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My Faith: What I learned from my 46-day beer-only fast
J. Wilson adds hops to the doppelbock beer that sustained him through a Lenten fast.
February 25th, 2012
02:00 AM ET

My Faith: What I learned from my 46-day beer-only fast

Editor's Note: J. Wilson is an award-winning homebrewer and author of “Diary of a Part-Time Monk.”

By J. Wilson, Special to CNN

About this time last year, I set off down a path that hadn’t been traveled for centuries. I fasted on beer and water for the duration of Lent.

While that sounds like a frat boy stunt, my “Diary of a Part-Time Monk” project was actually rooted in the Catholic Church, though that’s not what brought me to the idea.

A homebrewer and certified beer judge who is passionate about the flavors and culture of craft beer, I am what they call a “beer geek,” and so the monastic origins of the doppelbock style of beer had long intrigued me.

According to legend, the 17th century monks of Neudeck ob der Au outside Munich, Germany, developed the rich-and-malty beer to sustain them during Lenten fasts, the traditional 46-day lead-up to Easter.

Unfiltered, the bold elixir was nicknamed “liquid bread” and is packed with carbohydrates, calories and vitamins.

With poor documentation available on the specifics of their fasts, I decided that the only way to know if the story was true would be to test the beer myself. I joined forces with Eric Sorensen, the head brewer at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery in West Des Moines, Iowa, to brew a commercial release of one of my recipes, Illuminator Doppelbock.

Explain it to me: What's Lent?

I would survive on that beer, supplemented only by water, for 46 days of historical research.

With the blessing of my boss at The Adams County Free Press in Southwest Iowa, I consumed four beers a day during the workweek and five beers on the weekends, when I had fewer obligations.

I knew that I could stretch four beers over the course of a day and function well, but I hadn’t planned for the media attention that the investigation spurred. I found myself giving more than five interviews a day to the likes of CNN, BBC, Fox News, the Chicago Tribune, The Catholic Herald and Men’s Health magazine, among others.

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My noncloistered style of living as a part-time monk was interrupted by print, radio and television interviews, preventing the introspection I had planned. After a couple of weeks, I found myself needing to fast from the media, my phone, e-mail as well as from food.

In addition to learning that A) other folks found the story as captivating as I did, and B) one actually can live on beer and water for 46 days, I made some profound discoveries on my journey.

One is that the human body is an amazing machine. Aside from cramming it full of junk food, we don’t ask much of it. We take it for granted. It is capable of much more than many of us give it credit for. It can climb mountains, run marathons and, yes, it can function without food for long periods of time.

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At the beginning of my fast, I felt hunger for the first two days. My body then switched gears, replaced hunger with focus, and I found myself operating in a tunnel of clarity unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

While hunger subsided quickly, my sense of smell provided persistent temptation for more than a week. But the willpower to carry out my objective brought peace to the “Oh man that cheeseburger smells good” thoughts. Soon, I could see, smell or discuss anything food-related without trouble.

Often, I cooked dinner for my boys, a task that became as simple and trouble-free as tying my shoes.

My fast also underscored for me that there is a difference between wants and needs. I wanted a cheeseburger, but I didn’t need one. I also didn’t need a bag of chips or a midday doughnut. I needed nourishment, and my doppelbock, while lacking the protein that might have provided enough backbone for an even longer fast had I sought one, was enough to keep me strong and alert, despite my caloric deficit.

Though I lost 25.5 pounds, I gained so much more. The benefits of self-discipline can’t be overstated in today’s world of instant gratification. The fast provided a long-overdue tune-up and detox, and I’ve never felt so rejuvenated, physically or mentally.

The experience proved that the origin story of monks fasting on doppelbock was not only possible, but probable. It left me with the realization that the monks must have been keenly aware of their own humanity and imperfections. In order to refocus on God, they engaged this annual practice not only to endure sacrifice, but to stress and rediscover their own shortcomings in an effort to continually refine themselves.

