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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. Niels

    Is this really a scoop? A similar article just appeared in Harper's (March 2012). The faster in Harpers didn't drink beer. Water was the only order of the day. Apparently Jesus survived 40 days and 40 nights. Fasting has an interesting record of success in treating pediatric seizures and hypertension. Apparently, the evidence from the early 1900's was quashed so that we can keep eating, and take pharmaceutical pills...YUMM!!!

    February 25, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Ohplease

      "Apparently Jesus survived 40 days and 40 nights."

      A perfect man ( with the power to heal) who understood his inevitability was his death, that soon followed...

      Do not forget the passages that remind you to treat your body as a temple and to not put God to the test...

      February 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  2. b4bigbang

    Ohplease

    That is only when proper nutrients etc are being absorbed. Complete abstinence of food without a doubt causes muscle deterioration, and it begins quickly. You may quote me on that. The human body requires protein as a healthy sugar in order to create muscle. Without it, the existing muscle will be consumed. Sure, fat will be burned, but not only fat. Protein is just another sugar...

    So what is your keen interest in the loss of some muscle (which can be re-gained). You've been laundry-listing supposed bad side-effects of fasting and even calling it "starvation" (as if to invoke fear of death or disease). I must assume u r not a Christian, or if u r then u refuse to take the Bible at its word as to the OK-ness of fasting.

    What is it about fasting that turns you off? Have you studied it pro and con? Did a loved one have an eating disorder?

    February 25, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • Nursing Student

      "The body requires protein as a sugar....protein is just another sugar..."

      The only things protein and sugar has in common are these: They each have a caloric value of 4 kcal/gram, your body needs them, and they are both carbon based. Protein, is not a sugar. Sugar is a carbohydrate. Protein is...a protein.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Ohplease

      Deoxyribose! Deoxyribonucleic acid ! DNA! Our bodies are made of simple and complex sugar nursing student. You should know this. And, no I do not have an eating disorder.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Nursing Student

      OHMAHGAWSH! everything in the world is made of atoms! everything in the world = the same!

      sorry to kill that thought, but there is no DNA in a protein. DNA is read and the product of that reading is a protein, but the DNA does not go into the protein. you transcribe DNA to RNA, then translate the RNA into a protein.

      You got one thing right though, As a nursing student I should explicative well know this. good thing i do.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:56 am |
  3. timothy

    LORD PLEASE HELP THESE LOST PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT following the path of JESUS CHRIST. READ YOUR BIBLE WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT OF GOD AND YOU WILL find the WAY JESUS WANTS US FAST AND PRAY. BLESSED ARE THE PEACE MAKERS FOR THEY SHALL BE CALLED THE SONS OF GOD

    February 25, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • nenarekd

      God certainly does not want people worshiping beings other than himself aka "The Pope, Bishops, ect...." The Catholic religion violates most laws of the bible.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  4. Reality

    "The supposed benefits of alcohol consumption in reducing heart disease are not good enough reasons for people with alcoholism, or people at increased risk for alcoholism, to drink any amount of alcohol," continued Lind. "Any possible health benefits do not offset the risks. Alcohol–whether it is wine, liquor, strong beer, or 3.2 beer–will trigger relapse for the alcoholic. For someone with alcoholism, one glass of wine a day or a glass of 3.2 beer is a first step in the wrong direction. And, contrary to what some people believe, you can be an alcoholic and meet the criteria for addiction on 3.2 beer."

    February 25, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      I think "alcoholism" is a way overused word. Yes, there are alcoholics, but i think way too many people are being called this when in fact they aren't. Now there's even the so-called "functional" alcoholic!

      How many drinks does a normal healthy person have to consume to go from being an average drinker to "alcoholic"?

      Sounds like some kind of red-baiting to me...

      February 25, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Becca

      I just think this was a great excuse for an alcoholic ROFLMAO! As Beer to replace food??? What a real joke! I do not think fasting is good for anyone and most of all people with health problems of any kind. Religion or not I think fasting is just so far out there and people should not to it.I know there will be some bible breaters as well as drunks who are going to have something to say here. But I do know my god would not want me to fast and drink beer with water only and my god would not want me to fast and most of all if my health was not great. What a dumb excuse to drink and while at work too . I think if I was his boss I'd have told him to take a vacation and drink on your own time not mine.Geezzzzzzzzz What is this world comming to?

