A Cornell professor hopes to produce a beer-like beverage from a milk byproduct.
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A surprising number of beer styles already tip their hat to the world of dairy. Milk stouts add lactose to provide a bit of sweetness and body. Lactose has also become a hip addition to the subsection of hazy IPAs often dubbed “milkshake IPAs.” Meanwhile, lactic acid used in fermentation can give a milky edge to many sour beers. But these are all beers with milk-like notes. New research at Cornell University is looking to take the reverse approach: using milk to create a beverage somewhat similar to beer.

Sam Alcaine, an assistant professor in Cornell’s Department of Food Science, isn’t just some milk-loving lush. Instead, the former product innovation manager for Miller Brewing set out to solve a problem: What can be done with acid whey, a leftover liquid created in large quantities by New York’s Greek yogurt industry? “There’s this whole movement around craft beer and spirits, but dairy doesn’t play in that space at all,” he explained. “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.”

Ironically enough, the thing that prevents acid whey from easily being fermented is the same ingredient brewers are already using: lactose. As it’s used now, lactose is an unfermentable sugar that adds its own characteristics to a beer. But Alcaine is looking for a way to make lactose itself fermentable, which could then be converted into alcohol on its own.

Though Alcaine has tried a number of techniques, including using a mix of time and temperature that differs from current brewing methods to break down lactose into fermentable sugars. It’s led to a 2.7 percent ABV drink described by the Cornell Chronicle as having “a sour and salty flavor comparable to German-style gose,” a style of beer that has gained popularity in the U.S. over the past half-decade or so.

Much as gose has attracted an audience thanks to its unique taste, Alcaine believes his milk-beer hybrid could potentially do the same. “Right now, 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,” he said. Though more research is needed, Alcaine hopes a version of his beverage could be on the market within just a few years.

Interestingly, Cornell University isn’t the only place conducting this kind of research. Last year, we discussed a team of scientists at the National University of Singapore who were working on a method to convert the whey left over from tofu production into an alcoholic beverage similar to sake, and there are already a few whey vodkas on the market.