Whey Cool

Creating beverages from waste that are healthier for people and the environment.

There has to be a better way. That has been on the minds of many small-batch beverage manufacturers of late. There is so much wasted, but it can undoubtedly be upcycled into something good. What can we do with these cast offs and what will take off when we do? The answers, food and beverage pioneers are saying, might be vodkas, gins, hard seltzers, health drinks and more.

The waste is whey, and the people with the minds to create something delicious from it are distillers, seltzer makers and beverage developers, all eager to create something that’s not only better for you, but better for the environment.

“Try us,” Sam Alcaine says. Alcaine is the founder of Norwhey, a hard seltzer manufacturer based in Ithaca, NY. It uses the waste whey of yogurt. “If you think it tastes good, and it does, know that it’s better for you than the average store-bought hard seltzers,” Alcaine promises. Using whey, Norwhey’s seltzers are naturally charged with a full spectrum of electrolytes and vitamins. Each Norwhey can has calcium, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B5 and more. “And the cherry on top,” Alcaine says, “it’s better for the planet.”

What a Waste

For every pound of cheese made there are 9 pounds of liquid whey. Less than half of the 100 billion pounds of whey generated in the United States each year is fully utilized. Larger manufactures have the infrastructure to dry and concentrate whey into protein powders, but mid- and small-scale cheesemakers don’t have the resources to do that.

With the making of yogurt, there are two or three cups of liquid whey for every cup of yogurt. Yogurt whey is more acidic and cannot be dried and concentrated for the protein, so it’s not usually going toward human consumption. “That’s our liquid gold,” says Melissa Martinelli, a former immigration lawyer turned CEO of Superfrau, a non-alcoholic seltzer maker based in Dorchester, MA. “We capture the liquid whey when it’s super fresh and use it as our main ingredient. In fact, it constitutes 98% of our drink!” Superfrau can be found at Whole Foods and specialty stores throughout New England. Martinelli is hoping for expansion. Flavors include peach mango, pineapple ginger, and cucumber lime. Martinelli’s favorite? “Our cucumber lime over ice, maybe with a splash of Wheyward Spirit.”

Making the Most of It

Distillers are weighing in on using whey to create potent and delicious alcohol. One is Portland, OR’s Wheyward Spirit. Founded by Emily Darchuk, the 35-year-old is a bit of a trailblazer when it comes to whey distilling. Launched in 2020, the company has reached customers in 37 states already through online sales. It was among the 2021 Good Food Award winners for spirits in 2020. Travel & Leisure listed it as one of the “best spirits” to try. The company recently teamed up with the iconic ice cream makers, Ben & Jerry’s, helping flavor its beloved Dublin Mudslide ice cream. From a recent press release, “The spirit company’s focus on environmental sustainability and local dairy farms makes it a natural, values-led sourcing partner with Ben & Jerry’s.”

Previous to Wheyward Spirit, Darchuk was a food scientist and product developer. “In my time working with the dairy industry,” she notes, “I saw the issue of whey waste firsthand, and it stuck with me until I had the platform to pursue a solution through Wheyward Spirit.”

According to data collected from the USDA, world milk consumption was approximately 190 million tons in 2020. Global milk production is expected to rise along with global population growth. In 2020, 21 metric tons of cheese was produced globally. “In New York alone,” notes Norwhey’s Alcaine, who is also an associate professor in food science at Cornell University, “there is one billion pounds of yogurt whey waste every year. That would fill around 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

The state of New York produces 70% of all strained yogurt sold in the United States. Before this whey can be discarded into the waste stream, its natural acidity must be neutralized. “If this does not happen,” notes Adam Kaye, co-founder of Spare Tonic with Jeremy Kaye. “it damages the surrounding ecosystems.” Spare Tonic, based in Dobbs Ferry, NY, upcycles whey and have created, thus far four flavored tonics. The damages are done to those ecosystems by, Kaye says, “disrupting the pH of groundwater, resulting in lower crop yields, and it depletes oxygen levels in waterways that leads to algae blooms and fish die offs.” These numbers, and the devastating effects on the environment, doesn’t include cheese whey, where waste numbers are much higher. And, again, that’s just New York state alone.

This is to say it’s a global issue. Though many people, worldwide, drink whey, including in such countries as Austria, Switzerland, Iceland, Iran and India, to name a few, waste is prevalent the world over. Americans, therefore, aren’t the only ones with an eye on eliminating that waste into something better. Grandvewe is a farm based in Tasmania. It’s been making artisanal cheeses for 20 years. The company now makes three different whey vodkas, a whey gin and a vanilla whey liqueur. “All industries need to better focus on their waste issues rather than just doing what they’ve always done,” warns Diane Rae, Grandvewe’s CEO. “We need to be responsible now for the waste we create rather than push the problem down the line. Each business,” she continues, “has to come up with its own solutions.”

Looking at Solutions

Those solutions can come by way of a cocktail glass. “We could do a lot more to lessen our negative footprint,” notes Antony Jackson, co-founder and director of Ireland’s Ballyvolane House Spirits. It makes a handful of different gins from whey, including the flagship Bertha’s Revenge Irish Milk Gin. The company is ridding itself of single-use plastics using raw materials from local sustainable producers, and are investing in going solar. As Jackson states, “We are very aware of the environment and climate change.”

“My ‘a-ha’ moment as a food scientist,” notes Wheyward Spirit’s Darkchuk, “was realizing that what is considered waste isn’t really waste. It’s just a gap in the food system.” With some ingenuity and some hard work, Darchuk says, “we could be the bridge to make the spirit and dairy industry more sustainable and bring true innovation through a better-tasting spirit that stays true to its roots.”

Those roots are strong but have been weakened by our current food systems. “For us, it is intercepting the supply chain, which has been set up to sequester and eliminate what the industry sees as ‘waste product’ and convince manufacturers that what they consider ‘waste’ is actually food that has value,” Kaye says, “and thus should be maintained in a food safe environment to be sold as ingredients for future food and beverage products.”

Superfrau’s Martinelli concurs. “I’d love the industry to view whey as a valuable co-product, rather than a byproduct. There’s so much innovation to be done in this space. That space is an exciting one, but the industry as a whole needs reworking in big ways.”

The commonly accepted numbers are that around 30% to 40% of food grown and produced in the United States never gets eaten by people. Kaye says. “The majority of this wasted food ends up in landfills where it decomposes and releases methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 28-times more potent than carbon dioxide with 80-times the warming power. “Minimizing the impact food systems have on the climate crisis starts by preventing food from being wasted,” Kaye says. “We are committed to showing how a better food system and food choices can reverse the effects of climate change. It’s at the heart of everything we do, and it’s the story behind every sip of Spare Tonic.”

But, as Norwhey’s Alcaine notes, it doesn’t matter how good your product is for the environment if consumers don’t think it tastes good and, therefore, won’t buy it. “We’re better,” he says directly in comparison to similar beverages on the market. “We are priced a little higher than our competitors but tasting it you’ll understand why.” Further, the industry for whey beverages is in its infancy. Norwhey hit the market in April of this year. Flavored seltzers like Superfrau and Spare Tonic were introduced to the market in 2021. Wheyward Spirit, one of the leaders in the market, only came into fruition in 2020. It’s an emerging industry. Those feet are awash in what would have been wasted whey. As more beverage companies hit the market, those Olympic-sized swimming pools will be drained for something better. It takes a lot of work to drain a swimming pool. Best, after, to sit with friends and have, perhaps, a whey cocktail in honor of a job well done.  

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