Are you giving up beer for Lent? Or perhaps you know someone who is. I have a friend or two who are going that route (pure madness, in my opinion). Can you imagine doing the opposite—giving up all food and drink except beer (and water) for Lent? It seems crazy, but popular history tells us that centuries ago devout monks sustained themselves primarily on strong beer during Lenten fasts, and the most famous of these were the Paulaner monks in Munich who reportedly consumed little more than doppelbock during their fasts. Yep, that Paulaner, now maker of Salvator Doppelbock.
Stories of monks being sustained by beer during fasts are legendary in beer geek circles, but they seem a bit hard for us to believe today. How could someone literally eat no food for forty days (or forty-six, if you don’t break your fast on Sundays) and survive drinking only beer? It sounds like something out of a frat boy’s dream-turned-nightmare. Consuming nothing but beer sounds fun until hunger pangs overwhelm you and you’re too drunk from all that beer (on an empty stomach, no less) to form coherent sentences.
The stories of those monks’ fasts are so hard to believe that one beer geek decided to test it first-hand. Home brewer, certified beer judge, and journalist J. Wilson of Prescott, Iowa was so intrigued by the tale of the Paulaner monks that he decided to do his own Lenten fast in their tradition, surviving on nothing but beer and water for forty-six days. He is two weeks into it, apparently doing quite well, and blogging about it daily at diaryofaparttimemonk.wordpress.com.
I’ll admit the first thought that ran through my mind when I heard about this was “That must be very bad for you.” It’s pretty intuitive for most of us that you need to consume more than just beer to survive. But one of beer’s nicknames is “liquid bread,” a phrase thought to have originated with its use as a nutritional supplement by monks. A quality beer that hasn’t been filtered or pasteurized is actually loaded with vitamins and other nutrients, and strong beers like dopplebocks have lots of calories. Wilson is drinking four twelve-ounce servings of beer every day—a doppelbock made by a local brewpub using his own recipe. The servings are spread throughout the course of the day.
The most recent post on Wilson’s blog as I write this is Day 13, and by his account he feels great. He lost about ten pounds in the first few days but he’s leveled off and has hovered a little below 150 pounds for a good while. His hunger pangs have pretty much disappeared, and an early headache has also disappeared. He has plenty of energy. A doctor will examine him halfway through and again at the end of the fast, so he’s being safe.
I find the entire exercise fascinating both from a beer perspective and a spiritual perspective. It’s interesting to see someone working to bring part of beer’s rich history alive for the world to see first-hand. And I think it’s wonderful to see someone bringing good publicity to the spiritual discipline of fasting—a discipline that is completely ignored by most American Christians even though it has historically been an important part of the religion throughout the world for 2,000 years. Of course many American Christians are also hostile towards alcohol in general, something we Birmingham beer lovers know full well. But again, Prohibitionist antagonism towards alcohol is a uniquely American invention at odds with the traditions of Christianity, and Wilson is setting himself up as a bit of a flash point in that debate.
Nothing I’ve read by Wilson on his blog or about him by those who’ve interviewed him leads me to believe there is anything gimmicky about what he’s doing. He did plenty of research, worked hard to plan everything well in advance, and is taking the whole thing very seriously. Of course he’s not going to miss the chance to make a little money off this; he’s going to write a book about the experience once he finishes. But I get the sense that he is well aware of the genuine interest many people have in his experiment, and his plans for a book are primarily aimed at providing a thorough record of his experiences. I’d do the same in his shoes.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and coorganizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com