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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. fatamerica

    I think half these commenters just read the headline and commented on it. This article is WAY beyond drinking beer for 46 days. Then again we are Americans and don't think. We expect someone to tell us what the article means. Which is why America is the FATEST country...............im drunk and will delete this in the morning

    February 26, 2012 at 1:20 am |
  2. 6nonymous

    I did this one time. After about two weeks of nothing but beer, I was able to fly, literally. It was the best feeling I've ever had in my life.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:04 am |
  3. b4bigbang

    @Ohplease: Your repeated reference to Scripture (yet anti-fast position) is a bit of a contradiction. Are you against all forms of fasting, including short ones or just opposed to the long fast?

    By the way, here's some Scripture showing that Jesus gives the ok for not only his own fasting, but for his followers as well:

    14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”
    15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:58 am |
  4. pilot2011

    Good story and a good message... I kind of fasted once. Only water, green tea, and watermelon. After a 10 days of that, I literally never felt better in my life. I later learned that the the average healthy adult should take 3 day fasts every month.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  5. Hannah

    I totally know what he means. When I drink to the point of sloppy and throw up all night, the next day (as soon as my hangover is gone), I feel like a brand new person! Thanks!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • MeanGene

      I think you missed the point

      February 26, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  6. p. morgan

    Our bodies are extremely fragile, and can, and usually do, suffer long term damage when we push limits. Don't kid yourself.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:36 am |
    • Sndp

      The human body, and fragile? You got to be kidding me. You can practically train your body to do anything.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:44 am |
    • p. morgan

      No you can't!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • yeas

      I took an huge RV to the face in a car accident and was cut from glass all over the left side of my body back when i was 15 and my father lost his spleen almost lost his shoulder and had a tube cut thru his neck among other things. that was back in 2003, i was fine after 2 or 3 week and my dad was fine after about 3 months. Id say the body can handle what ever you though at it. but Im guessing you've never pushed your self to any kind of limit once in your life. else you would not still think the body was so fragile.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  7. b4bigbang

    Roger, mine is a baccalaureate. I felt a bit nervous first going in, but found the work interesting and quite do-able. Regarding post-grad, yes it's more challenging, but while enrolled i got quite familiar with the post-grad demands, esp considering the fact that due to my age (over 30) they put me in the Post-grad dorm, – so none of that stuff intimidates me one iota.

    How about you? You sound like you might be in medicine or Biology. My field is Management theory.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  8. bern

    What size beer?

    February 26, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  9. Kate Johnson

    It's interesting to read the comments here. I continues to validate something I've been noticing; that atheist are often as intolerant as the most conservative troglodite. Wouldn't it be great if we allowed people their own point of view without derision. Some people may think people who believe in God are delusional, but then, the people who believe in God think the one's that seem to be incapable of perceiving Him are blind. We will never agree, but we can treat each other with respect. When someone starts off with vitriol and intolerance I usually just tune them out off the bat, but thoughtful and respectful discussion is always welcome to me.

    I find this article very interesting. It sounds like this was something that really blessed this man. I've been thinking about fasting, and believe with some thought, it can be done safely. It was funny to see the "fasting causes brain damage" post, as responsible fasting can actually improve brain function. It's been used with traumatic brain injury. I've discussed this with my doctor, and with care, he's all for it. One thing that might be the most advantageous part of thoughtful fasting is saying no to one's self. We live in a profoundly self indulgent culture, addicted to instant gratification and comfort. Coddling that kind of thinking does nothing for anyone's character or true well-being. Maybe a little self denial might do many of us some good. I can certainly see the advantage of it for myself.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • b4bigbang

      Excellent post Kate!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • Respect

      A truly good and respectful post – we would all benefir from heeding your words!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus

      Really Kate? You'd do well to think a bit harder. I'm an atheist who isn't bothered by people who believe in God. I allow my children to believe in Santa Claus, and I allow my neighbor to believe in "the grown up" Santa Claus if he so chooses. It's the sheer ARROGANCE of people like Mr. Wilson and Tim Tebow who point to themselves and say "ahem...good person talking!" that annoys most atheists. Read your Bible a little closer and learn about HUMILITY, instead of praising those who use public forums to incessantly boast about how pious, moral, and superior they are.

      Modern Christians can rightly be called delusional not merely because they believe in God, but because modern day Pharisees like Mr. Wilson and Tim Tebow are praised as the paradigm of religiousness. You who praise them are sad, blind human beings.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • Bob

      Phenomenal post

      February 26, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • Bob

      @Flavius bro Kate is right in asserting that arrogance and intolerance is just as much a feature of Christians, other theists, et al as atheists and agnostics. She's arguing for tolerance and acceptance. Why are you so defensive?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • John Chellemi

      You really think Tim Tebow is arrogant? If you do you don't know much.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  10. b4bigbang

    Ohplease ??? Trolling? No. Everything I have said is true. Perhaps you have an issue with disagreement...

    Really? I recall "Nursing Student" had to correct u on your statement re protein/carb. Also, did u notice my post re the AMA article stating possible health benefits to fasting?

    February 26, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • Ohplease

      Nursing student was wrong.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  11. The Flamingo Kid

    This is RETARDED. Lent is stupid and so is this guy.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • loliwinyoulose

      Just because you hate God does not mean your little temper tantrums and fits of rage matter. Read the article before you call something retarded.
      "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."

