The salty, uber-yellow spread has seen double-digit growth almost every year for the past decade.
In 1999 the Irish Dairy Board, which had been selling butter and cheese abroad under the Kerrygold label for almost four decades, shipped a few thousand foil-wrapped bricks of butter to the U.S. The group didn’t have high hopes. American farmers produced more than enough milk to go around, and tariffs on imported butter, along with the cost of shipping it, meant that Kerrygold would be substantially more expensive than it was in Ireland. On top of that, the U.S. grocery industry was notoriously fragmented. With so many grocers to woo, penetrating the market would be an arduous process.
Twenty years on, Kerrygold is America’s second-best-selling brand of butter—a result that surprises even the team that pushed to introduce it here in the first place. (Land O’Lakes, the domestic brand that’s dominated shelves since 1921, holds the top spot.) If you’ve visited a supermarket dairy aisle recently, you’re likely to have seen it: gold (salted) and silver (unsalted) foil blocks featuring an illustration of a grazing cow, with the Kerrygold name in a Celtic font. It’s often displayed alongside Plugrá, a European-style butter produced in the U.S. by the Dairy Farmers of America Inc.; Lurpak, imported from Denmark; and Président, a French offering—all of which come in half-pound slabs, priced at a premium to Land O’Lakes and other mainstream domestic brands.
But Kerrygold is unique in its power to turn consumers into unpaid, yet vigorous, brand ambassadors. Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress, and Chrissy Teigen, the model and cookbook author, have both raved about it, unsponsored, on social media. Kourtney Kardashian called for it by name in recipes published on her now-shuttered app. (Perhaps it’s a “K” thing?) Last year the actress Kate Beckinsale told People magazine that she packs Kerrygold in her suitcase when she travels.
Chefs rhapsodize about the butter’s intense flavor and extravagantly creamy texture. Adam Biderman, the chef and owner of the Company Burger in New Orleans, says he spent most of his career using Plugrá until he tried Kerrygold and never went back. Jessica Quinn, the pastry chef at Rezdôra in New York City, says she’s tested Kerrygold against other European butters and found that it stands apart. “It’s rich and milky and bakes up with really nutty nuanced flavors,” she says. She also says that cookies made with Kerrygold turn out crispier than with European alternatives.
After a childhood fed on Land O’Lakes, I, too, have the zeal of the Kerrygold convert. The butter is canary yellow, with a movie-theater popcorn richness that verges on the addictive. Many butters shatter or crumble when you cut or spread them cold, but Kerrygold is dense and pliable right out of the fridge, like modeling clay. In your mouth, it dissolves without waxiness or greasiness. Over the years I’ve graduated from smearing a socially acceptable sliver onto toast to eating it, like cheese, in thick slices on crackers. Quinn admits that her usual breakfast is a baguette with a slab of Kerrygold so massive her fellow cooks have started to tease her about it. When I speak to Katie Button, the chef and co-owner of two restaurants in Asheville, N.C., she mentions doing something similar. “It tastes like what butter tastes like in your mind, whereas so much butter just tastes sort of waxy, like fat and salt,” she says.
Of all the 50,000 items for sale in the average American grocery store, butter is one of the simplest: cream that’s churned to separate out the buttermilk. It can be cultured—fermented with live bacteria to bring out tangy notes—or salted. That’s pretty much it. And yet, according to the Irish Dairy Board (rechristened Ornua Co-operative Ltd. in 2015), sales of Kerrygold products have increased by double digits in every one of the past nine years. Volume soared 30% in 2018 alone, and growth is now humming along at eight times the pace of the butter category overall. What on earth is Kerrygold doing?
“I guess you could say that Ireland kind of skipped the Industrial Revolution.” I’m in a car with two Ornua employees, one of whom is reflecting aloud on Ireland’s landscape and economy, which both remain dominated by agriculture. We’re winding along lonely roads on the way to a dairy farm in County Waterford, along the country’s southeast coast.
Dairy is big business here. Buttermaking in Ireland dates back 6,000 years, and in the 19th century, the Cork Butter Exchange was the world’s largest butter market. The country’s mild, wet weather produces some of the world’s best grass-growing conditions, which has made dairy a natural export industry. In 1961 the Irish government set up the Irish Dairy Board, which created the Kerrygold brand the following year to boost the value of Irish dairy exports. (It’s been sold in Ireland, too, since 1973, and is currently the country’s best-selling butter brand.) Two-thirds of the land in Ireland is still used for farming, and 80% of that grows grass. Today the country has one dairy cow for every 3.6 citizens, with only 10% of the bovine output consumed domestically.
