Alcohol formula

Alcohol made from cheese waste could help solve dairy whey problem

Producing one pound of hard cheese creates nine pounds of whey – the liquid by-product left over when milk is curdled and strained – and while large-scale cheese makers often process it into animal feed or protein. of whey, with small cheese makers, much of it can go to waste.

Enter Wheyward Spirit. Its Californian distillery collects leftover whey from local cheese makers and turns it into alcohol. It has just teamed up with Ben & Jerry’s to replace Irish Cream liqueur in its Dublin Mudslide flavor – offering “the same taste with less waste”, according to the ice cream maker.

“Our big thing is to keep [whey] into the food system,” says Emily Darchuk, owner and founder of Wheyward Spirit.

Darchuk founded Wheyward Spirit in 2017 and spent several years developing his distillation process. Liquid whey is 95% water, but contains enough sugar lactose to ferment into alcohol. Although this helps save water during distillation, it is a more complex process than using conventional ingredients.

Since its launch in September 2020, the artisanal spirit has received a double gold medal at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition and a Good Food Award. Working with nearby small-scale cheese makers, Wheyward says his two-person team processed 500,000 pounds of whey that would otherwise have been wasted.

Containing 40% alcohol and retailing from $54.95 for a 750ml bottle, its price is geared towards the high-end market – but Darchuk says consumers are curious to try the product and are eager to try the product. agreement with the zero waste concept.

“People are feeling the impact,” she says. “It’s that next movement in sustainable food.”

“A Drop in the Bucket”

According to cheese production figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 100 billion pounds of liquid whey were produced in the United States in 2020. For most large-scale cheesemakers, that’s not a problem, says food scientist Lisbeth Goddik. professor at Oregon State University, much of which is converted into products like protein powders and animal feed.

“The challenge is that small cheese makers can’t afford to build these whey processing centers,” she told CNN Business.

These small cheesemakers represent less than 1% of the market, according to Goddik’s estimates, and their whey production is “a drop in the ocean” compared to larger outfits. But they have to pay to have the whey processed before it’s disposed of, which can be a significant additional expense, she says. Some supply the whey to local farmers to use as fertilizer, but if not managed well it can pollute water sources.

“It matters a lot to people on a small scale, and it certainly matters to the environment around them,” Goddik says. This is where fermentation and distillation can be a useful innovation. “It’s less capital intensive than trying to process and dry whey,” she explains.

Prove the market

Wheyward isn’t the only company turning whey into alcohol: Bertha’s Revenge Irish Milk Gin and French vodka producer Lactalium Velvet both use whey as the main ingredient for their base spirit.

Distillation could be especially useful for sour whey, the byproduct of Greek yogurt. For every pound of yogurt, three to four pounds of sour whey is produced, which, unlike soft cheese whey, cannot be used in protein powders. Goddik has researched sour whey fermentation and distillation and says it “worked really well.”

To date, Wheyward Spirit's two-person team has converted 500,000 pounds of whey into their signature distilled spirit.
Creating a high-value secondary market for whey could help the dairy industry, says Cornell University food scientist Samuel Alcaine. His startup Norwhey makes alcoholic seltzer water from acidic whey, which he says retains much of its nutritional value and minerals.
“I think it’s important to make sure we get every drop and then use it in a way that helps human nutrition,” Alcaine says. He cites others who make alcohol-free whey tonics, like Superfrau! and Spare Tonic, which touts the health benefits of whey.
He thinks this could benefit dairy processors, who can unload their excess whey for free, as well as beverage manufacturers, who only have to pay the transport price for their basic ingredient. In the long term, dairy processors could even produce these beverages themselves, says Alcaine. In Australia, an artisan cheesemaker has already done it: Grandvewe creates small batches of whey-based spirits alongside their sheep’s cheese products.

The whey beverage industry is still in its infancy, says Alcaine, adding “it takes time to prove the market.” But Wheyward Spirit’s partnership with Ben & Jerry’s shows that whey spirits can find their way into supermarket aisles, familiarizing shoppers with these unconventional products.

“I hope this inspires people to dig deeper and think differently about their food,” says Darchuk.