ITHACA, N.Y.—If you’ve ever driven through upstate New York, it’s not unlikely that you’ve passed dairy farms and yogurt manufacturing plants. In fact, New York State’s Empire State Development found that as of 2017, the state had surpassed Greece in terms of Greek yogurt production, making it a yogurt industry leader.

The state’s home companies include Dannon, Fage USA and Chobani, as well as Sunrise Family dairy farms and Agrana Fruit.

But yogurt isn’t the only thing that comes out of dairy manufacturing. For every one cup of yogurt produced, there are three cups of yogurt acid whey as a byproduct, which often gets thrown away or enters wastewater treatment facilities.

After studying dairy fermentation at Cornell University and working in the brewing industry in Milwaukee, Sam Alcaine decided to begin to address the yogurt byproduct production problem. The yogurt acid whey does not contain protein because that part stays in the strained yogurt, but it still contains vitamins and minerals.

“We started looking at how we could start making consumer-friendly beverages,” Alcaine said, explaining that he had thought about kombucha and how that fermentation process could be similar to fermenting the acid whey. Alcaine also confirmed that even though most of the protein gets filtered out during the yogurt and fermentation processes, individuals with dairy allergies could still have allergic reactions from the small protein particles left in the beverages.

Gaining positive feedback after sharing his idea, Alcaine pitched his idea to local cheesemaker Trystan Sandvoss, who got on board immediately, and Norwhey was born in 2020.

Containing naturally occurring electrolytes and calcium, magnesium and zinc, the brand began brewing 40-barrel brews and hit Tompkins County shelves at the beginning of April 2022, aiming to provide an enjoyable alcoholic beverage that’s “better for you” (and the environment) than some of the alternatives.

Upcycling the acid whey from a disposable byproduct into a beverage through a special fermentation process, the micronutrients are preserved while the lactose is fermented out before flavoring from real fruit is added. “We get this nice, light, tart, fruity sparkling hard seltzer, we’re calling it Nordic seltzer, because it’s inspired by a tradition that was done in Iceland where they took leftovers from skyr to make beverages.”

Sandvoss had experience with sales, marketing and retail from his work founding First Light Creamery, so after receiving funding from a commercialization startup competition, Norwhey began producing out of a manufacturer in Cazenovia, New York, as well as opening a small facility in Interlaken, New York, where they have an experimental brewery that will be open to the public in the future.

The company got the attention of Wegmans — a huge help in distribution of the new company across Western New York — as well as GreenStar and the Finger Lakes Beverage Center and a few other places around Ithaca.

Currently focusing on pushing retail partnerships and cleaning up the brewery space, Alcaine said he’s grateful to have gotten a foot in the door with a large retailer like Wegmans.

“I think our goal right now is to see how we do this summer in Western New York, then hopefully look toward expanding downstate, then see how we go regionally,” Alcaine said.

Alcaine also said that Sandvoss has been the boots on the ground, visiting cities around the state and creating relationships with retailers, as well as looking into hiring a team of salespeople and ambassadors.

A large part of Norwhey’s mission, aside from delivering a consumer beverage, is the issue of dairy sustainability and being able to use every drop of the milk that goes into yogurt-making. “One of my goals with taking this from Cornell into the real world is to show other dairy producers that they could use their whey to make value-added products and beverages,” Alcaine said.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...