Should You Try Consuming Yeast To Stay Sober?

Alex Fossi, April 29, 2014

Jim Koch is the co-founder and frequent public face of Sam Adams. As you might expect, he drinks a fair amount of beer on the job. He recently revealed his secret method for not getting drunk: right before you start drinking, eat a teaspoon of active yeast per beer. This seems counterintuitive at first, because yeast is typically used to create alcohol, but it turns out that there's an enzyme in yeast called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) that breaks down alcohol and, in theory, would result in less of that alcohol making its way into your bloodstream.

Responses to this were of several sorts. Some people's first reaction was curiosity -- the "let's try it and see what happens" school of thought. Others were confused by the premise -- the "lol but getting drunk is the whole point" group. Strangely, this group appears to be especially well represented on the Yahoo! comments about this story. In our weekly BeerGraphs chat, several of us discussed the plan's potential merits or lack thereof, using likely-incorrect scientific facts and anecdotal remembrances from high school chemistry. To summarize the facts that I'm reasonably confident in without going into excessive detail:

  1. The enzyme ADH, which is purportedly what makes this plan work, has an ideal pH of about 7.5-8, meaning that it is unlikely to work well (or even at all) in an environment as acidic as your stomach.
  2. It's possible that the pH of your stomach could shift for brief periods; for example, taking antacids raises it for a bit. Drinking water (even in the form of beer) might also cause it to change somewhat.
  3. Snopes was unable to determine whether this plan would work. They cite several scientists who doubt that it could, but a study performed by Aaron Goldfarb found that consuming yeast immediately prior to drinking reduced the subsequent BAC by between 20 and 40 percent. Unfortunately, this study featured a sample of just eight people, so it's difficult to give it too much weight. Basically, some people think it works, but there doesn't appear to be any confirmed scientific explanation for why it would.

So, we've looked at the available evidence, and we can conclude: basically nothing, because there's no clear evidence that it works, nor is there any conclusive evidence that it doesn't work. You might argue that several intelligent sciencey-type people have pointed out that the proposed explanation for why it works makes no sense, and: you wouldn't be wrong! Still, if the co-founder of one of the country's largest brewers says it works, that's reason to at least consider it.

Of course, there are also some pretty good reasons why "let's try it and see what happens" might not be the best approach here:

  1. There have been cases where consuming active yeast has led to something called "Auto-Brewery Syndrome". Basically, your stomach is supposed to kill things like yeast; however, in certain cases, generally involving antibiotics, this doesn't happen, and the yeast takes up residence in your intestinal tract. This is what medical doctors refer to as a Very Bad Thing if you don't like becoming drunk after eating carbohydrates.
  2. A Reddit user tried eating yeast while drinking 12 beers, and reported no positive effects. However, he noted the following side effect, and I quote: "The initial gas blast was horrid and hurt a little bit." I will allow you to infer the context. Personally, that seems like enough of a reason not to just try this out for shits and giggles (so to speak).
  3. Other commenters noted that they had met Jim Koch on multiple occasions and he seemed "clearly blitzed" each time, which at least calls into question the efficacy of whatever plan he uses to remain sober. Since this is coming from the Internet where anyone can comment, we know we're getting the best possible information, right?

Personally, I'd have to say that the cons outweigh the pros here, so I didn't end up trying this. Also, we were out of yeast and I wasn't wearing pants, so getting more wasn't an option. However! Other BeerGraphs contributors and commenters have said that they will. At the very least, I look forward to being entertained by their experiences. In the meantime, I will continue to lobby for bars to serve beers in smaller amounts, because it seems like a much easier way to get less drunk would be to drink less. I've tasted yeast, and it's just terrible.