Three hours after leaving Dublin, we arrive at the home of Tom Power, a young farmer with sandy blond hair dressed in blue jeans and Wellington boots. He’s one of more than 14,000 Irish farmers who supply milk to Ornua, a cooperative owned by Irish dairy processors, which are, in turn, owned by the farmers. It’s a misty day, and we’re surrounded by fields an electric, almost surreal shade of green. We pile onto a tractor to see the cows, which Power moves every 12 hours, so they always have fresh grass in front of them. He shows me an app on his phone that keeps track of how much grass is on his farm and which pastures have the greatest volume. “It’s like looking at how much money is in your bank account,” he says. Right now, he’s a rich man: This has been a superior year for grass.
Unlike in the U.S., where 100% grass-fed production represents only 1% to 2% of dairy farms, in Ireland a grass diet is the norm. Irish cows benefit from the longest grass-growing season in Europe: They graze for as many as 300 days each year. In the winter months, they eat primarily fermented grass known as silage. Public policy plays a role, too. Ireland’s Department of Agriculture closely monitors each farm’s stocking rate, ensuring they don’t raise more cows than they have the grass to feed. With enough pasture available to support the cows, buying grain to feed them would amount to an added cost, without the added benefit.
After visiting the Power farm, we travel 30 minutes down the road to see where the butter gets made. I’m half-expecting quaint artisanal wooden churns; instead, we roll up to Kerrygold Park, a highly automated €38 million ($42 million) facility capable of producing as many as 50,000 tons of butter per year. As we put on protective hairnets and scrub our hands with antibacterial soap, Norma Hanlon, the customer relationship manager, tells me that they churn butter here only from March to October, when the cows are out grazing and the cream is therefore at its best. That’s a hard-and-fast rule, and the facility must make and freeze enough in this period to satisfy demand year-round. My visit coincides with peak grass season, and the place is running full tilt.
On the factory floor, we watch the churn spin like a cement mixer doing double time, as a technician swaddled in sterile coverings samples the butter, analyzing it for fat, salt, and moisture content. The butter flows out the consistency of cake frosting, coursing through a network of pipes to be stamped into bricks, wrapped in foil, boxed, and chilled.
Among both the amateur and professional cooks I spoke with, the prevailing theory to account for Kerrygold’s creamy texture is that the butter has more fat and less moisture than mainstream American butters. But Kerrygold unsalted butter clocks in at 82% butterfat and the salted at 80%, the U.S. legal minimum. Harold McGee, the food science expert and author of On Food and Cooking, says the type of fat plays a much more significant role than the amount in texture and baking properties.
Robert Bradley, a professor emeritus of food science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an expert on butter, backs that up. He says anytime a cow eats fresh grass, it creates cream high in conjugated linoleic acid, a heart-healthy unsaturated fat that’s liquid at room temperature. In cream from animals fed grain, however, saturated fats dominate, which makes for a stiffer, more brittle butter. (The manufacturing process affects texture, too, but on that front, Bradley says, there’s little difference among today’s mainstream processors.)
What about flavor? Robustly flavored European butters are often cultured—inoculated with a bacterium that helps preserve freshness and turns the flavor slightly—and Americans have come to associate that attribute with quality. But Kerrygold’s salted butter, its flagship product, isn’t cultured. Bradley says that, again, diet makes a difference. The flavors of fresh grass do pass into finished butter, as does color. Legally, a butter maker can add yellow coloring to the product, but Kerrygold’s color comes from the beta carotene found in grass. “I don’t know of anyone who adds color,” Bradley says. “And certainly not the Irish.”
Kerrygold tends to fare well in blind taste tests, but it doesn’t, in fact, reliably win top honors. In 2014 the magazine Cook’s Illustrated published an evaluation of salted butters that praised Kerrygold as “silky” and “custardy” but chose Lurpak as the all-around favorite; a Bon Appétit taste test from 2018 endorsed Organic Valley’s Cultured Pasture Butter as best in class. Chris Morocco, Bon Appétit’s deputy food editor, says that among the “fancy supermarket butters” that were tested, differences tended to be minor and often a matter of personal preference. Some tasters might like a nutty, grassy product such as Kerrygold; others, a brighter, more neutral flavor.
