Dairy ‘beer’ in the pipeline

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

Doctoral student Marie Lawton measures an alcoholic drink made from dairy waste. Pic: Cornell University
Doctoral student Marie Lawton measures an alcoholic drink made from dairy waste. Pic: Cornell University
Dairy that is fermented and brewed like beer could soon be on tap as Sam Alcaine, assistant professor at Cornell University’s Department of Food Science, turns dairy waste into an alcoholic drink.

The US university’s research was not inspired by the craft beer craze; it relates to providing a solution to a problem for New York’s Greek yogurt industry.

The production of Greek yogurt creates acid whey, a leftover liquid with very little protein and few profitable uses. Alcaine, former product innovation manager at Miller Brewing Co., thinks there may be a place for alcoholic dairy beverages made from whey.

“There’s this whole movement around craft beer and spirits, but dairy doesn’t play in that space at all,”​ Alcaine said.

Sam Alcaine pours batches of beer brewed from acid whey. The various colors are derived from fruit and other natural ingredients. Pic: Cornell University

“If we could convert whey into something that people want to drink, it opens an entirely new economic arena for entrepreneurs and brewers to explore and innovate within.”

Conversion to alcohol

However, lactose cannot be broken down and converted into alcohol by traditional brewer’s yeast.

Alcaine said one idea is to combine multiple strains of bacteria and various species of yeast to create a co-fermentation that produces alcohol. The first bacterial strain would digest lactose and give off galactose as a by-product, which could in turn be converted by another yeast strain into alcohol.

Another variation Alcaine is researching uses barley, a traditional source of amylase enzymes that break down starch into simple sugars that are fermented into beer. Barley also contains enzymes capable of breaking down lactose, but they work at different temperatures than those typically used for brewing and have not been used in beer making.

Alcaine has found that a precise mix of time and temperature can break down lactose into the glucose and galactose needed by brewer’s yeast to produce alcohol. The alternate source of sugars also means unique flavor profiles. Factors such as the breed of the cow producing the milk also influence the flavor of the resulting alcohol.

Potential products

The methods have already produced results: a low-alcohol beer – about 2.7% alcohol by volume – with a sour and salty flavor comparable to German-style gose beer, and other concoctions similar to pulque, a traditional central Mexican drink made from agave.

More research is needed, but Alcaine thinks dairy alcohol could be on the market within a few years.

“Brewers use farm products like corn, rye and barley to make alcohol. Dairy is a natural addition, especially now, when consumers are demanding novel and interesting flavors,”​ Alcaine said.

Related topics R&D Dairy Beverages Functional Dairy

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