The Future

Tired: water into wine.
Wired: whey into beer.

Scientists have struggled to find a use for waste acid whey, but a Cornell team is working on turning it into alcohol.
The Future

Tired: water into wine. Wired: whey into beer.

Scientists have struggled to find a use for waste acid whey, but a Cornell team is working on turning it into alcohol.

New York state is the largest producer of greek yogurt in the US, which creates a ton of acidic whey (think the top layer of liquid that appears when you open your serving of Fage). As Greek yogurt has shot up in popularity, manufacturers have struggled to figure out what to do with all of the waste. Now, a team of scientists in the Food Science Department at Cornell University are working on a new application for the waste product: an alcoholic drink.

While most whey byproducts can easily be repurposed — the whey from cheese can become, among other things, protein powder — the whey from Greek yogurt is too acidic to reuse as food the way regular whey can be. Some manufacturers dump it; some offload it as fertilizer; others neutralize it; some have tried turning it into biofuel (which can incur high costs if it needs to be transported in liquid form). In an effort to address this issue, the New York State Department of Environment and Conversation approached Professor Samuel Alcaine and his lab at Cornell to try and come up with a creative way to reuse the milk byproduct.

“In my previous life I was a brewer, and my job there basically was to always question what beer was — what type of ingredients do we use? What kinds of new things can we produce from them? And what is the wide space thinking? So, I put that hat on when looking at acid whey,” said Dr. Alcaine. “My thought process is always if we can ferment it, then we can find a way to make it taste good.”

Converting acid whey into a beverage involved months of research, mostly to find a way to break down lactose, a sugar found in dairy, so that the whey can ferment. Lactose can’t be broken down with traditional brewer’s yeast, which can only handle simpler sugars from grains like barley. Alcaine and his team had to look for other alternatives.

One potential method involves using multiple strains of bacteria and yeasts in an effort to co-ferment the whey to get the lactose to create galactose. Alcaine and his team have also experimented with integrating barley; its amylase enzymes help break down the starch in lactose so that it can be fermented. The lab is working with a local malt master to to see which versions work best for their purpose.

Alcaine’s beverage wouldn't be the first alcohol on the market today that utilizes milk. Two whey-based vodkas are on the market: Black Cow in the U.K. as well as Hartshorn in Tasmania, which is made of sheep's whey. While these vodkas may cater to unique pallet, they have been growing in popularity.

At 3% alcohol, Alcaine’s whey-based beverage has a sour component that is complemented by bread and apple notes, according to his staff. It’s comparable to Gosh-style German beer, and the alcohol content is low, but adjustable. There is a growing market for low alcohol beverages that is making its way from Europe to America in the 3-5% range.

Alcaine and his team hope that using what is normally a waste product to create locally sourced alcoholic beverages will appeal to bar owners and patrons. Americans are starting to embrace more complex flavor profiles: The number of sour beers in the craft beer space is on the rise, and kombucha, a fermented tea beverage, has also shot up in popularity. “There is a growing trend across spirit categories toward bigger, bolder flavors, even in vodkas. I think the soft and unctuous quality that some milk-based vodkas exhibit plays into that quest for an additional character in spirits, as well as the trend for provenance in spirits,” said Camper English of Alcademics.

The team at Cornell is aiming to have the product on the market by 2019.