But in the court of public opinion, Morocco agrees, the Kerrygold brand now reigns supreme. He credits good marketing—its gold foil packaging and strong association with Ireland—for helping it stand out. “The butter has a sense of place, which I think is key,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you where Plugrá comes from. Lurpak comes from Denmark, but is Denmark known for rolling green hills? I don’t know. But Ireland? I’ve been to Kerry. It’s a lot easier to make that connection.”
This association with Ireland hasn’t always been a plus. In 1998, Ornua executive Róisín Hennerty was dispatched to the U.S., charged with designing a marketing strategy for Kerrygold, and found local impressions of the country to be mixed. “Research showed that Americans loved Ireland, but when they thought about food they thought about the famine, Guinness, and boiled corned beef and cabbage,” she says. “It was a terrible place to start.” To make matters worse, retailers tended to want to stock Irish products only around St. Patrick’s Day, as a holiday novelty, rather than as year-round staples. “When you’re in beside the Guinness and the green lemonade—well, you might not want to be merchandised that way,” Hennerty says.
She decided to focus her efforts on the West Coast, where consumers were more likely to seek out high-quality, natural food products, and to target only three retailers where affluent Americans tend to shop: Whole Foods, Costco, and Trader Joe’s. Hennerty was given a tiny advertising budget, so television campaigns and splashy magazine ads were out. She brought a handful of young Ornua employees to the U.S. to do store tastings, exposing shoppers to the product while also selling them on charming Irish shtick: emerald hills, multigenerational farms, happy cows.
Hennerty also courted early food influencers such as David Lebovitz, the pastry chef-turned-blogger and cookbook author, and Sara Kate Gillingham, co-founder of the blog the Kitchn, inviting them to visit Ireland to see for themselves. Gradually a sort of grassroots following took hold. Alison Roman, the cookbook author, New York Times recipe columnist, and high priestess of millennial dinner parties, has teamed with the brand to develop recipes. Today, Kerrygold is a sponsor of Cherry Bombe, the sexy-hip indie media brand celebrating women in food.
Dietary changes have buoyed sales, too. After decades of demonizing animal fats, Americans were beginning to embrace the Atkins diet just after Kerrygold entered the U.S. market. Butter and bacon were back. Since 1999 per capita butter consumption in the U.S. has increased from 4.6 pounds per person to 5.8 pounds in 2018—its highest point since 1968. More recently the growing popularity of the ketogenic diet, a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat regimen, has given the brand an added boost. Kerrygold is favored by keto adherents because of its grass-fed production. (The diet doesn’t just discourage eating grains, but eating food from animals that have eaten grains, too.) On Instagram the 70,000 posts tagged #kerrygold often share billing with such tags as #ketoporn and #ketochef. Dave Asprey, the wellness guru and entrepreneur whose Bulletproof diet is a close cousin to keto, introduced a wildly popular recipe for coffee mixed with a hunk of butter in 2009. He recommends Kerrygold by name.
Today, in addition to butter, Kerrygold’s U.S. product line includes an extensive array of cheeses, including cheddars, Swiss, and a specialty cheese called Dubliner, as well as an Irish cream liqueur. Butter, though, still accounts for the lion’s share of sales. Ornua recently introduced Kerrygold Butter Sticks—unsalted and salted butter in parchment-wrapped quarter-pound bars—to appeal to American home bakers, who are accustomed to measuring out butter this way. The cooperative says sales of sticks have exceeded every forecast. At the peak of butter season, Kerrygold Park operates 24/7, and the main thing limiting production is the factory’s single churn.
But how much cream can the cows on one little island produce? Since the European Union removed dairy production caps in 2015, Irish farmers have been building their herds, and milk output has soared, from 5 billion liters (1.3 billion gallons) of milk a year to almost 8 billion today. (U.S. production, by comparison, is 96 billion liters.)
Ornua’s agricultural analysts say that, given constraints on pasture land and labor, milk volume will reach 9 billion liters by 2022, with growth tapering off thereafter. But Jeanne Kelly, a representative for Ornua, says there’s no risk of a butter shortage. Plenty of Irish dairy still goes to lower-margin uses, such as milk powders, and driving more of it to a value-added product such as Kerrygold is exactly what Ornua was built for. “Ireland running out of cream?” Kelly repeats my question, with amusement. “Ah, that’d be the day.”
All Rights Reserved for Elizabeth G Dunn