Butter is back: Attitudes are changing, says Mayo producer

With sales increasing every year since 2012, it’s very much a case of ‘back to butter’. One company well placed to cater for our growing appreciation for butter is Cuinneog, called after the Irish word for churn.

“The business was established in 1990 by my parents, Tom and Sheila Butler, in the rural townland of Shraheens in Co. Mayo,” said Breda Butler.

“Cuinneog started production in the family kitchen. Cream was fermented beside the range, until ripened or fermented. The cream was then churned in a small wooden churn, and all in the house would be invited to take their turn working the churn.

“The resultant butter and buttermilk were hand-packaged and distributed around local shops in surrounding towns. As demand started to grow, the process of upscaling resulted in my parents specially adapting our garage into a state-of-the-art food manufacturing facility which is where we operate from today, employing seven people,” said Butler.

Her parents, both from farming backgrounds, grew up in homes where homemade butter formed part of their staple diet.

“The production of butter was one of the many jobs they took on to help around the home. Later my dad, through his work, was involved in the area of agricultural diversity and the establishment of cottage or farmhouse industries.

“I suppose, that after becoming unemployed, and utilising his knowledge of establishing a farmhouse industry, he identified a perceived gap in the market for the old-style country butter he had grown up with,” Butler said.

“There was plenty of butter on the shelves of supermarkets but it was all, what one would term ‘sweet butter’ which is butter churned from fresh cream.

The old-style country butter that my parents were familiar with was churned from soured, ripened or fermented cream. That is what today sets Cuinneog country butter apart from other butters.

Cuinneog butter, buttermilk and fermented double cream is made to order on a weekly basis. “Firstly we fermented locally-sourced cream. The fermentation of the cream is a rigorously controlled process. We then churn the butter from the fermented cream in small batch sizes unlike many large manufacturers.

“Once the cream breaks and the butter grains have formed, we draw off the buttermilk byproduct. We add 2% high product salt and work the butter to ensure even dispersal of the salt, and also to remove moisture contained within the butter.

“The salt adds some flavour but also helps support the product’s two-month shelf life – which is additionally supported by modern day refrigeration. The removal of moisture contained in the butter also supports the shelf life and provides a superior product that is nearly spreadable from the fridge.

“The salt content of the butter is minimised in an effort to avoid overpowering the unique creamy taste of the butter which is formed into bars or rolls and hand-wrapped in foil parchment prior to being boxed and shipped to customers,” Butler said.

“In the early days we embarked on managing the sales and distribution ourselves. This resulted me travelling the length and breadth of the country in a refrigerated hi-ace van, introducing our products to retailers and enticing them to put them on their shelves in the hope that they would sell. We offered the products, both butter and buttermilk.

At this time the only marketing was word of mouth as anything else could not be afforded.

“Thankfully, due to a loyal and growing customer base, our brand became established and we found that more and more stores were contacting us. As our market expanded we made the decision to utilise the services of established distributors to supply our products.”

Today marketing is still through word of mouth, along with in-store tasting and promotions, food fairs, press and social media. “We feel that if we can get a person to try our product once, we have an excellent opportunity to gain a new customer,” said Butler. The products are available in: SuperValu; Dunnes’ Stores; Tesco; and selected independent stores around the country.

“I believe that the future is bright but perhaps, as in any business, there are obstacles and roadblocks to be overcome. One of these being people’s attitudes both on butter and its perceived ‘detrimental’ impact on their health, and knowledge and appreciation of locally-sourced quality food products. I believe that in both instances people’s attitudes are changing.

“There appears to be an increasing number of people developing a greater interest in the origins, quality and story behind the foods they put into their bodies. There are also more people looking for something that little bit different or special and we at Cuinneog believe we are providing that, and will continue to strive to do so.

All businesses – in their effort to survive – aim to grow, but that may not always mean bigger.

“If the bigger comes as a consequence of developing and growing your business, then so be it, but it should not be your goal or driving force. I would fear that if your only goal was to become bigger one may lose sight of their principals and beliefs in the desperate bid to become larger,” Butler said.

“We at Cuinneog strive to deliver a quality superior food product. We strive to be that bit different and are looking for things to set us apart and give us a competitive advantage. We would love to develop more high-end food products, and are always looking for opportunities in this area, but we will do this while remaining true to ourselves, and not at any cost.”