A milk byproduct that is fermented and brewed like beer could soon be on tap.
Whenever I talk to anybody about drinking whey, they look at me like I’m crazy,” says Sam Alcaine, assistant professor of dairy fermentation at Cornell University.
“Whey is whole food that comes from milk that isn’t always utilized to its fullest potential,” Alcaine says. “This dairy beer is something that is unique and different, and it comes from a place of sustainability.”
As Alcaine was finishing up his doctorate in food microbiology in 2016, a position opened up at Cornell where they were looking for someone with industry and fermentation experience. Alcaine, a former product innovation manager at Miller Brewing Co., knew his background and industry work in alcohol fermentation and dairy food safety would be a solid fit for the position.
“My program started off focusing around dairy sustainability and how we can use microbiology to inhibit yeast molds or pathogens in our dairy products to make them safer and extend their shelf life,” Alcaine says. “However, when I started here, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation came to Cornell’s department of food science with a problem.”
The problem they presented was how the state of New York has an excess amount of leftover acid whey from Greek yogurt production that is being poured down the drain to wastewater treatment.
“They asked us, ‘What can we do with this?’” Alcaine says. “Me being an ex-brewer, I saw that the acid whey had a lot of lactose, right – sugar. Brewing is all about converting sugar into ethanol. I thought, ‘There has got to be a way to brew this that tastes good and consumers might find interesting.’”
Ironically enough, the lactose is what prevents acid whey from easily being fermented.
“Traditional brewers yeast can’t use lactose,” Alcaine says. “So there needs to be a way to hydrolyze the lactose into glucose and galactose so the yeast can use it.”
Alcaine started out looking at two different routes to break down the lactose. The first was with malted barley. For this route, he needed to identify enzymes in barley that could break down the lactose into simple sugars and then be fermented out by common brewers yeast.
“The challenge with the malted barley route is: The enzymes we want are mostly active in the raw barley and not really in the malted,” Alcaine says. “However, we think there is a way to optimize the malting process to preserve the lactase enzymes in the barley, but we haven’t gotten to the point where we could prove that out yet.”
The second method looked at non-traditional yeast species that could utilize lactose and produce alcohol.
“In particular, we were interested in a yeast species that has become popular now with the craft brewers, called brettanomyces,” Alcaine says. “Some strands of brettanomyces can actually utilize lactose, but they hadn’t been characterized, and we were not quite sure what flavor nodes they would produce out of the whey. So we went around testing a few different strains to see how they used up the lactose and how the end product tasted.”
Alcaine says the brettanomyces yeast mixed with the whey produces a flavor that is a little bit yogurt, cider and sour beer. To offset the lactic bite from the acid whey, he has blended citrus fruit flavors with the brew.
“Some of the flavors we have tried are lemon ginger, which pairs really well with the acidity of the whey that is already there,” Alcaine says. “We have also done kind of a mango citrus flavor with orange peel in it. It kind of tasted like a mimosa, which was pretty good. And then we have also done some flavors with berries.”
To test his beer made from whey, Alcaine held a sensory lab at Cornell where over 100 consumers came and tasted the products. People were offered the fermented base by itself without any flavoring and one with a lemon-ginger-lime fruit flavoring added to it.
“What we found was: The base without any flavor was a bit polarizing for people because of the unique flavor of the yogurt and tartness of it,” Alcaine says. “But once we added the fruit prototypes, they really liked this, and we saw a lot of strong feedback on it.”
As part of the consumer feedback, Alcaine tried to gauge what their purchase intent was.
“Roughly, nearly half of our consumers say they would buy the product or definitely buy the product,” Alcaine says. “I think that is a pretty good number for a product that is so unique in its flavor profile, composition and positioning.”
Besides the flavor, another cool added benefit to the beer is its calcium content.
“When the casein micelles in milk solubilize, all the calcium ends up in the acid whey,” Alcaine says. “So this beverage has high amounts of calcium and would be considered an excellent source of calcium. However, you can’t really claim health benefits with alcoholic products, but it has the calcium.”
According to Alcaine, his prototype is a low-alcohol beer. Its alcohol content comes out around 2.5 to 3.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) depending on the amount of fermentable sugars it is made with. He says traditional beers like Coors, Miller Lite or Bud Light are around a 4.2 percent ABV, and the craft beers – like India pale ales (IPAs) – push 6 to 7 percent ABV. However, Alcaine says there are other traditional beer styles, like Radlers, that are around a 3 percent ABV.
“I think this beer will be of interest to consumers for a couple of reasons. First, we are beginning to see trends very strongly in Europe and starting to happen in the U.S. that millennials are cutting back on their drinking. They are looking for products that aren’t as alcoholic that let them have a few without suffering the side effects of drinking too much,” Alcaine says. “Second, there is also the beneficial angle of calcium. I think the span of health, sustainability and something unique is a good potential draw for a product when this beer makes it to market.”
More research is needed to refine the process, but Alcaine thinks dairy alcohol could be on the market within a few years.
“Right now, we are working with a local brewer to do a test batch on a larger scale than what we do in our lab,” Alcaine says. “It’s our first real-world test product, and hopefully that test batch will finish up December 2018.”
Photo: Sam Alcaine, assistant professor at Cornell University’s department of food science, measures fruit flavors to mix with a milk byproduct fermented and brewed into beer. Photo courtesy: Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.