All buzz, no booze

Jo Caird speaks to Prof David Nutt (yes, that Prof David Nutt) about a pioneering project that could revolutionise beer


I’ve drunk a lot of alcohol-free beer over the last few years. Two and a bit pregnancies, nearly three years of breastfeeding and five years of being woken at the crack of dawn by my horrible delightful children have seen me embrace the low-and-no market in a way I would have scoffed at in my youth. 

Alcohol-free beer has come a long way. There are quite a few alcohol-free beers available these days whose taste I genuinely like. Drink one fast enough, in the right circumstances, and you can almost persuade yourself you’re getting a little bit tipsy – sort of. 

Ultimately, however, the experience of drinking an alcohol-free beer is a pale imitation of the experience of drinking a real beer. Because when you take away the booze, you take away the buzz. If only there was another way.  

The good news is, there soon will be, thanks to the pioneering work of brain scientist Professor David Nutt, whose company GABALabs is getting ready to launch an alcohol-free beer that mimics the beneficial effects of alcohol, with none of the downsides. 

You might have heard of him. There aren’t very many neuropsychopharmacologists with household name recognition but then again there aren’t very many neuropsychopharmacologists who’ve been fired by the government for claiming that ecstasy is less harmful than alcohol. 

That was back in 2009, when Nutt published an academic paper arguing that we need a new way of classifying the harm caused by legal and illegal drugs. He ranked alcohol as fifth most harmful after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone, putting cannabis, LSD and ecstasy in 11th, 14th and 18th places respectively. Accused of damaging the government’s efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs, he was asked to resign as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs shortly afterwards. 

Nutt was disappointed, though not exactly surprised by the government’s decision, remarking at the time that “politics is politics and science is science and there’s a bit of a tension between them sometimes”. 

While many will have been dismayed about the implications of such a short-sighted anti-science agenda by government ministers of the day, in hindsight we owe them a debt of thanks. Because losing that job meant that David was able to properly devote himself to a project that had obsessed him since the very beginning of his career: finding a non-harmful alternative to alcohol. 

“When I was sacked,” Nutt recalls, “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to lose now. Let’s really go for it.’” He’s never looked back. 

Confronted by drunkenness

Nutt enjoys a drink as much as the next person – he even has a share in a wine bar in West London – but the negative health and social impacts of alcohol have been obvious to him since the very beginning of his career in medicine. 

“The first day I started as a medical student, I was confronted by drunkenness in my colleagues. And the first day in casualty, I was confronted with the impact of alcohol. Every doctor, every day meets alcohol problems.”

He cites some shocking statistics: over half of all the patients being treated for serious injuries on trauma and orthopaedic wards, for example, are there because of alcohol; alcohol is the leading cause of disease among men. Furthermore, Nutt explains, “addiction to alcohol is the largest mental health problem in men in the world. So basically, psychiatry, medicine, alcohol, they’re inextricably linked.”

Portrait © Flickr/Vicky Symons, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Early attempts to tackle this issue in the lab led to Nutt’s discovery, during his PhD, of what he calls an “antidote to alcohol”. 

“I had a drunk rat and I woke him up. I went to my boss and said, ‘I’ve got a solution to problems of alcohol! I can reverse alcohol intoxication!’ He said, ‘What’s the use of that?’”

Being able to stop drunkenness in its tracks might reduce embarrassing or inappropriate behaviour or even incidences of alcohol-related injury. But as long as the alcohol – or ethanol, to be precise – was still doing damage to organs including the brain, liver, heart and pancreas, Nutt’s exciting discovery had little application in the real world. 

Fast forward to 2004, when the scientist – by now one of the leading figures in his field – was asked to contribute to an independent government report exploring the future of scientific research into how drugs impact the brain. 

“We started to really brainstorm,” he says. “If you cannot protect the body against the harms of alcohol – which it seems you can’t: basically alcohol is a toxin – why don’t we just replace alcohol?”

The science bit

The science of how alcohol affects our mood and cognitive function is complicated – but bear with me, I’ll try to keep it snappy. At low doses, alcohol activates a naturally occurring neurotransmitter – or chemical messenger in the brain – called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). In humans, GABA produces a calming effect, making people feel sociable and reducing feelings of anxiety, stress and fear. 

It’s GABA that makes drinking booze the fun and relaxing pastime we know and love. It’s GABA that gives you the courage to start chatting up that beautiful stranger whose eye you caught across a crowded bar. It’s GABA that helps you shake off the cares of the day, dance like nobody’s watching and decide that it doesn’t really matter if you’re a bit hungover for that meeting tomorrow, having another beer with your mates is what’s important right now. 

So when Nutt started to think seriously about creating a less harmful alternative to alcohol – a synthetic ingredient that would behave like ethanol in some ways but not in others – it was to the GABA system that he looked. 

“We’re targeting the GABA receptors which give you the good effects of alcohol – the relaxation, the sociability, the conviviality – but we’re avoiding the ones that cause problems such as dependence, addiction, depression, hangover,” he explains.

It wasn’t exactly a straightforward process. “I spent 10 years trying to get people interested in the idea. Pharmaceutical companies would say, ‘You’re mad: this is a recreational substance, we make treatments’.” 

Nutt came to the conclusion that if he was to make his dream a reality and bring synthetic alcohol to the market, he was going to need a little help:  “I’m a scientist and I’m a government irritant. I do lots of things but one thing’s for sure, I’m not a businessman, and I just failed to raise money,” he says. 

