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. polycarp pio

    How do you guys get off on the subject of evolution when reading this article???????I dont drink alcohol, I drink blood every Sunday and I eat flesh too, does that make me a cannibel/vampire??????? PP

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

      Yes. Where do you think the modern myth of the vampire evolved from (drinking of blood, rising from the dead three days later, etc.)?

      February 25, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  2. are you kidding me?

    i learned about evolution in school and humans evolving from apes has always been the basis for the theory~missing link and all that baloney. truth is people choose to believe because they don't want to have to answer to a divine God about the choices they have made in their lives. unfortunately all will still have to answer no matter what they choose to believe.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  3. Gino Punsalan

    It doesn't sound like a Lenten sacrifice to me.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  4. Ohplease

    "My Faith: What I learned from my 46-day beer-only fast" Uhmm,, that you're a drunk...

    February 25, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  5. Berdule

    So how many beers before he saw gawd? -).

    February 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  6. are you kidding me?

    Then why isn't it called pro evolution and no i'm not confused i'm reasonable~example if humans evolved from apes why do apes still exist~apparently we didn't kill off the species. why do apes no longer evolve into humans? and why can apes (at best) only learn sign language and not speech?

    February 25, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • SPLAT!~

      Humans evolved from apes? Where did you learn about evolution? Church?

      February 25, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Ohplease

      Science taught for years that man evolved from an ape like creature. The only reason they did not out right say from ape was to keep the Victorians from getting riled up. They are still in search of the missing link. And the evolution from ape to man theory is anything but dead... Ever heard of Lucy?

      February 25, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • Ohplease

      Mankind shares about 95% of his reproductive DNA with primates. Of course he also shares fifty percent with a banana... lol. Not to mention reproductive DNA accounts for about 5%...

      February 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  7. Lindy

    I have been observing Lent for the past 15 years by doing a "Water only" 40 day fast. yes, it is unusual and people think you're crazy and get worried about your health...but, I agree with J.Wilson. Fasting opens amazing channels into a spiritual connection with God unlike anything else. Fasting is not just about not eating, but using the meal time to pray and meditate. I still work, still cook, go to community functions, etc... But because of my fasting my focus shifts and I have more clarity, more sensitivity to, and connection with God and the world around me. And no one says you need to do it for 40 days. Start small with a meal or a day. It really can be awesome!

    February 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  8. b4bigbang


    February 25, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      fail. Due to stupidity, as usual, b4. Give up, already.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  9. are you kidding me?

    The nation of israel is proof the bible is true~they have never been a world power and have been persecuted throughout history yet they have outlasted many world powers, it takes divine protection to do that~and evolution, well i only ask when did evolution stop and procreation begin?

    February 25, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • hippypoet

      "when did evolution stop and procreation begin?"

      you must be confused on how evolution works...its the offspring that is the evolution of the species, so procreation is part of evolution, and so having offspring is the sinlge most important action any species can do for the species as a whole. (even if that offspring is an entirely different species due to its evolution and by its existence kills off the former species!) example – the dire wolf, look it up.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Ohplease

      "(even if that offspring is an entirely different species due to its evolution and by its existence kills off the former species!)"

      Hippy, that is completely genetically impossible. Evolution has only been proven to work in the negative. No positive genetic change has EVER been recorded. The DNA that appears to cause a new addition to a species lies dormant, but is always present. Nothing to the contrary has ever been proven by science and certainly not Darwin.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • GalapagosPete

      "Evolution has only been proven to work in the negative."

      What does that even mean? How would evolution work "in the negative"?

      "No positive genetic change has EVER been recorded."

      Depends on your point of view. Bacteria and virus's are inheriting immunity to a lot of drugs from their ancestors; that's certainly a negative for us but it's a positive for them.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  10. bobcat

    Cazy rituals like the fast were the first thing that made me question my old christian beliefs.

    February 25, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • Berdule

      Good for you bc.

      February 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  11. bob

    So what, I've been doing this for 50+ years, and it's no big deal, other than my beer gut. Beer isn't just for lent, ya know!

    February 25, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Berdule

      Big laugh. Me too!

      February 25, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • boarddog

      Right on! It's good for breakfast too!

      February 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  12. Squidward Tentacles

    This article could have been on "The Onion". Utter nonsense. There are many people who have tried to live "on a diet of beer and water" but most of them live in cardboard boxes under the offramp. Is this article an early April Fool?

    February 25, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  13. joedoro

    so in the true spirit of lent and catholicism that invented this time of year – any thoughts of altar boys ? ( positied as one who's ass was fondeled after 6 AM mass one day during lent)

    February 25, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  14. Taso

    Four beers a day is not enough to get you plastered, and should definitely not be enough to label this man as a crazy alcoholic. Beer, in the ancient context, is not simply a liquid meant for imbibing, but a drink meant to allow for a semi-euphoric sustenance. Spreading four beers over the course of a day is like nothing alcohol-wise. It's not like he's binge drinking and killing four beers in one hour... I don't understand what the big fuss is.

    February 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  15. george

    beegan diet?

    February 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • dwvanlan

      Ha! Well done sir.

      February 25, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  16. H2O

    Fast ye and live on pure H2O. That will cleanse your internals!

    February 25, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  17. b4bigbang

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

    To the teetotaler one drop is too much, and they have a radical (indeed, violent!) history in the land of the "free".
    Know ye not these things?

    February 25, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  18. Yakface

    You are all fools! There is only the god: The Almighty three-toed Yak who demands worship through beer.

    February 25, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  19. Not Now John

    scusi dov'è il bar
    se para collo pou eine toe bar
    s'il vous plait ou est le bar
    (...say it in English!...)
    oi, where's the fucking bar John?
    (Oh, now you're talking!)

    February 25, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  20. Mike

    Dear Lord baby Jesus...

    February 25, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Skipper

      I like my baby Jesus in one of those tuxedo tee shirts...

      February 25, 2012 at 9:29 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.