Champagne Dreams

By Zachary Siegel 04/24/15

The Fix's Zachary Siegel bubbles up over Scientific American's science and history of alcohol.


You cannot help but want a thin glass of golden champagne after reading about the lifespan of champagne bubbles—their “birth, ascent, and collapse.” You cannot help but wonder how in the hell the Malaysian pen-tailed treeshrew, a creature that feeds on fermented palm nectar thereby drinking the equivalent of nine glasses of wine a night (without showing obvious signs of drunkenness), is not an alcoholic—or can animals be alcoholics, too? You cannot neglect the notion that just because alcohol may (or may not?) have partially fractured or bulldozed most of your adult life, that it is not a fascinating and alluring poison. 

You did know that, right? When someone asks, “Hey, what’s your poison?” they are literally offering you poison to drink. 

Alcohol was never my poison. Maybe my palate and I were too young and unrefined. I thought scotch tasted like wet woodchips. Vodka tasted like nail polish. Beer tasted like a liquefied fart that went stale. But I read on and trudged through some of the science-heavy—neurotransmitter GABA, proteins, glutamic acid, hyperlipidemia—factoids throughout Scientific American’s March issue, “Intoxicating: The Science of Alcohol,” a collection of essays about what Patrick McGovern called “Alcohol: An Astonishing Molecule.” 

Right off the bat, McGovern, director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at U. Penn, serves up a remarkably potent introduction—the only kind you’d expect from an archaeologist of fermented beverages. He avers, “It is quite possible that much of what we consider uniquely human—music, dance, theater, religious storytelling and worship, language, and a thought process that would eventually become science—were stimulated by the creation and consumption of alcoholic beverages during the Paleolithic period, which encompasses some 95% of our largely unknown hominin history.” 

From there, you can read original Scientific American articles about alcohol that ran in the 19th century or jump straight to winemaking. I obviously went for the wine and learned of a discovery made by one Louis Gay-Lussac, that the chemical formula for the breakdown of sugar was essential to unlocking the enigma of sweet, dark grapes. 

If you really want to make your mouth water, or send yourself off on a frenzy to purchase some Moët, read the “Science of Bubbly” section. Sentences like, “A percussive symphony of diminutive pops accompanies the tasty mouthful, juxtaposing a refreshing carbonated chill and a comforting alcoholic warmth,” will leave you salivating, sweating, or downright angry. 

And if you’re a real antsy alcoholic maybe it’s best you not read the following, “Take a sip. The elegant surface fizz—a boiling fumarole of rising and collapsing bubbles—launches thousands of golden droplets into the air, conveying the wine’s enticing flavors and aromas to tongue and nostrils alike.” I don’t even like champagne—I’m serious— but on this grey, spring morning in Chicago at 10:16 a.m., I look toward my now lukewarm, boring looking cup of coffee and wish it were a tall flute filled with dancing bubbles. 

The author of this section, Gérard Liger-Belair, later mentions that he studied the behavior of bubbles (which is a real thing) and in case you were wondering, “No scientific evidence correlates the quality of champagne with the fineness of its bubbles.” But Liger-Belair notes, “People nonetheless make a connection between the two.” How could you not, right? 

The issue isn’t only comprised of convoluted descriptions of wine and champagne written in French prose; or relentlessly complex, pharmacological formulas and metabolic concerns surrounding fatty liver. Moral, historical, and anthropological inquiries into alcohol are also made. An edifying 1996 article entitled, “Alcohol in American History” describes the historical trend where as a country we collectively swear off spirits and then some years later a mass binge ensues. 

David F. Musto, who was a professor of child psychiatry at Yale up until he died, wrote, “Over the history of the U.S., popular attitudes and legal responses to the consumption of alcohol and other mood-altering substances have oscillated from toleration to a peak of disapproval and back again in cycles roughly 70 years long.” Which is why, because of that amount of time, no one seems to be aware of the futile loop. 

“When drinking is on the rise and most believe that liquor poses little risk to life and health,” Musto pointed out that, “temperance advocates are derided as ignorant and puritanical; in the end stage of a temperance movement, brewers, distillers, sellers and drinkers all come under harsh attack.” As an expert on the drug war, he argued that this happens in America over and over again and will keep happening unless we change our ways. He’s still right. 

“Dealing with alcohol on a practical level while maintaining either a totally favorable or totally condemnatory attitude is fraught with trouble.” There is a lesson that we can all learn from his words, that not only is drinking alcohol moderately fruitful but also thinking about alcohol moderately is a more sustainable way to disrupt our repeated history. 

There are many facets to the complex story of alcohol in our lives as 21st century human beings. And it’s not all bad. For instance, the health benefits of drinking (moderately) are numerous. Studies from all over the world show that drinking in controlled amounts decreases the likelihood of dying from coronary heart disease by nearly one third. 

However, for those of you who no longer drink, there is some troubling news. Arthur Klatsky, a Harvard Medical School graduate, says results from a study found that those who drink two alcoholic beverages a day have a “32% lower risk of dying” from cardiovascular heart disease than those who abstained from drinking. 

I wouldn’t sweat these results, though, because if you have repeatedly proven to yourself that you cannot drink in moderation (like a couple of glasses a day) then the health benefits disappear. People who drink a fifth of vodka each and everyday will not live long enough to see themselves dodge cardiovascular disease. Klatsky assures, “Abstainers should never be indiscriminately advised to drink for health; most have excellent reasons for not drinking.” For instance, like not killing yourself or someone else.  

But “merely recommending abstinence is inappropriate health advice,” writes Klatsky. There is a tightrope that doctors must then walk, when to suggest drinking and when not to suggest drinking. Someone with a high risk of cardiovascular health problems who also has light drinking patterns is a good candidate for the drink prescription. It takes looking into family history, consulting with other professionals, and deciding for yourself whether or not such a regimen would work for you. There is no magic test that gives you the green light. 

Last but not least, the article that concludes the issue is on alcoholism and sobriety. Of course, this being Scientific American, alcoholism is examined through a neurobiological and chemical framework, which is by no means a bad route to go. Andreas Heinz, director of the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Charité University in Berlin, elegantly discusses complex brain chemistry while remaining open to the environmental and social contexts in which the alcoholic exists in the world. 

There is also a healthy agenda to de-stigmatize. Heinz writes a simple yet important statement, “No particular personality type is prone to becoming dependent.” So there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you, as in the core of your being is not, for whatever elusive reason, defective. He adds, “The culprit is excessive alcohol consumption itself, which changes the brain so that victims can no longer free themselves from the bottle.” 

But I’d be wary of swallowing his last statement whole. There are several culprits that cause one to drink excessively, that is, the alcohol in itself may or may not be the whole story. Poverty, little upward mobility, social-nervousness, and trauma, are all culprits that may lead one to drink too much and unless such environmental, social, and personal factors are addressed, quitting or moderating will prove to be difficult. 

Heinz writes the last sentence of the entire issue, which I thought captured the alcoholics plight remarkably well, especially for a hard-brain-science researcher, “Still, alcoholics need one aid above all: people who will listen to and stand by them as they strive to recover.”

Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one its members and interviewed Ethan Nadelmann. Follow him on twitter.

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