age: Over 50!

Lives: We live and work in Kinsale.

Job title: Co-Founder of Kinsale Mead Co, Meadstress, Director.

Salary bracket: It’s our own start-up business and we took a minimal salary last year.

Education background: Physics degree from Oxford University.

Hobbies: Published poet — my debut collection, The Space Between, was published by Doire Press in 2016 — and Tour Guide.

Describe your job in five words: Mead-making, Book-keeping, Marketing and Tour Guide.

Describe yourself in five words: Positive, smart, creative, analytical, calm.

Personality needed for this kind of work? Resilient, curious, organised, sense of humour!

How long are you doing this job? I left my techy job in finance in Dublin nearly two years ago and knuckled down to full time working in our company.

How did you get this job? I left university eons ago and started work in IT in what was a very male environment. I was frequently the only woman in the room. I was eager to travel and got a job working in automation in a hi-tech factory in The Netherlands. A great experience and also where I met my husband.

We moved to work in the USA for a couple of years, then moved back to Ireland, still working in automation with large databases for a multi-national. This is a great way of getting training and exposure to many areas of a large multi-national business.

I then moved into the IT department in a multi-national financial company. This involved some travel to various European countries while we designed and installed systems.

I then took some time out of work to raise my children. I kept my finger in IT as much as I could by coming in to help teach computer in primary schools. I also started writing and gradually got published and taught creative writing classes to children and adults.

Eventually, I tried to go back to work but after nine years, with out-of-date IT skills and into a full blown recession, this was terribly challenging and dispiriting. I worked as a technical writer in short term contracts before moving to become a data analyst in a multinational finance company in Dublin.

My husband and I were a long time thinking about making a change and trying something new. We were always interested in cooking, experimenting with flavours as well as growing our own fruit and vegetables, and mead was always on our minds. We had both tried it when working in the States but there was none to be found in Ireland. In August, 2016, we took a visiting friend of ours up to the Hill of Tara and realised we were standing on the foundations of the Great Mead Hall of Tara. That was when we decided we would begin the journey to starting our own business and opening Ireland’s first new meadery in many years.

Do you need particular qualifications or experience?

No one person’s career trajectory is a straight line. I’ve worked in diverse industries and roles over the years and used my experience from all of these now founding my own company. Not just my IT skills or problem-solving; even writing and performing poetry has helped with sales presentations. I am a qualified BJCP mead judge, possibly the only one in Ireland.

I would recommend looking at the training courses on offer from the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) These can be very specific, such as using Facebook for marketing, or a great overview of starting your own business which would be spread over a number of weeks. They have also helped by linking us up with mentors who can really help set direction at the start and on different points during your journey. Bord Failte and Bord Bia have also been very helpful in tourism and drink-specific areas for us.

Describe a day at work: In a week when we are fermenting, I could be mixing honey and yeast, measuring with hydrometers and pH meters and tasting to judge the progression of the fermentation, racking, which is pumping from one tank to another, or filtering, bottling, and most of all cleaning before and after — tanks, floors, hoses and all our equipment. The cleaner we keep the meadery, the less work we have to do.

I keep the website up to date and handle the invoicing. Sales and marketing is also in my hands so I call existing and new customers, find out how the sales are going, tell them any news and persuade them to take our meads.

If we have tours in the afternoon, I may be the tour guide. I talk about the history of mead and bees in Ireland. As an Origin Green certified company, part of our remit is to educate visitors about the problems bees face. Beekeepers face significant losses and fragmentation of pollinator-friendly habitats with diverse food sources as well as high use of pesticides, the impact of the verroa mite and colony collapse.

We talk about honey production around the world and taste some, I show them around the production area and then run a tutored tasting of meads talking about food pairing and even mead cocktails. I enjoy talking to the visitors from all over the world.

If I’m visiting customers, I would fit that in mid-morning or mid-afternoon. I sometimes have events in the evening, running a tasting in a hotel or festival.

How many hours do you work a week? All of them! On days when we’re bottling or running a fermentation, we have an early start. Other days we start a bit later because of the licensing hours but often catch up on admin in the evening. We are open six days a week for tours in the afternoon in mid to high season.

Is your industry male or female dominated? The drinks industry would be skewed towards beer brewing and spirit distillation which is skewed towards the men. The tourist industry would have proportionally more women.

Does this affect you in any particular way? I’ve mainly worked in male-dominated industries and male groups so it makes a change to hang out with women from time to time.

Is your job stressful? How? Rate it on a scale of 1-10: 4. Working for your company is, of course, stressful as you are where the buck stops.

Do you work with others or on your own? We are a family business with three employees in total, including one employee who is not related to us. We sometimes call on family to help out at events or bottling or painting the meadery!

When do you plan to retire or give up working? Not for a while!

Best bits: You do get a kick when you make a sale to a new customer. I also enjoy meeting people doing tours and tastings of the meadery. You get to meet all sorts and sometimes we have beekeepers, barkeepers or home brewers visit.

When we are mixing up honey for a batch, we always have honey and fresh scones at break. it’s a sticky process! When we are bottling, we make sure there’s upbeat music to keep our minds on the process.

I enjoy learning new things and also digging in the archives on the fascinating history of mead in Ireland.

Worst bits: I really need a holiday! Keeping on top of the finances is always tricky. Being left on hold on the phone for ages and then someone hangs up without talking.

Advice to those who want your job? Research is key. Go and find out which companies are doing something similar, study and compare how they do business and take the best bits from all of them.

Wear comfortable shoes if you’re walking from customer to customer.

Ask for and take help when it is offered. I’ve joined a local business group as well as Network Cork and they are both great groups for talking business to people who’ve been there.

Your local LEO should be your first port of call. They can also arrange grants for companies at different stages. The grants are essential for a start-up business such as ourselves to get off the ground and stay off the ground!

Make time for training and networking. Local Enterprise Week is a great annual initiative run by the Local Enterprise Office’ that got underway on March 4 and continues until March 8. Not only will you learn something at the many events planned, but it can also be invaluable for making new connections.

Everything will always take longer than you think, so plan with that in mind. Don’t beat yourself up.

Any other comments?

We are Ireland’s first commercial meadery since the 1850s and our vision and passion is to rediscover the art of mead-making and to create a world-class range of Irish meads.

We researched and applied the best techniques of modern wine-making coupled with careful selection of raw honey, fruits and yeast, to develop and produce our meads in our new facility in Kinsale and do the full process from bee to bottle.

Since August, 2017, we have launched three uniquely different meads, showcasing the versatility of this ancient drink. We are stocked in more than 140 locations across Ireland from independent off-licences and speciality food stores to larger multiples including O’Briens Wines and SuperValu.

In parallel, we developed a tour of our meadery, covering the history of honey and mead in ancient Ireland, honey tasting, the mead-making process and mead tasting, and we have hosted 700 visitors this year, achieving a 100% 5 star Tripadvisor rating.

We’re currently running a campaign talking to cocktail bars about bringing this oldest of drinks into the modern cocktail scene. Already we have some innovative mixologists in Dublin and Cork shaking up some amazing drinks. And we’re going to London in a couple of weeks to an event in the Irish Embassy to talk to UK distributors and cocktail bars there, bringing Irish mead to England.

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