Though they lived out their faith at a higher degree of daily devotion than the average person, they could sense their loss of focus. Taking nothing for granted, they took steps to rectify that problem on an annual basis. Shouldn’t we all, whether or not our religious tradition includes Lent?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of J. Wilson.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Food • Lent • Opinion

soundoff (430 Responses)
  1. LibsDestroyAmerica

    Interesting article!
    (new diet fad?;o))
    Not sure on vitamins in beer statement but perhaps small amounts.........although interesting historical context

    February 25, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • RepubsHateAmerica

      There is vitamin B in beer from the yeast and grains. Its fairly obvious that beer would contain vitamins since it is made from organic materials.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  2. Just another guy

    The last time i fasted on beer was prompted by my wife leaving me.

    ZING!

    February 25, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  3. Jamie

    Although it's ridiculous to believe that some imaginary man in the sky wants you to drink beer, isn't that better than believing in one who forbids it?

    February 25, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • MrCurve

      Oh, you're one of those who believe God is a man in the sky?

      February 25, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Jamie

      No, but if you're going to subscribe to make-believe, at least choose deities that encourage your desired lifestyle rather than hamper it.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • MrCurve

      Well, I for one believe in the idea of God, but I don't believe God is some man in the sky...LOL! You see, I've found that most people who say they don't believe in God are the ones who think of God being liken to Santa Claus. They'll say, "Oh, there's no God because if there was, why are there people starving, why are their homeless people, why is there cancer", ad infinitum ad nausea., or they don't believe in God because, "there's no such thing as a man up in the sky".

      February 25, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Paul

      In my experience, most of the discussion about the existence of deity turns into a discussion about the nature of deity.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  4. hippypoet

    beer, is there anything better? i mean besides pot!

    i have been calling beer liquid bread for as long as i can remember too...i think i started calling it that after learning about the monks when i was around 10 but i really can't remember when exactly it was – i'm sure it was inspired by the drunk monk thou 🙂

    February 25, 2012 at 8:16 pm |

    • codeine is all right – not too much of a buzz, not too little

      February 25, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  5. LJay

    I went on a 45 day beer fast right after my wife asked for a divorce. Found my butt in a treatment facility...and found God too! I think he's on to something.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  6. SSampson

    Well – my religious beliefs DO include beer – actually, beer, scotch and congac specifically.... and some red wine (almost forgot) – preferably a Pomerol.....

    However I never consume enough to see magical or mysterious beings.... or even being to believe in such stuff....

    February 25, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • davegarner

      He didn't say he saw mystical beings; you simply assumed that. Probably after a few cognaq's! 🙂 Wait to see the mystical beings (or nothing) for the day you die. Hopefully, there will be beer if there is anywhere to go after this life!

      February 25, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  7. hwrcpa

    CNN if you are going to edit and remove what I wrote, which was well withing you terms of service, did not have any profanity, was not insulting to any one and well within the perameters of this discussion, I will change my home page to Fox.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • justin

      Have reading well paid headlines.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Just another guy

      i don't think they care. and i think you're overreacting at somebody clicking "report abuse"

      February 25, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • Craig

      Fox, please.
      The only person you would hurt would be yourself. Fox followers are the number 1 misinformed people in the US, with double digit IQ's at most. Please post again and see what happens. It can't hurt. Try re-wording something it.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • SmartPotato

      Buh-bye

      February 25, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
  8. hwrcpa

    Is this thing working?

    February 25, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  9. VonDoom

    If your god says that in order for you to be closer to them you must literally starve yourself for long periods of time, I say go all the way and keep doing it until you finally meet them.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Starvation often causes hallucinations, another reason why the practice is so useful for the religion industry.

      February 25, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Nah

      *yawn*

      Another troll.

      Or a militant atheist who is, for some reason, obsessed with all things religious.

      Try again?

      February 25, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  10. marik

    "Actually rooted in the Catholic Church" and "according to legend" are actually not the same thing.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • IceT

      Actually it is, since the Catholic church's roots are based on legend alone.

