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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. Absolute Alcoholic Annonymous

    I thought, it supposed to be 46 days of fasting Beer free. Let us see, if he can hold on to 46 hrs of beer free, rather than 46 days.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  2. Nathan

    Thats nothing, over half my calories came from alcohol for 6 years.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  3. Slupdawg

    Who knew that voluntary muscle wasting could be so transcendental?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  4. Dave

    Someone try a Four Loko fast! I think you will gain 25.5lbs and possibly diabeediss.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:01 am |
  5. JCry

    "My Faith: Ruined now that I'm a alcoholic after a 46-day bender."

    February 28, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  6. me

    I'm so going on a beer fast!

    February 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  7. jj

    Beer has a lot of vitamins. This does not sound like a fast, but just the opportunity to drink a lot.

    February 27, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  8. lance corporal

    wow I just read some of the comments.........

    christianity and islam are pretty much the same thing, worship the SAME god and are BOTH guilty of MASSIVE violence
    how an article on beer could turn in to an islam bashing is beyond me........
    not that's there's anything wrong with bashing islam but for a chritian to do it given all the MANY abuses that religion is responsible for is pretty pathetic

    February 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • smidge300

      Humans are responsible. We are responsible for violence. It doesn't matter what banner it's under. If it's not God, its land. If it's not land it's food, women, power-lust, fear ... Stop blaming religion for our selfish, blood-thirsty vengeance.

      February 27, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • Don

      smidge, wake up. it's under the name of religion that so much of the violence in the world is committed. if you can't see that, you should come out from under your rock. and yes – your religion has been just as responsible for violence and death as radical islam today. i can say that for a fact because, if you look back in history and (again) come out from under your rock, you'd be appalled. world peace will be possible only when religion is eradicated.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  9. lance corporal

    OK first off this is not true fasting, it is a liquid diet kind of like juice fasting and in this case like he juiced bread, so for me this is not a very good fast to try, that said, the gent clearly got some great benefit and it is great to see fasting being discussed in the main stream press and yes it is good for the body and the soul

    February 27, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  10. Reality

    Only for the newbies:--------->>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    "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 27, 2012 at 12:48 am |
  11. Keith

    In a shocking case out of Pennsylvania, an American judge has thrown out an assault charge against a Muslim immigrant based on Sharia law.

    The assault victim was the head of the Pennsylvania chapter of American Atheists, Ernest Perce V, who was marching in a Halloween parade as “Zombie Mohammed” next to a fellow atheist dressed as “Zombie Pope.” The former depiction didn’t sit well with Muslim onlooker Talag Elbayomy, who then attacked Mr. Perce. And with an admission of guilt by the assailant and video of the incident, it should have been an open-and-shut case.

    But that’s not how it turned out.

    As Andrew McCarthy at National Review reports:

    Magistrate Judge Mark Martin, a veteran of the war in Iraq, ruled that Talag Elbayomy's sharia defense — what he claimed was his obligation to strike out against any insult against the prophet Mohammed — trumped the First Amendment free speech rights of the victim.

    Yes, you read that correctly.

    Al Stefanelli of American Atheists provides some more information, writing:

    The defendant is an immigrant and claims he did not know his actions were illegal, or that it was legal in this country to represent Muhammad in any form. To add insult to injury, he also testified that his 9 year old son was present, and the man said he felt he needed to show his young son that he was willing to fight for his Prophet....

    The Judge not only ruled in favor of the defendant, but called Mr. Perce a name and told him that if he were in a Muslim country, he'd be put to death.

    I wonder, if Elbayomy had put Perce “to death” not knowing that such an action in response to an insult to Mohammed was illegal in America, would Judge Martin have thrown out the murder charge?

    Stefanelli also reports, “Judge Martin's comments included, ‘Having had the benefit of having spent over 2 and a half years in predominantly Muslim countries I think I know a little bit about the faith of Islam.’ ”

    I’m sure. But it appears Judge Martin knows only a little bit — at most — about American law. Perhaps he should consider the benefit of spending time in a Muslim country permanently.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • Keith

      What it shows is that Sharia law, whether you like it or not, whether it is consti-tutional or not, is HERE. Thanks to cnn and others for promoting it. The law was broken. Justice was not served. I'm a Christian and I support the right of the atheist to do what he did. God gives us free will. If he wants to reject the forgiveness of sins and the grace of our Lord, he's free to do so, albeit to his detriment. I hope he'll reconsider. What I'm afraid of is the support the US is giving in the UN in terms of blashemy laws on an international scale. This is happening. If it continues, no one-atheists included, will be able to speak out against islam in the US. Therefore, this case is extremely relevant. Why does cnn refuse to report on it? This judge needs to be removed. Cnn ignores this because their "pet religion" is exposed for the ugly, horrible religion that it really is.

      February 27, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Greg

      Or, you can believe this version, from the judge in the case: http://volokh.com/2012/02/25/zombie-mohammed-judge-responds/

      Regardless, what is this nonsense doing as a comment to the above article?

      g

      February 27, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Johnny

      What does your statement have to do with this article?

