Habit Binge

An Ex-Drinker’s Search for a Sober Buzz

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When the beer finally started to taste good, they bottled samples to take around to regional distributors. Their big break came when Shufelt met with the Whole Foods regional buyer in New Jersey. “He was our first believer,” Shufelt said.

The company has grown rapidly, in part because some of Shufelt’s former colleagues in finance are investors in Athletic. Shufelt and Walker opened a large brewery in San Diego in June, 2020, and plan to open an even larger one in Connecticut in 2022. They want Athletic to be the Sam Adams of N.A. craft beer: a national, category-defining brand.

As I talked with Shufelt and Walker, I realized that I was feeling a bit buzzed. My face felt hot, and my pulse was elevated. It wasn’t the beer—my glass of Two Trellises contained hardly more alcohol than an overripe banana, and my body was metabolizing the ethanol within minutes of my ingesting it. The buzz that I was feeling was a kind of placebo effect, produced by aroma and taste but also by the dimly lit taproom, the stools, the bar, and us in a close circle, talking and drinking.

In the early nineteen-seventies, G. Alan Marlatt, a clinical psychologist then at the University of Wisconsin, published the first account of his now famous “balanced placebo design” experiments, which demonstrated the influence that expectations and setting can have on alcohol’s psychotropic effects. He and his students recruited non-recovering alcoholics and social drinkers from the Madison area and divided these people, who were told that they were taking part in taste tests, into four groups. Those in group one received a mixed drink (the researchers used decarbonated tonic and vodka, in a five-to-one ratio) and were told that the drink contained alcohol. Those in group two were also told that they were getting alcohol, but they got a tonic-only placebo. Those in the third group were told that they were getting tonic, and they did. The participants in the fourth group got alcohol, but were informed that it was tonic.

The results were startling. One man in the group that expected alcohol but received tonic began acting intoxicated and tried to make a date with one of the lab assistants, and several men in the group that expected tonic but received alcohol experienced tremors—a symptom of withdrawal—even though they’d downed multiple vodkas.

Shortly after the experiment, Marlatt moved to the University of Washington, where he created the Behavioral Alcohol Research Laboratory—the BARlab—within the psych department, to continue the study. The lab, which was described for me recently by a former graduate student of Marlatt’s, Kim Fromme, now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, had a bar with bottles and glassware behind it, stools, music, and mood lighting. It was also outfitted with hidden microphones and cameras, and a two-way mirror that allowed the researchers to observe the drinkers covertly.

Fromme’s students continue to use balanced-placebo-design methods to study the role that alcohol plays—and doesn’t play—in sexual arousal, domestic violence, and disinhibited behavior. (Most researchers, however, no longer study a group that expects tonic but receives alcohol, because few of the participants are fooled.) “Does alcohol really make you more aggressive, or do you think, I’ve been drinking, so I can be disinhibited?” Fromme said. “Does alcohol make people more flirtatious, or do they believe that drinking gives them permission to be more flirtatious? It’s all about what you expect to happen.”

Fromme added that her bar lab had improved on Marlatt’s placebo. The researchers now serve subjects drinks made of cranberry juice, Diet Cherry 7UP, Rose’s Lime Juice, and decarbonated tonic, some spiked with vodka, others not. She also rubs alcohol on the glasses to add the smell. “You can’t tell the difference,” she said.

I asked if she had ever used real beer and a non-alcoholic beer placebo in the lab. She had not, she said, because the alcohol content in beer is much lower than in vodka: “Vodka gets people to 0.08 faster.”

My pint with the Athletic founders did indeed trigger me, but only to sample other non-alcoholic craft beers. Many are made by West Coast brewers that lack Athletic’s distribution. But non-alcoholic beer is easier to ship across state lines than its alcoholic counterpart, and it is taxed at the rate applied to soft drinks, which somewhat offsets the added cost of de-alcoholizing and pasteurizing it. You also don’t have to be twenty-one to buy N.A. beer in most states.

Within days, our doorbell was a-jingle with beer deliveries: cases of Surreal’s Chandelier Red I.P.A. (burnt toast and caramel), WellBeing’s Intentional I.P.A. (peach and pineapple), and BrewDog’s Hazy AF (clover, thistle, mowed lawn). All these beers are delicious, and some are flavorful to the point of funkiness, with billowy heads of foam and the fizz of added carbonation. But Run Wild remained my go-to.

One day when I was away from home, I asked my wife, Lisa, to look out for a case of BrewDog’s Nanny State and one of Bravus’s Blood Orange I.P.A.

“Is this getting a little weird?” she said. Lisa doesn’t have a drinking problem, but twenty-five years with someone who does had made her a reluctant expert.

Was it? Every inch of available space in the kitchen was filling up with cases of beer. I seemed to be enacting the fantasy that I’d had toward the end of my drinking career: packing the house so full of alcohol that I’d never have to leave. (By then, I was hiding the booze in the cellar.) There was an obsessive-compulsive aspect to my sampling of N.A. beers that went far beyond the call of curiosity, and it reminded Lisa of the bad old days.

I asked George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, and Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about my raging non-alcoholism. “When you extinguish a learned habit, it doesn’t disappear,” Koob said. “All you’re doing is replacing that habit with a different habit.” Volkow compared my behavior to a binge. “It’s an automatic compulsive behavior,” she said. (Volkow is Leon Trotsky’s great-granddaughter and was raised in Mexico City, in the house where her great-grandfather was assassinated, in 1940.) “If I know I can fall into a binge, as I do with chocolate-chip cookies, how do I avoid it? Very simple. I avoid putting chocolate-chip cookies in front of me. But that requires executive control of my frontal cortex. Drinking causes your executive system to erode, and generates a loss of control in some people.”

But so what if my executive system couldn’t resist non-alcoholic beer? Abstinence had made me fond of the refreshing, low-calorie, any-time-of-day beverage people in medieval times called “small beer.” (Back then, it was brewed with the leftovers of regular beer, and adults and children are said to have sometimes drunk it instead of water, which was more likely to be contaminated.) I could easily put away a six-pack of N.A. beer in the course of a day and never feel bloated or tired, and because it replaced sweet drinks and soda in my diet I lost weight. I drank it at lunch and dinner, while working and driving, and after exercise, because if it was good enough for Germany’s successful 2018 Olympic skiers, who drank N.A. beer as a training beverage, it was good enough for me. (Budweiser Zero, which is Anheuser-Busch’s new and somewhat improved N.A. beer, has enlisted Dwyane Wade, the retired N.B.A. star, as a spokesperson, in the hope of promoting the brew as a sports drink in the U.S.)

Ted Fleming founded Partake Brewing, an N.A. brewery based in Calgary, after a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease forced him to give up alcohol. He told me, “Beer has salts, minerals, polyphenols, and anti-inflammatories,”…

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