      February 25, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Craig

      The Holy Bible is a book of legends and scary stories of an angry God.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • marik

      The church's roots aren't based on legend alone. There is such a thing as a historical Jesus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc; so, it's ignorant to say that the church is founded solely on legends. If you're looking for somethings that's 100% legend, that would be something like Romulus and Remus founding Rome.

      Craig, your argument is a non sequitur.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  11. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    The exercise self sacrifice is a great way to refocus & hone discipline. Nothing to do with religion but hey if that's what you choose to do with, go for it.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  12. George

    John – thanks for your idiotic, arrogant reply. F you to the nth degree. Internet bullies tick me off. No words or dialogue, just stupidity and pseudo-intelligence with a extra large dose of arrogance. Bye.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Brad

      Are you OK George?

      February 25, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by George is an instance of the ad hominem fallacy.

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#H6

      February 25, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Translation: Georgie got pwnd.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • punk

      boo hoo. not very smart are you?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  13. matt

    alcohol is the most damaging drug to the brain.
    beer is stupid.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • JMason

      No, Matt. Ignorance is. Try and think about it.

      February 25, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  14. EG

    listen moment of clarity just like

    February 25, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  15. George

    Thanks, atheists, for doing so much more for hurting individuals than this pastor. You are the idiot, not for your educated unbelief, but because you don't have human decency, compassion and respect for humans – whatever their culture or beliefs. Perhaps you should consider being a Naturalist – you, my not-friend, are ignorant and mean. If this is the only life you believe there is, then your attempt at intellectual bullying is hypocritical as well as stupid. I almost feel sorry for you. What a waste of oxygen you are. Do something useful with your "only life". You are pathetic and should embarrass all true atheists.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • John

      Nice rant, glad I got to the end of it.

      February 25, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Nicole

      Troll much?

      February 25, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Tr1Xen

      That's absolutely not true. As an atheist, I find your post insulting and offensive. I DO care about other people and I respect other people's religious views, unlike yourself. Please do us all a favor and think next time before you post. Thanks.

      February 25, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      Reread your screed there Georgie. IT is as arrogant, rude ignorant and mean as the one you are criticizing. Perhaps the bit out of the Bible about seeing the mote on other people's eyes and not being able to see the beam in your own should be reread.

      February 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by George contains multiple instances of the ad hominem fallacy as well as the circ-umstantial ad hominem fallacy.

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#H6

      February 25, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, poor little Georgie. He got trounced and now he's pouting. Inney cute?

      February 25, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • punk

      ? what a clown

      February 26, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  16. longtooth

    I've spent a lifetime fasting on food, living on beer. Yes, I'm dead now. But I have no regrets.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  17. Mort Sahl

    I give up

    February 25, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  18. GhostFire-Tiocfaídh ár lá

    Everything in moderation, but Guinness is the worlds best stout/ale. One can live on it the entire year, not just the 40 days of Lent. God bless Guinness. 1759.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Kenny

      you do know that Guinness has less calories than bud light, coors light, and most other light beers right?

      February 25, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  19. josh

    That is exactly what self-denial teaches us during Lent. We are able to focus on what really matters and the noise starts to leave. I love lent and if you are interested you should read how St. Francis Assisi fasted.

    February 25, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  20. Reality

    "In these days of marketing glitz and glamour, where wine coolers are made to taste like soda and "light" beer is promoted as a safe, low-calorie refresher, it is more important than ever for consumers to do their homework. Drinking wine instead of beer or distilled liquor does not reduce the risks of inebriation or many other health consequences associated with drinking. Research indicates that alcohol use can contribute to the risk of various cancers, including cancer of the respiratory tract, upper digestive tract, liver, colon, and rectum. And like the link to breast cancer, links between alcohol and cancer are dose-dependent–that is, heavy drinkers have the greatest cancer risk."

    February 25, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • JamesOnThePotomac

      Cheers!

      February 25, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • jg

      Reality – always tryin' to bring us down. You know Reality, you're actually the main reason people drink. Maybe if you chilled the ef out a bit, we'd quit trying to ignore you... just sayin... reality check.

      February 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • longtooth

      Party pooper.

      February 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Vortex

      Beer and health tips don't mix.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.