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. Isa Sciacchitano

    A cheeseburger is a hamburger topped with cheese. Traditionally, the slice of cheese is placed on top of the meat patty, but the burger can include many variations in structure, ingredients, and composition. The term itself is a portmanteau of the words "cheese" and "hamburger." The cheese is usually cubed, and then added to the cooking hamburger patty shortly before the patty is completely cooked which allows the cheese to melt. Cheeseburgers are often served with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, mustard, mayonnaise, or ketchup...

    Most interesting posting on our own web blog

    April 24, 2013 at 6:12 am |
  2. brewerbot

    what kind of bock? homebrew?

    February 13, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
  3. charles myrick

    Nice post. I was checking continuously this weblog and I'm inspired! Very useful info particularly the remaining section 🙂 I care for such information a lot. I was seeking this particular info for a very lengthy time. Thank you and good luck.

    August 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  4. Kevin

    Their is no civilization without fermentation.

    March 29, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  5. jj

    Drinking fortified beer: a mockery of Lent.

    March 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  6. Rev. Rick

    Beer is positive proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!

    March 27, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Kevin

      I believe that's a quote from Benjamin Franklin.

      March 29, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  7. Ralph Kramden

    Do Catholic priests give up molesting boys for Lent?

    March 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Mike

      How long did it take you to come up with that gem?

      March 12, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  8. mrklrsn

    dmn I'm jealous. Why can't I think of something like getting all the major media outlets to interview me for drinking beer?

    Once in college, myself and another theology student who was in the process of becoming an atheist decided to have our own communion service as a last ditch effort to try and infuse a little meaning into the dead religion we had been brainwashed into as a children. We baked a homemade peasant loaf of bread and popped two bottles of wine I had purchased at a monastery in the 'holy land' and spent the evening trying to reconcile our eroding faith. It didn't work but we did have a pleasant time of it. too bad we didn't get on the news, I guess we just didn't have the marketing skills.

    really though, I am super jealous of all of the above. Mostly I love bock and I'd love to lose 25 lbs. Since I have a lot of apple trees and brew gallons of hard cider every year I'm trying to think of some kind of Johnny Appleseed gimmick that I can use to catch the headlines.

    March 4, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  9. muhron

    Dude, I have news for you. You might believe in God and have a justification for this ritual, but you're still an alcoholic.

    March 3, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • apostate

      Not if the beer is addicted to him.

      March 4, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  10. alfranken

    Well I've got some really bad news and some really good news. The bad news is that yesterday my son consistently tried to emotionally break me down as to force me to buy him some pokemon thing while trying to deal with a very stressful situation with my wife. So I snapped under the hunger and bolted to the nearest Carl's Jr. and feasted on a Carl's Star meal.

    The really good news is that I will continue the beer fast tomorrow and have lowered my level of expectations of myself by targeting 3 to 4 days per week fast leading up to Easter morning.

    Also, in the short 2 1/2 days that I fasted on beer only, I learned sooo much about myself and it did bring some clarity to some personal issues. I very much want to finish this journey but on a path that would make it more attainable and possibly bring more spiritual sense to myself rather than torturing myself with all the smells and dreams of food. The key is not to overeat on my off days from fasting and stay focused on the Lord through prayer on my days of fasting.

    Also, what is interesting is that I save my urine to dilute in a 5 gal pale of water in order to fertilize my vegetable garden. If I leave the spray nozzle on spray after dumping about a quart of urine in the bucket, I get a very healthy and nice head on top of my 5 gallon bucket - something brewer's like to brag about. It's got to be doing wonders for my plants - we'll see

    God bless.

    March 2, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  11. Blessed Geek

    I am deciding to have a year long a cheese-burger-only fast.
    May be, a vodka-only fast.
    Or a Chapati-only fast.

    No, no, the best is KFC-only fast – that would have a significant impact on my faith in ... hmm ...

    March 1, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  12. It's been done

    To say it hasn't been done in centuries is a bit misleading. This guy did almost the same thing a few years ago. http://drunkard.com/issues/53/53_beer_fast.html

    March 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  13. Gus

    Wow. Thanks to the wing-nuts for derailing an article about beer and historic tradition with their pedantic pointless arguing about religion and politics. Seriously, give it up children.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  14. alfranken

    I'm on my second day of fasting on bock beer and some interesting affects have came to mind. I'm learning just how compulsive my eating is rather than knowing when I really need food. I'm starting to become more connected to how my emotions work with my desire to eat food - I think I'm a compulsive eater. Of course my sense of smell is far more prevalent now and the temptations are great but the temptations are no more greater than before I fasted. I think I'm understanding why a bock beer works better than any beer such as Coors; probably because it has the nutrients in it that my body needs to properly function - just as why the Monks designed the brew in the first place. Amazing.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • alfranken

      I don't see the option to comment anymore but I can reply.
      I'm on my third day and my sense of clarity is starting to kick in: I really feel my sense of priorities set in.

      I spending less time thinking about my troubles and wants and more time feeling grateful for what I have.

      Surprisingly, I'm not that hungry and I believe it's because the bock is meeting my nutrient needs.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  15. SL55AMG

    So much beer, it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  16. alfranken

    I'm trying it and if CNN allows me to use this comment board as a daily dairy then I will comment every day. I will fast for 40 days which will end at sunset on the day before Easter Sunday. I found a brew called "Superbock" and will may experiment with various brands. I did fast for for 3 days once and went through an incredible hunger period. The problem, at least for me, is that if I even cheat a little - a very little, I'll go right into a eating binge. Will see.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  17. Joe T.

    If I had nothing but Keystone or Coors for 46 days, I would probably kill myself.

    Would have to get some good craft beers. Would have to drink stouts since they are heavy and filling.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  18. Dustin

    Cool story. Good to know for future reference. When supplies are limited...I will take all my beer. lol

    February 28, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  19. Tom

    No doubt, indeed Alcohol is a drink of the devil.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • Joe T.

      Is that why Jesus drank wine?

      February 28, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • SpawnCamper

      Jesus didn't drink alcohol because he was the Devil! He was a Zombie wasn't he?

      March 1, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • jlv

      Everyone knows the devil doesn't drink. Because hangovers make people pray. Oh G-d, oh G-d please I'm never doing that again!

      March 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  20. Adam

    Who says Jesus drank Alcohol? So now everyone claims Jesus died for our sins, so we can keep committing sins ourselves and we do not want to be a responsible. Every soul is responsible for his own action and we will get according to our actions on the day of judgement. It is a complete foolishness

    February 28, 2012 at 2:53 am |
    • Joe T.

      Well the Bible says it... so if you believe Jesus existed according to the Bible, you would have to think that he drank alcohol.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • jason

      Foolishness is believing in a man in the sky who will solve all our problems when we die.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • jlv

      Yeah he just handed it out all over the place. And he didn't eat bread or fish. He just subsisted on rocks and small stones.

      March 21, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • jlv

      jason do you just prefer to believe that death alone will solve all our problems. Whatever floats your boat. Just remeber that when the third cave man came out a conspiracy was hatched.

      March 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Soviet

      Jesus drank wine, alcohol is a creation of God, much like the rest of the world. Fact is, it was, like food, water, and other available drugs and other consumables, was not meant to be over done. A person drinking a glass of wine does not commit a sin, but a man drinking 3 bottles of it is obviously having some issues. Jesus drank wine, he even made it for a wedding celebration!

      May 19, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
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