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. Aaron S

    I imagine that if you drink a low alcohol beer with a lot of crystal malts, you could probably get a lot of nutrition from beer without much of a buzz. Especially if it's of the unpasteurized and unfiltered variety. I'm sure this homebrewer was aware of that fact and I'm sure he enjoyed a ton of real beer. I'm jealous.

    It also bothers me that we've such a negative relationship with beer/wine/alcohol, as illustrated by the comments. Sometimes it seems like you either don't drink or you're an alcoholic. Most people in this country are somewhere in the middle and lead healthy, productive lives.

    I worked for years in a rehab and I've seen what alcoholism looks like. It's a very destructive and dangerous disease. This does not appear to be a picture of addiction. He's a man that enjoyed beer that wanted to explore an old religious tradition. I applaud him.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  2. 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 26, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  3. Kendyl


    February 26, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  4. tim12

    did you learn you are a drunk?

    February 26, 2012 at 2:36 am |
  5. Donny

    He didn't say anything about the effects of the alcohol on his body. Was he constantly tipsy? Did the alcohol on an empty stomach get him drunk?

    February 26, 2012 at 2:14 am |
  6. Noghog

    Fasting is a great idea. Muslims do it every Ramadan.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • Anders

      No, they don't. They eat all night long. They just don't eat during the day. Usually a Muslim eats more during Ramadan than any other month. Fasting is something quite different, almost opposite.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:28 am |
  7. Alesia Abatie

    There is no way he could be rejuvenated physically or mentally by this "beer fast" which is nothing but prolonged alcoholism in disguise. Articles like these are factually incorrect and dangerous to people who would not be healthy enough to sustain this fast. He also is a terrible example to his "boys" who deserve a father who can remain sober while they are in his care.

    CNN, consider the consequences of publishing sensationalistic articles like these, as I am ready to find my news through other more reputable online outlets.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:58 am |
    • j

      Wow I feel sorry for you.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • Brad

      This is discussing something he did last year. If you actually read his blog, he worked very diligently to ensure that he was healthy throughout. I believe he had regular check ups and consulted a physician beforehand to make sure he was physically healthy enough to take on this task. I encourage folks to find what he wrote and read it. It was really interesting when I looked in to it last year and may give you some insights into trying to find a unique way to celebrate your faith.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:00 am |
  8. Ohplease

    And Jeremy, I am old...Like fifty ish... (super straight) spiritual... The old and the young are definitely united against tyranny and seeking true freedom. for all!

    February 26, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  9. tintala

    Cnn would never mention that Buddha fasted on 1 hemp seed a day . Cnn should do articles on why Industrial hemp should be farmed and how it would turn the economy around.. the social fabric of this society is alcohol. Legalize HEMP! Make alcohol illegal!

    February 26, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  10. Chris

    Excellent article...I am actually surprised CNN posted this.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  11. Will S

    In Germany beer is sometimes referred to as "liquid bread" (flüssiges Brot).

    February 26, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • Ohplease

      Beer is absolutely liquid bread!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:52 am |
  12. b4bigbang

    @Jeremy and Paul: Or perhaps it might be beneficial if people realized that fighting between the different camps (alcohol, pot, caffiene, etc) only hurts ALL these camps and serves to feed the prohibitionist mind-set?

    February 26, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  13. Stardustmonkey

    According to my father, who grew up in the catholic faith, near Munich, Germany, the monks brewed the beer and than sent it for approval for the lent season to the Pope in Rome. The journey accross the alps was long and treaterous, the barrels of bock beer were carried by donkey, when the arrived in Rome, the Pope got a taste of the beer, which turned sour on the long journey. The Pope approved of the beer for the fasten time cause it tasted so nasty, he thought it was approapriate for the cause.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  14. Brad

    This is a blog about faith. This man found a way to combine his passion for brew with his spiritual life. I wish more people were interested in honing their spiritual life, accepting the way others choose worship instead of passing judgement on a personal spiritual journey. Stop making him a villain for finding a way to get closer to God.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:40 am |
  15. HamatoKameko

    Look, ma, idiots and jerks as far as the eye can see!

