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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. William

    Fasting on beer... how convenient.

    February 25, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  2. chrism

    Maybe God's servant to get through to even one "religion is uncool" knucklehead.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Maybe someday you'll figure out how to post in English.

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

      Must be your reading comprehension skills, Tom, if you think that wasn't plain English.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      The fact you think that sentence was intelligible is telling, moron. But keep right on insisting, honey. It just makes my point for me.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      How does someone as stupid as chrism make enough money to buy a computer and pay for the electricity to use it? Or does it survive on public assistance?

      February 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  3. Ramy Hanna

    Um this can be extremely hazardous to your health malnutrition and a condition known as beer potomania we two such hazards that can result from a beer only fast without any salt or protein intake

    February 25, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Manuel J.

      I think the author said and/or implied that so what's your point???

      February 25, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Geoffrey Sperl

      Beer has protein. Even something light like Bud has 1.3 grams. If he was drinking an extra stout, like Guinness, it was providing him with markedly more nutrients than you're assuming.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  4. ChrkeePrde

    Awesome story and admirable person. I'd like to try something like that someday. I'd like to be able to filter what I need from what I want in my mind.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • Ms Winehouse

      You might end in rehab 😉 say No, No, No

      February 25, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  5. Joe B

    This guy is a d0uchen0zzle

    February 25, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  6. alfranken

    People on these comment boards crack me up. LOL
    It's a good thing when you can laugh at religion.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  7. John

    Where is wisdom these days? The wisest mortal that ever lived penned in Proverbs 20:1 "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is decieved thereby is not wise." He expands the principle in Proverbs 23:29-35 for those who actually care about their Lord. This man is a fool and heed should not be taken to his doings...

    February 25, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Solomon

      Well said!

      February 25, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • corpsman

      John 2: 1-11. If Jesus thought making wine was a good miracle, who are you to judge?

      February 25, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • alfranken

      oh ye what blather

      February 25, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @John: 23Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities. 1 Tim 5:3
      So THERE!!!

      February 25, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • L2k4FC

      look the sky isn't blue, it's really green. It says so in this big book so it must be true.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Carmel

      Drink a little wine not live on wine. Know ye the difference between little and much?

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

      God also said people with crushed testicles can't enter a Church. So what's your point?

      "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord." – Deuteronomy 23:1

      Read the article again, he was drinking beer because he knows it best and because it has plenty of vitamins to sustain him, etc

      February 25, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  8. Mimette Romney

    Cheers! What brave, delightful research! Ancient beer in various cultures was much more nourishing in many different ways, some contained natural antibiotics that enhanced immune systems, preventing diseases. I am very grateful our ancestors created beer!

    February 25, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  9. NetReacher

    "Bock" beer has always been a Easter time tradition in Canada and for a long time was only made and sold around this time. However bock beer is now made and sold year round. It has excellent body, and is very good for you. If you like a darker beer this is the one for you. It was drawn off the lower levels in the kettle. One (or more) a day keeps the doctor away!

    February 25, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  10. Mike s

    Giving up something for lent is supposed to be secretive- in other words, no one is supposed to know what you are giving up. This guy is an idiot. N/A beer maybe. This person is not a true catholic and he should be going to confession rather than fasting

    February 25, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @Mike s: Where do u get off calling a brother an idiot? Are u grinding a teetotaler ax? The FACT is that the REAL CATHOLIC monks have been brewing and drinking beer (Chimay, etc, etc...) for centuries, and yes, they use beer as a fasting tool.
      So who's the "real" idiot here?

      February 25, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • Mark

      DId he even say this had anything to do with his personal religion? If he was a catholic he'd be parading himsefl in front of the tv camera's in glorious white robes addorned with gold jewelery and a 3 foot high hat, not casually writting about the health benefits of a beer fast.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • ChrkeePrde

      It is true that it should be secretive. However, if the author felt that talking about his experience might bring some benefit to his readers, rather than himself, it is possible that he wrote with humble demeanor rather than pride.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • AK

      Actually, he wasn't bragging but sharing an inspirational story of faith. I see no harm and lots of good.

      And...I am extremely Catholic.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Dave836

      I would like to see you fast for 46 days. I'm a Catholic too and I see no problem at all with telling other people what you are giving up. It by no means makes you look like an idiot. What this guy did not only shows his devotion to his beliefs but also helps progress knowledge of lost traditions.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  11. Mitch

    15 beers a day and still going...

    February 25, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  12. John

    I thought I was on the wrong web site for a minute. I thought that perhaps this was Onion News. This can't be true. Kids these days.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  13. L.

    Very weird!

    February 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  14. Eric of Reseda

    GREAT story. And I have a real hard time undersanding why people are making snide remarks or trying to detract from what this did. What he did was something profound and positive. My hat is off to this man...

    February 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • AK

      Thank you Eric.

      Old expression I learned in the Air Force. – careerwise, a thousand "attaboy's" don't equal one "aw s**t."

      In the case of this thread, a thousand snot-off's from sad characters keyboarding their venom waiting for Mom's latest Paula Deen recipe dinner, can't cancel one positive observation like yours.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • alfranken

      People make snide remarks on comment boards because they like to laugh at themselves and draw attention- that's all.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • corpsman

      Erik and AK: +1!

      February 25, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • AK

      I suppose, Al.....but it does get annoying....

      Thanks, Corpsman. Love your observation about Jesus and wine. Spot-on.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  15. vinobianco

    i don't think people are supposed to do this. it's not healthy. maybe he had "clarity" because his body thought he was getting close to death. weird. oh well.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • AK

      Fasting actually does have that effect, along with a detox. And c'mon, he was nowhere close to death.

      Those old-timers had some insight; they were on an individual basis a lot closer to their bodies than we are today, with our firewalls of vaccines, painkillers, and other pharmaceutical prosthetics. Not complaining...but we have forgotten a lot.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  16. toadears

    stupid kids

    February 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  17. Baldrick

    Yeah, I remember giving up everything for Lent except for beer and water..except we called it alcoholism back then. Idiots.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  18. joe blow

    The difference between a fast and a binge is religion.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Nah

      ..what?

      February 25, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • joe blow's dad

      That and the fact that their definitions are exactly opposite. Fasting means going without, binging means overindulging. Invest in a dictionary next time.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • Dave836

      No...not at all...

      February 25, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  19. toadears

    Beer is OK if that's what you want. But technically a fast is only water. I have known people who went on juice fasts and I went on a 30 day fruit fast where all I ate was fruit. But a real Biblical old testament fast was 40 days and only water. I only made it for 5 days on that one. Got way too weak. Of course, in the days of the water only fast, they didn't do much of anything else. The prophets who did this pretty much stopped everything else including work and physical exercise so I think the beer fast makes more sense.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  20. Crom2112

    Dear Jesus

    Please let me obsure my alcoholism under your name.

    Amen.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Mitch

      Dear Jesus.
      Please let me "obsure"(sic) my hypocrisy under your name.

      Amen.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • corpsman

      Dear Jesus: Please let me learn to write in English.

      February 25, 2012 at 8:53 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.