      February 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Keith

      Greg and Johnny, It has absolutely nothing to do with the above article. I posted the story on my own accord since cnn won't do a story on it. I will show the hypocricy of cnn by showing people the story and I'll use cnn's blog to do it. What's more important in terms of religion? Sharia law in the USA or a story about some drunk?

      February 27, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  12. BC

    Anyone North of the Alps should give thanks for Doppelbocks...the pope drank a spoiled one and declared that they could drink all they wanted.

    As for me...I'll call it a "diet" and drink IPAs instead.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • SJ

      I was in Munich and heard the same story as well–the bad sample sent to the Pope was a clever idea...this new recipe was thought to be penance enough.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  13. Keith

    1Cr 5:11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

    1Cr 5:12 For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?

    1Cr 5:13 But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      February 26, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      Keith

      1Cr 5:11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

      1Cr 5:12 For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?

      1Cr 5:13 But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.

      Truth! Truth indeed! Many churches cherry-pick scriptures to grind their extreme sectarian axe, eg, total abstinance or else you're a backslidden sinner heading for hell, while they conveniently ignore the Scriptures that not only allow, but in some cases even recommend alcohol in moderation.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:30 am |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • periwinkle

      Neither is drinking beer for 45 days....

      February 26, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Ksagan

      Don't believe it.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  15. William Wilberforce

    Fasting and Repenting powerful combination.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  16. Sheila R. Mortaine

    I think all the people against fasting on here must really honestly either be 1. fat 2. lazy. 3 ignorant 4. so self righteous in their own thinking that they can't wrap their little egos/tummies around it. Everything humans do is from ego, from the self. We only try to do what 'feels good', so humans are very able to justify their 'reasons' for eating every day, and eating the crap they do. No T.V. here, no packaged junk food, no naps, no low energy, just glorious days of energy and healthy eating.......

    February 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • periwinkle

      On the contrary, your ego is huge if you think everyone should "fast" as you do. Fasting for religious purposes.... another way for the church to try and control you. Fasting for health purposes... there is nothing wrong from giving your system a break if that's what you're into. But telling people they are selfish egomaniacs because they won't fast like you do, is very much the pot calling the kettle "black"...

      February 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • noitall

      Humans didn't always eat 3 times a day. We were much more like the animal kindom, we ate when we could. We were thinner, and had healthier hearts, etc. It is good for your body to fast periodically. Your body eventuall lives off itself and eats away, (burns) itself which in turn causes regeneration once you eat again. It's also VERY empowering! You will feel like you can do so much more if you just set your mind to it.
      As for dieting; if you can learn to fast for say 24 hours every once in a while you will learn that losing weight is the easiest thing in the world because it requires you to do "nothing". You don't have to add something to your day, exercise, time for eating, etc. You do nothing – eliminate eating. Of course we have to eat to live, but once you get to the point whre you can fast periodically you will be able to lose weight (if you need to, want to). You can also allow yourself 2 meals a week of whatever you want and still be fine for your diet. Or,,,,you can try one of the literally 100's of programs you see in magazines, on TV, or hear on the radio. Bottom line. EAT LESS.

      February 27, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  17. jf

    God does not require us to give up anything for "lent" Jesus Christ already gave up his life forAll of Us, long before the word "Lent" ever exsisted

    February 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Don

      Just try for once to say something original. Go ahead, give it a try. It will do your brain good.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Paul

      I'm sorry, but I missed the part about where any of this was meant to be a "requirement." I understood it to be a completely voluntary exercise in discipline and experiential, experimental exploration.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      jf: "God does not require us to give up anything for "lent" Jesus Christ already gave up his life forAll of Us, long before the word "Lent" ever exsisted"

      Finally, someone comes along and puts this whole discussion in its proper perspective; ie, all other health, moral and yes even "spiritual" arguments pale when compared to the above statement.

      Well done jf – keep up the good fight!

      February 27, 2012 at 3:01 am |
  18. Pho king

    What is weird about this story is I once gave up beer for lent. I slept more, socialized less, less productive, played less golf, and generally did less.

    I think the lesson here is consume beer and more of. If you only have a few bucks better to spend it on beer than food..

    February 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • noitall

      More like, "Pho Ked".
      ;0)

      February 27, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      I skip eating on Tuesdays and Wednesdays but I never skip beer. Keeps my weight ideal and I just feel better all the time.

      February 27, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  19. Mike P

    I once tried giving up comic books for Lent. I lasted two weeks. Interesting experience, though - reading them after two weeks of deprivation made the words and images slam home with an intensity I have rarely experienced.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Robert P

      Outstanding comment, Mike. Assuming you wrote it tongue-in-cheek, that is. If you wrote it seriously, well, that would be ... not reassuring.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  20. Quid Malmborg

    What I learned from my 46-day beer fast: I'm an alcoholic, and I need help. :..-(

    February 26, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Moi

      you're an idiot

      February 26, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Toad Road

      alcoholic on 4 beers a day think not you dunce

      February 26, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • JohnR

      If continued, it does fall within the guidelines of highly at risk drinkers:

      http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/13/does-a-few-drinks-a-day-make-you-an-alcoholic/

      February 26, 2012 at 5:14 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.