      February 26, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  12. b4bigbang

    Todd in DC: "bigbang, god ever tell you to feed the poor, or anything like that?"

    That, and many other things. You should read and heed the New Testament sometime, it would do ya some good!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • Ohplease

      Wake up! You are the characterization of the "Christian: that people are so put off by. "Christian – a follower of Jesus". He would not act as you do, and you need to get off of your high horse...

      Matthew 11: 28 – "Come to me all you people that are tired and have heavy burdens. I will give you rest."

      February 26, 2012 at 12:48 am |
  13. thebeerdude

    Beer is liquid bread – water, malt, hops, yeast. What more do you need?

    February 26, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  14. jim

    It's funny because somebody actually gave him an interview. Nobodys done that in centuries? What part of town do you live in? Not an accomplishment, I have done it several times over the years. Good for you for getting noticed though.Is vanity a sin

    February 26, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  15. facepunch

    I'm guessing everybody skipped the part where he said he lost 25+ lbs during the fast. he also said he is a beer geek. in my opinion he did not do this for religion but as a science experiment. two thumbs up on my behalf......... also anyone who quotes a bible Is lame b-cuz nobody cares what it has to say in a heated discussion. and maybe this guys god is a beer god lol.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  16. Zak stront

    Beer and water, beer and water... What more does a man need? Oh, yes indeed...Congratulations, you really contributed to mankind. How about trying this for 460 days next time?

    February 25, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Todd in DC

      THis has got to be the dumbest stunt ever. Terrible for his body, contributes nothing to mankind, helps no one, doesn't even garner fame.

      Oh yeah, real productive.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • Drew

      It sounds like it helped him, but I'm sure you know what is better for him than he does.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • Drew

      *what is good for him better than he does

      February 26, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  17. b4bigbang

    @Ohplease, so just trolling? that's ok, i do it myself.
    By the way, I googled "AMA position on fasting", and it says there seems to be a health benefit to fasting.....

    February 25, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Ohplease

      ??? Trolling? No. Everything I have said is true. Perhaps you have an issue with disagreement...

      February 26, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  18. SL55AMG

    I tried this and was fired from work after puking in the office plants during a client meeting.

    February 25, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      No, you were fired from work for being an idiot (i know this guy).

      February 25, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  19. whocares3210

    This sounds like an absolutely wonderful idea. I wonder if my boss would mind...

    February 25, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  20. Roger

    The brain is the most nutrient-hungry organ in the body. Just a few hours of nutrient deficiency can lead to the loss of brain cells, albeit on a level which is unlikely to be detrimental. I can only imagine that 46 days without proper eating will lead to noticeable and irreversible loss of cognitive function. Was it really worth it just to learn the meaning of self-control?

    In the quest to find one's "self," people often engage in incredibly self-destructive behavior like that which is detailed in this article. Getting to know who we are as individuals should not be such a debilitating process. Maybe if society was more conducive to allowing people to develop their own perception of the world around them, they'd be less inclined to having to acquaint themselves with that perception much later in life.

    The first step is obvious: do away with the egregiously erroneous assumption that the self can be defined through religious doctrine. While the author describes himself as not being deeply pious, we can tell that he has been spent his entire life viewing religion as the authority on modalities of thinking in terms of understanding the self. So, from day one he has been taught to ignore what should be common sense and to replace it with what for centuries has been the preferred method for inducing obedience when a more practical rationale for obedience could not be readily identified.

    February 25, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @Roger: And yet I did a 17 day total fast (water only), enrolled in college a few years later and graduated with honors. My brain has never worked better!

      But then again, i am a Christian and was led by the Spirit to fast. I can NOT recommend a long total fast to anyone who may be outside the will of the Lord.

      February 25, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • Todd in DC

      bigbang, god ever tell you to feed the poor, or anything like that?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Ohplease

      b4bigbang, you need a lesson in humility.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • Roger

      b4bigbang: I have to ask what your major was in college, and whether it was a 2 year, 4 year, or an advanced degree. Those factors play an important role in determining just how demanding your college education was on your brain.

      Also, 17 days versus 46 days creates a big contrast between potential damage. While you may have done some damage, you mentioned that you went to college "a few years later." During those few years, your brain may have recovered. There are plenty of stories in medical history involving people who have recovered from cognitive impairments with astonishing results. On the same token, willingly causing that impairment just isn't recommended.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus

      big – Clearly your brain hasn't been functioning well, since you don't know that anecdotal evidence does NOT trump scientific fact. I'd ask my college for a refund of my tuition if I were you.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:44 am |
    • loliwinyoulose

      Just another god hater spewing falsehoods and uneducated slander out of his rear. Read the article. The form of beer used for this process is unfiltered, and packed with essential minerals.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:50 am |
    • Ohplease

      Okay loliwinyoulose, That is kinda funny... Made me laugh...

      February 26, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • Roger

      As the article clearly states, he was experiencing calorie and protein deficits. Living on the bare essentials does not equate to sustaining adequate consumption of vital nutrients for full functionality. Nowhere in the article does it state that he wasn't suffering from some form of malnutrition.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:09 am |
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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.