Spunky, spritzy and sustainable: Researchers riff on an ancient refreshment

Imagine if wine and beer had a baby. Got it? Now imagine if milk were that baby’s auntie.

That odd baby would be not unlike a new Cornell piquette project, a spin on a low-alcohol beverage that was once the lunchtime quaff of 19th-century French farmhands and which Cornell researchers are hoping to revive as a use for grape and dairy byproducts.


Cornell impacting New York State

Piquette is traditionally thought of as a wine: The clumps of leftover grape skins, stems and seeds from the winemaking process are fermented anew with water and sugar to yield a funky, fruity, often spritzy beverage somewhere between 4 and 9% alcohol by volume (wine is usually between 11 and 13). Despite its historic roots, it’s a great example of the contemporary enthusiasm for upcycling – a creative reuse of a byproduct or waste material that might otherwise not have a home.

“I thought it would be fun, and I loved the idea of there being no waste and that any product has value if you can preserve it,” said Chris Gerling, a senior extension associate at Cornell AgriTech Food Science. Gerling and Samuel Alcaine, associate professor of food science at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, have been collaborating since 2020 to find a way to revive commercial piquette in a way that’s efficient, profitable and tasty.

Seldom sold commercially, in France piquette became synonymous with cheap, low-quality plonk and all but disappeared. About 10 years ago it was resurrected in the U.S., in large measure due to Hudson Valley winemaker Todd Cavallo and his Wild Arc Farm in Pine Bush. Piquette checked a lot of boxes: low-alcohol, sustainable, natural, refreshing, even gluten-free.

Alcaine and Gerling think they can go one better. Their hope is to upcycle grape pomace from New York Finger Lakes wineries, but also to find a new use for byproducts from one of the state’s other big agricultural industries.

As value-added dairy products like yogurt ramp up in total production, “the yogurt whey doesn’t have a home,” Alcaine said. “A lot of it is going straight to waste-water treatment.”

For traditional piquette, makers add water and sugar. The researchers wondered: What if we used whey to act as both the water and the sugar (in the form of lactose)? The whey would also add some interesting minerals to the finished product. It’s a sideline product for both, but leverages their deep knowledge of the local craft beverage industry.

This kind of product would provide another revenue stream for two major New York state agricultural commodities, while capitalizing on the growing number of consumers seeking both low-alcohol options and new ways to mitigate food waste. It also ties into beverage fads like skin-contact orange wines or pétillant naturel wines (called pét-nats), which are funky-fizzy wines made by a “méthode ancestrale” invented in the 1500s.

But both byproducts are highly perishable and can go sideways really fast, Gerling said. In their third year now, they have tried pomace from red and white grapes, finding the white pomace more likely to get contaminated with bacterial infections. And the whey? Lactic acid bacteria can thrive at higher pH levels, so the team has been tweaking that. According to Alcaine, some funky dairy notes can shine through, elements they are modulating via fining (a clarifying process that removes undesirable molecules) and filtering the liquid, or using a heating step to knock back the funkiness.

In the most recent run they made 12 gallons, six with whey and six with water for comparison. They’ve used fermented cabernet franc pomace, which offered them better control than unfermented riesling skins. Alcaine said with the most recent batch the next step is to do consumer testing on campus in the sensory lab.

“The last round we asked people to describe the flavor notes, to talk about whether ours was more accessible than other piquettes,” he said. “Later this summer we will be doing consumer testing about whether they like it and would buy it.”

For Gerling, piquette’s unique character will help it find its fans. The trick is to find a piquette recipe that best “piques” the interest of both consumers and New York wine and dairy producers.

“This is a product of the moment, it hits a trend for people unafraid of particulates, or a little cloudiness and funk. For some people, those are features, not bugs,” Gerling said. “But if we’re trying to make it a more flexible commodity product, we could make it pretty neutral. We can do with it whatever we want.”

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