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The two secrets behind Ireland’s ‘best’ artisan butter

Russ Parsons: Irish Gourmet Butter has quickly become a favourite among bakers and chefs

Master glass cutter to butter maker is hardly the most obvious career transition in the world, but it has certainly worked for Billy Sharpe and his wife Mary. That’s because they both have butter in their blood.

If you need evidence, consider that their Irish Gourmet Butter company, which started only in 2017, won a silver Blas na hÉireann award only months after they opened, and has since gone on to win gold or silver every year, including being named best artisan product in Ireland in 2020.

Not bad for a two-person business operating out of a small light industrial space at the Dunhill Ecopark complex near Waterford city. But maybe not surprising, considering that Billy has fond childhood memories of making butter with his grandaunt on her farm. And Mary’s grandmother, Breda Conway, is practically butter royalty – on their office wall they have her rosettes from winning best butter in Ireland in the 1930s; she went on to teach dairy science at Maynooth University.

So when Billy was casting about for business ideas after retiring from a 34-year career as a master craftsman at Waterford Crystal, the couple soon settled on butter making.


“At first I was looking at Christmas products, ornaments and decorations because that was something I would have been involved in at Waterford Crystal and I knew the market,” Billy says. “But butter was another one, because as a young boy I would have worked making butter with my grandaunt and I loved doing it.

“I thought, maybe there’s an opportunity to go back and do a high-end butter. We looked into it, did some research and said, look, maybe it’s worth a punt. It’s something we’d be doing for ourselves. It’s something we enjoy, and there seemed to be a market for it.”

With the help of their two sons, both of whom are in the food business (Harrison Sharpe is head chef at Elbow Lane in Cork, the same restaurant where his brother Ronan is general manager), they came up with the idea of flavoured butters.

Flavoured butters, also called compound butters, are a chef’s secret weapon. Slide a disc on to a plain grilled steak, chicken breast or fish fillet and you’ve got what is basically an instant sauce.

In addition to their excellent lightly salted butter, the Sharpes also offer a dozen flavoured butters, including garlic and herb, and bistro butter, as well as such fanciful combinations as Moroccan butter (flavoured with cumin, chillies and preserved lemon), Taste of the Forest (porcini mushrooms and truffles), and Taste of the Sea (flavoured with seaweed). There is also a sweet butter whipped and flavoured with honey and cinnamon.

They also make a special low-moisture pastry butter sold only to the trade, which has become the butter of choice for some fancy bakers across Ireland. A late addition to the line-up, it was first offered in 2019, it has become the tail that wags the dog, accounting for three-quarters of their total sales, according to Billy.

The secret to Irish Gourmet Butter’s success is that there is no secret. As with almost any great artisanal product, they start with high-quality ingredients and work carefully.

“Irish cream and Irish butter are unbelievable products,” says Billy. “When we won best artisan it was a real thrill because our product, which was the best in Ireland, had only two ingredients: Irish cream and Irish sea salt. That’s it.”

The cream comes from the Avonmore dairy co-operative for consistent quality and volume. At one point they’d hoped to work with individual farmers, but producing 1,000kg of butter every week requires 2,000 litres of pure cream, which makes that impossible.

Other than that, they source as much as they can from as close as they can. The seaweed comes from nearby beaches gathered by forager Marie Power. The honey comes from Waterford beekeeper Maurice Brady.

The churning is equally elemental. The “factory” consists of a small churn and a mixer. Nothing is automated. To know when the butter is ready, they track how the size of the curd changes from looking like sugar, to Rice Krispies, to popcorn.

Some people say we could push our flavourings to do more, but I want it to be butter that’s flavoured rather than flavourings with butter

—  Mary Sharpe

“That’s when we know it’s almost ready,” Mary says. “A lot of the bigger butter makers, they push a button and everything happens. It’s all temperature controlled and timed. But because our cream changes from day to day, we do everything by hand and by eye.”

Despite all of the fancy flavourings, what the appeal of Irish Gourmet Butter comes down to is the simple, glorious taste of fresh Irish cream.

“At the end of the day, after tasting our butter, I want the flavour of that cream to be in my mouth,” Mary says. “Some people say we could push our flavourings to do more, but I want it to be butter that’s flavoured rather than flavourings with butter. At the back of your mouth, I want that cream going on.”