      February 25, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • gffds

      I agree with the replyer. I smoke some weed and people call me a pot head. It doesn't define me just as some alcohol doesn't define someone as a drunk or an alcoholic.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  5. Chris

    Last lenten season I gave up all forms and types of meat... It was incredibly hard (particularly being in the Upper Midwest where that's almost unimaginable) however, a week or two in your mind is more focused and no longer tempted to the degree that it once was. Surely the entire 40+ days were no walk in the park by any means, but its amazing what the body will do when we only push ourselves as individuals.

    February 25, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  6. Ohplease

    When people give up food altogether the body begins to consume itself. It starts with the healthiest tissue, muscle. Add alcohol (and no I am not a teetotaler) and you begin to cause strain to the heart, the liver, all organs of the body. This is not to mention what it does to insulin levels and the natural metabolism. They did not mention a year later he was six hundred pounds and had a fatty liver...lolol. Okay, that part was a joke, but seriously, this is not a safe thing to do and surely does not express a true act of fasting. Just MHO...

    February 25, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      I'm not sure u r right regarding the body burning muscle first. I've always been taught that the body stores fat to burn in times of hunger....

      February 25, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • Ohplease

      That is only when proper nutrients etc are being absorbed. Complete abstinence of food without a doubt causes muscle deterioration, and it begins quickly. You may quote me on that. The human body requires protein as a healthy sugar in order to create muscle. Without it, the existing muscle will be consumed. Sure, fat will be burned, but not only fat. Protein is just another sugar...

      February 25, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • Dan

      As a medical student, I can tell you what Ohplease said is true. Plus I wish that guy luck finding a new liver when his liver starts to shut down because of all the hard work it has to put on to deal with the alcohol he consumes.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Joe

      Clueless. Bet you never did one.....

      February 25, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Joe

      Fasting when done correctly is very beneficial for the body. I would agree that drinking beer or pure water fasts over long periods of time could be dangerous. However, if you are consuming vegetable juices or even doing the "lemonade fast" you will feel like you have never felt before and I mean in a good way!

      February 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • Ohplease

      Joe, I do not have a problem with a vegan diet. In fact, I think they are pretty right on. Not that I am opposed to meat. It is just that people who say you can get everything you need without it are telling the truth.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  7. Sheila R. Mortaine

    Interesting journey. I took a similar one recently and had strikingly similar feelings, experiences, etc. In fact, your words were so accurate to what I felt and learned in my 'fast' that it is actually VERY interesting. Mine was quite different, just seven days, water and an herbal supplement powder. Nothing as brutal as a seven day water fast, easy, and so full of personal reward on multiple levels. I resolved to make it an annual fast in springtime and hope to eventually take one day a week off too. Good Luck to you J. Wilson!

    February 25, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Becca

      Fasting is not a good thing to do no matter what you are doing it for. I just hate to see all these excuses as to why people are doind all this stupid fasting. You are all not doing your bady any favors at all. Just because you want to loose weight or because you want to have an excuse to consume alcohol it is all so very dumb. there is no excuse what so ever for fasting at all.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  8. b4bigbang

    To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. Ti tus 1:15

    Description of an unbeliever and of an intolerant teetotaler.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  9. Ohplease

    Losing the sense of hunger and eventually desire for food is nothing new. It is called anorexia and is quite dangerous.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @Ohplease: Please allow me to inform u of the difference between fasting and anorexia.
      Fasting has been carried out by countless individuals (and sometimes groups) for thousands of years. It is totally safe if the faster is healthy, and only lasts for a few days (40 is the limit and it's rare to find anyone who has actually gone 40 days). The reasons for fasting are usually religious, but some do it for health reasons ("cleansing").

      Anorexia is a pschological disorder and is chronic, meaning it usually goes on for years, often resulting in the death of the sufferer. The late Karen Carpenter is a well-known example. The anorexic goes without food because they see themselves as being fat, even when the didease has reduced them to skin and bones. Bulemia (self-induced vomiting) and laxative abuse are also part of this disease.

      And yes, the hunger phase goes away after the first 3-5 days of a fast, but this is not a sign of trouble, but a natural part of the fasting process (probably caused by the body beginning to burn it's fat store for fuel).

      February 25, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Ohplease

      Yes, it is also a natural part of the process of starvation...

      February 25, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • Pet Rap

      Anorexia, they are not aware of the body transformation, fasting is a conscious sacrifice. 180 degree difference!

