Malaysians can’t seem to get enough of butter

Photos By StoryPhotos Grace Chen

CONSIDER this — if a 1kg butter cake is made up of 11% butter and 45 jam tarts are going to require an entire block of butter, just how much of this rich, creamy spread can we consume as a nation?

According to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization for Malaysia, the highest consumption per head was recorded in 1989 at 0.73kg — about three blocks of butter.

No doubt, there’s nothing like a pat of creamy richness to our daily sandwich. In 2003, a study by the Australian government revealed up to A$5.7mil (RM16.5mil) worth of butter was exported to Malaysia.

Today, according to Auric Pacific Group Ltd chief creative officer Michelle Lim, an estimate of 500 tonnes of SCS Butter, an Australian product, were consumed by homes and businesses last year.

Melt in your mouth: SCS is using jam tarts in their campaign to promote butter use.
Melt in your mouth: SCS is using jam tarts in their campaign to promote butter use.

Based on the brand’s retail price at RM10.90 for every 250gm block, we’d be looking at RM218mil in revenue just for one brand alone.

By Lim’s estimates, the national market size for butter is easily worth three times this amount.

“When we first started importing butter into Malaysia in 1966, it was still a premium product and not affordable to many. The limitation was largely due to lack of refrigeration technology. There were no freezer trucks or cold-chain management,” said Lim.

Butter, she revealed, is delivered to the consumer in three sizes — in blocks of 25kg, 500g and 250g. In modern trade, the largest customers are chain hypermarkets.

Also adding up to the equity are the general trade stores. As it can be rather challenging for a single entity to wholly service a customer base, butter is usually distributed to wholesalers in different geographic locations to deliver supplies to restaurants, hotels and cafes.

Being brand custodian for a butter label is not a game for small fries.

“The market has over 20 brands and we are No 1,” Lim says.

Big demand: Lim estimates Malaysians buy up to 1,500 tonnes of butter a year.
Big demand: Lim estimates Malaysians buy up to 1,500 tonnes of butter a year.

A marketing campaign last year, for example, saw promoters descending on 10 stores within one month. Auric Pacific Group head of marketing Nicholas Koh said key baking periods between the months of December and February are an important time for buttering up customers.

In gearing up for the Chinese New Year season this year, the company took six months to conceptualise a jam tart campaign featuring eight different recipes for this ubiquitous festive pastry and a recipe book deal that requires the purchase of two blocks of butter to seal.

A team of eight to 10 had to personally test each recipe no less than five times, consuming hundreds of tarts to ensure standards were met.

The jam tart, Lim says, is a natural candidate for spreading the word on butter, owing to the fact that the melt-in-your-mouth sensation in the shortcrust pastry can only be achieved with lots of butter — one block for every 60 pieces according to their recipe book.

While there is no denying the tasty characteristics of butter, Nigel Skelchy and Alan Yap, owners of F&B businesss Just Heavenly, cannot help but yelp at rising prices over time.

“When we began operations baking out of two home ovens in the Jalan Tempinis area in 2000, the price per block of Anchor butter then was no more than RM2 per 250g block. But today, the price has shot up to RM8. It adds up to a substantial amount in cost for us as we are now using 300kg of butter a month,” remarks Skelchy.

Skelchy putting a dollop of butter into his coffee for a richer brew in the literal sense.
Improving the taste: Skelchy putting a dollop of butter into his coffee for a richer brew in the literal sense.

Yap clearly recalls a time in 2006 when his supplier suddenly raised prices overnight.

“By then, the price per 250gramme block was already RM2.20. The increase saw it jumping to RM3.20 and we had to raise the price of our cakes by 10%,” recalled Yap.

By 2007, it was up to RM4.50.

The reaction among consumers was clear to see — per capita consumption fell to 0.36kg in 2006. However, this was not as bad as 1998, where it fell to an all time low at 0.30kg.

According to Yap, suppliers cited supply shortage as a reason for the escalation.

“It must be remembered that butter comes from milk and milk comes from cows who have to feed on grass. If there is a change in weather, such as a prolonged drought, it is going to affect supply,” Yap ruminated.

With rising costs, will Skelchy and Yap consider foregoing these golden dairy dollops for a cheaper alternative?

“Never!” declared Skelchy, citing his insistence on using natural ingredients as a standing point.

“When it comes to cooking and butter, life is not worthwhile without it,” insisted Skelchy who says their butter cake is 17% butter.

There are alternatives, of course. Head chef of Just Heavenly Cafe in Bangsar Shopping Complex Hazmy Jackson, says there are varieties of butter that are cheaper by at least RM2 than the New Zealand brand his bosses have stayed loyal to.

But in his 11 years of experience, the cheaper varieties are not only lighter in colour, the milk solids have a tendency to split under lower heat, resulting in lumpy sauces.

“Butter is not just butter. Different brands will give you different results,” explained Yap in reference to the role of this ingredient when it comes to baking.

Essentially the standard for butter is 80% fat, 16% water, and 4% milk solids but different brands will have slight variations in figures.

“If you’re looking at one cake, there’s not much difference but multiply the differences to a batch of 40 cakes for example and the margin of error increases, affecting flavour and texture,” said Skelchy.

The outlook for butter, is no doubt a golden one. According to Lim, it has a growth potential of double digits in the coming years.

“The best way to promote butter usage is through food and we are not just looking at the professional kitchens. Today, when cooking personalities are regarded as sexy and hot, we are also looking at a new breed of customers-hobbyists who take to baking as a way to reduce work stress. And thanks to social media, we are finding ways to connect with them,” said Lim.

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