Business consultant and former tech entrepreneur David Orren changed all that when he came on board four years ago, raising sufficient seed funding that GABALabs was able to develop, and is now patenting, its own chemical compound. Called Alcarelle, it’s a synthetic ingredient that they’re planning to take through food safety testing over the next three to five years. 

Having not been through that process yet, they’re not allowed to say much about Alcarelle at this stage, but it’s fair to say that both Nutt and Orren are pretty excited about the ingredient’s potential. It’ll be years before Alcarelle is approved for consumption but GABALabs has already had lots of interest from breweries, distilleries and wineries who like the idea of using it to make “ethanol-free conventional drinks”, says Orren. Take a low or no alcohol beer, wine, cider or spirit, add some Alcarelle and, boom, you’ve revolutionised the drinks market. Or at least that’s the plan. 

GABALabs have no intention of manufacturing Alcarelle-based products themselves, Orren is at pains to point out.  

“We will have a relationship with some of the world’s largest ingredient manufacturers, so they’ll manufacture it and distribute it to their drinks customers. We don’t want to compete or disrupt that supply chain, we only want to take a miniscule fraction of any value, so they will make the money. 

“We’re here actually to enable them to fill a gap they are already experiencing, which they are already investing in trying to fix, but they don’t have the tools. We have the tools.”

Botanical beer

GABALabs won’t be making synthetic alcohol drinks but it’s not quite accurate to say that the company isn’t competing in this space – at least for the moment. In January this year, under the banner of spin-off enterprise The Social Drinks Company (TSDC), Nutt and Orren launched Sentia, a non-alcoholic ‘spirit’ made using what they’re calling ‘ABI’, a botanical ingredient that activates the brain’s GABA receptors in a similar way to Alcarelle. 

The “herbal equivalent” to their synthetic is designed as a “a proof of concept for Joe Public”, says Orren. “This is a way of creating the conversation.”

It’s a canny move. Bringing Alcarelle through the hugely involved food testing process is going to cost around £20 million. GABALabs is hoping to raise £6 million this year alone. By using ingredients that are already in the food chain, TSDC can bring buzz-inducing non-alcoholic drinks to consumers while bypassing the food testing process, thereby – hopefully – demonstrating to profit-hungry (or should that be thirsty?) investors that there’s a market for GABALabs’ synthetic. 

Sentia is currently only available via the TSDC website but it’s doing well, Orren says, selling out each new batch on pre-orders alone. The company’s next launch, a non-alcoholic beer made with the same botanical ingredient as the spirit, will be critical to their campaign to spread the message about the potential of Nutt’s work. 

“Whereas Sentia is quite specialized, everybody drinks beer at some point in their lives. It’s a much more democratic product,” says Orren.

At the time of writing, the flavour profile and look of the beer they plan to launch this summer are still being worked out. Nutt and Orren are consulting with several craft brewers – they won’t tell me who – and will be market testing an early drink of the product at the Low2NoBev Show at the Truman Brewery in June. 

Bottle image © Sentia

The specifics of their beer may not yet be set in stone but its makers are in no doubt about the effect it will have on drinkers. Nutt remembers the moment in autumn 2019 when he first realised that ABI, the botanical ingredient that forms the basis of Sentia, was going to work: “You’re looking for the Holy Grail and suddenly, ‘Wow, we’ve got something here!’” 

He and Orren met up at Nutt’s wine bar so Orren could try it too. “I’d been feeding him other products up until then and he thought they were rubbish,” says Nutt with a laugh. “But this one he likes.”

Now that Sentia is available to buy, the TSDC website recommends drinking only 200ml of it in a 24-hour period, because some of its ingredients have a recommended daily intake (RDA). In the bar that night, however, Orren necked masses of the stuff in an attempt to test Nutt’s hypothesis that, while the botanical will give you a buzz, it can’t actually get you drunk. 

The “concoction”, as they were calling it at that stage, passed the test, making Orren relaxed and happy but causing no messiness whatsoever. “It got me to a level and it held me there,” the businessman remembers. “I slept like a baby and I felt wonderful the next morning. That’s when we knew.”

Alcarelle promises a similar benefit, says Nutt. “Whereas with alcohol you keep pushing the dose up and the effect goes up and up and up, we can tune our new molecule so that the effect has a plateau. So it doesn’t matter how much you take of it, you’ll never get really drunk.”

The benefit of which, of course, is that you can enjoy the relaxing effects of Sentia, or Nutt and Orren’s beer or any of the other product lines they’re looking into, and then drive home, if you wish, without endangering yourself or anyone else. Or you could pick up your kids from nursery without feeling like a bad parent. Or you could head back to work after a liquid lunch without risking your job. On the FAQ page of its website, TSDC just recommends that drinkers of Sentia “please be conscious of any effects you’re experiencing and act responsibly as a result”. 

The bigger picture

“We’re not trying to get rid of alcohol,” explains Nutt. “Alcohol is harmful in many, many ways, but it’s also very pleasurable. Why do I drink it even though I know it’s harmful? Because I decide that the benefits I get from alcohol outweigh the disbenefits. But it would be really nice to get those benefits with much fewer disbenefits.”

Looking at the bigger picture, however, Nutt is much more ambitious in the way he talks about the potential impact of his invention. 

“My vision is that, in the end, no one drinks alcohol, and everyone drinks Alcarelle,” he says. “If you replaced all of alcohol with our and other people’s products – presumably there will be follow up synthetics – it will be one of the great health advances in the history of the world. And that isn’t likely to happen but the key thing is that people have choices. At present it’s reprehensible that they don’t.”

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