    I love how anything that is even remotely religious or political sparks vicious arguments, trolling and flaming on the intenet. 🙂

    February 26, 2012 at 1:38 am |
  16. sargeanton

    Great story. I like alcoholics.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  17. Paul

    Totally not original


    February 26, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • T

      Uh, you realize that the 46-day beer fast was LAST year, while the link you sent was from only a couple months ago, right?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  18. Bob

    Seriously? A beer only fast? You've got to be kidding me. Not only is this guy a complete imbecile, but he is also an alcoholic and he is using this to cover up problems. You can live a life with fasting and be alcohol free. People in this country are continuously doing dumb things like this, and CNN is being entertained so they report it and throw it on the front page.

    This part makes me laugh "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of J. Wilson."

    February 26, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  19. Jeremy

    Haha, I realize my spelling mistakes(iPad auto correct) takes away from my message, but try to get over it and realize what I'm talking about.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Ohplease

      I love real people. I have not read your message yet, do not know if I agree or disagree yet, but I have to say I have a great deal of respect for the truth and honest people. Please carry on with that... Hold it forever. You are allowed to make mistakes, you are human!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  20. Jeremy

    In a society that celebrates social health epidemics like alcohol and nicotine....I find it disgusting that a natural, non-toxic, basically harmless, all-natural plant like cannabis is demonized as it is. Here we have a front page story on CNN.com nonchalantly talking about literally a poison that plagues or society, destroys families, relationships, careers, etc....but god forbid somebody wants to relax on a saturday night in the privacy of their own home with a joint. All reasonable and educated adults should at least recognize this hypocrisy, if not rightfully and reasonably speak out against such an injustice. I am a freedm loving, educated, business owner living on America...and CNN has the gall to have a front page story basically supporting and giving a pass to a social health epidemic that directly and indirectly kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. What a joke. Such is the man stream media. Wake up people, those addicted to caffeine who can't function in the morning without it, and realize what the REAL dangers in our society are.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • Paul

      pot heads and their logic. Hops are actually a cousin of cannabis and known for their calming effects.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:34 am |
    • james

      it is not harmless. It's been proven to cause psychosis.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Ohplease

      Yeah, I knew I liked you... Personally I do not smoke pot, not a fan, have tried it, yadda, yadda. yadda... If people could just take care of themselves and worry about their own business and take responsibility for their own choices and actions it would be easier for everyone. Sadly, the MSM has made Ron Paul into the "stooge" and liberal PC rules the day... Not sure what to say to you, except, keep telling your friends about Ron Paul and that Libertarians do not care what you do as long as you take responsibility for yourself.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Jeremy

      @Paul...I have no beef with alcohol, I've had quite a few beers tonight, which is rare for me....but my point still stands. People and society all but fully celebrate out in the open alcohol and nicotine(factually harmful and deadly poisons plaguing the health of Amercans) while an all natural virtually harmless, non toxic plant is held in the same regard as heroin. It's a bunch of horsesh|t and you know it.

      Alcoholics and their beers' "calming effects"...were you being obtuse on purpose? Funny stuff, Paul! (playing devil's advocate here)

      February 26, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Stardustmonkey

      All religions are using plants, drinks, and posions to move to higher plains, or so their excuse. Only simple people need simple tools to reach higher realms. But of course it might just be an excuse for something which doesn't excist at all!?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • Jeremy

      @James...hahaha, psycohsis? I don't think so. Is that the best you can come up with! After all I said? B-b-b-but pyschosis! Puh-lease! What, and alcohol akes everybody smart, not start needless fights and a dozen other negative effects? Pot makes you eat Doritos and makes food taste better....that's it.....there's a reason why you didn't touch upon anything I said or refute it in the least bit – its because you can't. The best you can do is spread baseless lies. Psychosis? Keep the funny coming, Jimmy. Why and how did pot become illegal in America in the first place?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:52 am |
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About this blog

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.