Living Healthy, Creating Healthy and Selling Healthy

What a journey it has been. Patie proudly poses with her products.

THE IMPORTANCE OF healthy living, clean eating and superfoods cannot be denied. With Covid-19, here in Penang, many health-conscious small-business owners pivot in the direction of organic health supplements and probiotics. One such probiotic that has gained significant attention in recent years is kefir, a fermented beverage made from good bacteria cultures fed on sugar and water to create a naturally carbonated, probiotic drink.

The Pharm Hut is a local fermentory and café on Gat Lebuh Acheh that specialises in making kefir and turning it into a variety of yummy products. Its founders are the mother-daughter duo Patie Tan and Nicole. Formerly a digital marketer, Patie was plagued for years with digestive issues, complicated by a sedentary lifestyle. Store-bought probiotics and supplements did little to soothe her discomfort.

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She was then introduced to kefir and she learned how to ferment her own water kefir. After consuming it daily over a six-month period, Patie’s overall health turned around. Not only was she shedding excess kilograms, Patie says, “I felt healthier and happier, and was motivated to pursue a cleaner diet. I started to do more research online, where I had the opportunity to meet other like-minded Penangites.” 

Patie and Nicole’s interest in growing and making natural products converged in 2014. Nicole was working on her own line of homemade skincare products, and had already made friends in the local permaculture and urban gardening scene. One day, Patie approached her about a herb she came across online; this herb, a powdered version of a superfood, was selling for a whopping USD100. Deterred by the price, Nicole was determined to find a more affordable local variant.

Patie and Nicole (third and fourth from left) with their old crew at Hin Bus Depot.

A quick search on the internet yielded its latin name Centella Asiatica, a hardy herb locally called pegaga, that grows wild in the Malaysian climate. The discovery inspired both mother and daughter to start The Pharm, an urban garden for medicinal plants and herbs, and in 2015, Patie left digital marketing to focus on selling her kefir sodas at the monthly Straits Quay Farmer’s Market.

It did not take long for her products to become popular, and this prompted Patie to find a bigger space to market her kefir sodas. This she found in a cosy 150 sq ft shack at the Hin Bus Depot. There, The Pharm Hut was officially born in June 2017. Patie got to work, experimenting and creating new flavours, but the crowd of fermentation jars soon made the shack even more snug.

At Nicole’s urging, Patie finally relented and both mother and daughter signed the lease for a shop lot along Gat Lebuh Acheh at the end of 2019. Following the end of the first MCO in June 2020, The Pharm Hut quietly opened its doors to the public.

While kefir remains the flagship product, Patie and Nicole have also been creating other products. They make their very own tahini, kaya, almond and peanut butters which are free of preservatives and artificial flavours, as well as an assortment of baked breads and cinnamon granola. Nicole also ferments her own batch of milk kefir which she flavours with chocolate and strawberry or turns into plain and stevia-sweetened yoghurt.

The Pharm Hut's rosemary and tomato focaccia.

The Pharm Hut also sells starter kits for those interested in making kefir at home.

How is Kefir Made?

“The fermentation process is a labour of love. The kefir starter grains, which are the size of small peppercorns, have to be fed and ‘burped’ daily, and require a lot of care and attention,” explains Patie.

Each day, a fresh mixture of filtered water and organic cane sugar is poured into a fermentation jar containing the kefir granules. The starter grains consume the sugar and inoculate the water with probiotic yeasts and bacteria. As a result, carbon dioxide is released, giving the kefir its signature carbonation. Patie then mixes the water kefir with different types of locally sourced fruits such as nutmeg, calamansi, ginger, dragon fruit, passion fruit and pineapple to infuse the kefir with their flavours. Once sufficiently infused, the kefir sodas are bottled for sale.

You can find The Pharm Hut at 10, Gat Lebuh Acheh.

Kefir is a proven source of vitamin B12, magnesium, vitamin K2, biotin and folate. It also has antimicrobial and antidiabetic properties, making it a diabetic-friendly alternative. Studies on kefir yoghurt specifically have shown that it contains up to 10 times the variants of probiotic strains, and has up to 60 different good bacteria and healthy yeasts, compared to regular store-bought yoghurts that typically only contain four to five probiotic strains.

Both Patie and Nicole are firm on not altering the quality, potency or efficacy of the probiotic cultures, and this includes not pasteurising their products. The process of pasteurisation uses heat for partial sterilisation to eliminate bacteria in consumable products, thereby weakening the effect of probiotics on gut health. It is also for this reason that they recently turned down an offer from a large-scale manufacturer to mass-produce their kefir.

The most fulfilling part of forming The Pharm Hut, Patie says, is hearing how her customers’ gut health have improved, and how it has changed the minds of people previously traumatised by bad ferments inducing nausea and causing upset stomachs. For those keen on fermenting their own kefirs at home, The Pharm Hut also offers home starter kits.

Follow The Pharm Hut on their socials @thepharmhut on Facebook and Instagram, or contact them at +6011 5366 6953.

Marcus Dip Silas is an interculturalist and foodie with an interest in international relations and community development. He is currently writing a book on tech entrepreneurs in Penang.

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