      February 25, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  10. Kirsten

    Wow – after reading the article and then reading the posts, I am amazed at how many people think he did this for religion. Did anyone read the 2nd or 3rd paragraphs? He had a story and wanted to know if it could be done, so he tried it. Why not? When I watch what goes on in our world, drinking beer for 46 days is the least of our concerns. Congrats, Wilson, on your quest and love of a good beer!

    February 25, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • Ohplease

      "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."

      February 25, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • One

      "Though that's not what brought me to the idea"...

      February 25, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Kirsten

      You copied the 1st and 2nd paragraph – congrats on your copy and paste skills. Just because somebody mentions the word 'lent' and says a story came from religion, doesn't mean they are doing it for religious reasons. He says that is not why he started the endevour – he started it for his love of beer. He also points out why he thinks the monks fasted, but never mentions anything about his own personal faith – just that people desire more than they really need.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  11. Ohplease

    Our current culture and society lend further proof to the scientific reality that evolution only works in a backwards direction, never forward... Just for the record, natural selection and evolution are not the same.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  12. Todd Schoening

    Some of you should try giving up SOMETHING- ANTYTHING – for 40+ days and then give this story a post. The author is correct in that the body does make changes and can adapt in amazing ways that most of us will never know.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • Ohplease

      Perhaps so, but ordinarily when a person gives up everything but alcohol he is called an alcoholic, not a Christian...

      February 25, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • michael sweeney

      yea i gave up most of everything except beer and water. Job, relationships, credibility, almost my life. It wasnt until i got a religious experience that I realized in order to have things I must give up the alcohol only diet. So now I only give up alcohol daily. Been doing it daily for almost 2yrs.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
  13. Ohplease

    It just another opportunity to take a dig at people of faith. And no, I am not Catholic and do not practice lent. By far be it for people to miss an opportunity in our ever so accepting culture to take a shot a people's personal religious beliefs...

    February 25, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @Ohplease: From your posts i deduce that you're a non-drinking Christian. Is this the case? Also, do you abstain because of your faith?
      You said "It just another opportunity to take a dig at people of faith". I used to belong to a denomination that taught that anything short of total abstinance is a sin. I took issue with this because it goes against New Testament doctrine and left that denomination.

      Do you believe the total abstinance doctrine?

      February 25, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • Ohplease

      Well bigang, your deduction would be flawed.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  14. Joe

    I did the same thing through 6 years of college.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  15. Aaron

    You'd think beer that would be the first thing he'd give up. I've know people who gave up everything but alcoholic beverage....most of them drank themselves to death.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Not Now John

      When I was studying pathology I was amazed by a lot of things. One was how long people could live getting most of their calories from alcohol. Another was how clean the arteries were of people who'd tried to live that way.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  16. djlockerthebrain

    What is the point of fasting if you aren't really fasting? Christians always cheat. 🙂

    February 25, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Ohplease

      Yeah, because God will never know...lol smirk. Religious fasting is supposed to be private. Consider that...

      February 25, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Ron D-

      Fasting means to abstain from FOOD, not drink.

      In modern times Lent usually involves giving up a "favorite" food.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • Dave836

      What? He's not eating any food... That's what fasting is...

      February 25, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • agflips

      So can I take a cheeseburger, put it in a blender, add some water and then drink a cheeseburger shake?

      He it's not eating... so it's not cheating...

      So Liquid Bread, same difference? Yeah it's in the article.

      Oh lent, I gave up eating solid foods for 46 days... Lord, Strike me down if I'm lying!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  17. McGuffin

    Yeah, umm, that's not healthy.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Geoffrey Sperl

      It's perfectly healthy. The beer has plenty of carbs to get him through the day, it has some protein... plus it's mostly water. Add a multivitamin and he should have been fine.

      If you look at history, when the water was unsafe to drink (think the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I), people used to consume beer throughout the day.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Ohplease

      And Henry the VIII also suffered with terrible gout.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  18. Smarterhthanyou

    Lol is this degenerate alcy supposed to inspire me? You just filled your body with mass amounts of poison and you wanna tell me about your journey through it? Please, I can do the same without damaging my organs by sticking to vegetable, fruit, exercise and a proper diet. What an absolute waste of " this weekend" headline. That guy is a loser.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • David

      Four beers a day hardly qualifies as "filled your body with mass amounts of poison". A bit excessive if done for a lifetime, but hardly so as an experiment done for 46 days. Considering all of the other poisons that he removed from his diet, (sugars, fats, etc..) he probably came out better off.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  19. Jakey

    iInteresting way to justify your alcoholism

    February 25, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  20. atroy

    How very Catholic to give up everything but booze.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:12 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.