Many people practice some form of abstinence during Lent, giving up things like chocolate, coffee, social media, or alcohol. One year during Lent I tried giving up beer during the work week, but it just led me to drink more beer on the weekends. Maybe that form of abstinence is the wrong way of approaching it, after all German monks used to give up solid food for the entirety of Lent, relying exclusively upon beer for sustenance.
Ever since I learned about the monks Lenten tradition I’ve been curious to know what it would be like to go on a beer-only fast? I was further encouraged when I read about a homebrewing Iowa reporter, named J. Wilson, who ran the experiment in 2011 going the entire 46 days of Lent with only beer and water. Wilson makes the experience sound downright wholesome. Quoting from an interview he did with CNN:
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.
He went onto say that his fast provided a long-overdue tune-up and detox, commenting that at the end he had never felt so rejuvenated, physically or mentally. You can check out his dairy of the experience by clicking here.
If Mr. Wilson can do it for 6+ weeks it seems like I could do it for a few days. I settled on four days that spanned the last two days of OSU’s spring break and coincided with the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. I figured I’d probably be sitting around watching basketball and drinking beer for a good chunk of that time anyway.
No beer style is more closely associated with Lent than doppelbocks. Jeff Alworth recounts the origins of the style in the Beer Bible:
They were originally brewed by Franciscan monks near Munich. They brewed a special extra strong bock, and later began selling it during the feast of the Holy Father. The beer was known as Sankt Vater Bier (“holy father beer”), later shortened to Salvator. The eight day festival that accompanied the beer’s release was widely attended and it became customary to toast the duke of Bavaria with Salvator. Salvator beer was a style of its own—a very heavy, sweet, underfermented concoction. This may help explain why monks used it to ease them through their days of fasting during Lent. Unlike today’s much more alcoholic doppelbocks, old Savators were heavy but modest in their alcohol content—“liquid bread” indeed.
To be honest I often find doppelbocks a little too heavy for my liking, but all that residual sweetness might come in handy when you are fasting from solid food. Wilson stuck entirely to a specially brewed doppelbock called Illuminator that was adapted from his homebrew recipe by the Rock Bottom brewery in Des Moines. It’s 6.7% abv was somewhat lower abv than your standard doppelbock. While I didn’t plan ahead enough to brew a special beer for the occasion, I tried to stay in the spirit of European monastic brewing traditions with my beer selections. I stocked up with a few different doppelbocks, some Trappist ales, and a smattering of other “nutritous” beer styles for my experiment.
Below are the diary entries I kept during the fast.
Wednesday, March 15
7:00 pm: I’m starting the fast tonight at 9 pm. I’d like to get a good meal in before embarking on this journey. I settle on a family dinner at Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza in Worthington. I picked Natalie’s in part because I want to try a pint of Uncle Joe’s Irish Red by 2 Tones Brewing. The Maris Otter malts make for a nice malty profile, but it’s still quite drinkable. The use of crushed juniper berries make for an interesting twist. Anticipating little to no vitamin C over the next 96 hours I eat an orange just before beginning the fast.
Thursday, March 16
7:00 am: For the sake of record keeping I weigh myself on the bathroom scale, checking in at 171 lbs. Obviously at this point I feel like I would any other morning. I pour a glass of water and sit down to finish my story about the Land-Grant University’s Yeast 101 class. By 8 am my stomach is starting to rumble and I reckon it’s time for my morning meal. I decide to kick things off with my last can of Land-Grant Stevesy Helles Lager (5.5% abv). There’s good wholesome malty goodness in this beer, it’s even a style that originates in Bavaria, but it seems strange to be drinking a beer at this hour on a workday.
12:30 pm: Work is going smoothly. The effects of the ethanol from breakfast are minimal, but the 150 or so calories from a morning lager don’t stick with you for very long. I decide to work through lunch rather than take a break to walk to the nearest campus bar for a midday snack.
3:00 pm: I leave work early to take my son to the dentist. Afterward I’ve got an appointment with Larry Horwitz at the Four String production brewery. He gives me a tour of the impressive facility and we talk about topics ranging from hop shortages to dissolved oxygen in packaged beer to judging at the GABF. While Larry sends me home with a very generous care package of Four String beer, there is no beer consumed while I’m at the brewery. I’m regretting my decision to skip lunch.
6:00 pm: Famished, I reach for a bottle of Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock (6.7% abv) as soon as I get home. Sometimes the stars align and you have a great beer at the perfect time. This is one of those moments. The powdery chocolate malt aroma triggers an almost Pavlovian response from me. If I were a German Sheppard I would be salivating on the floor right now. The rich maltiness and abundance of dark fruit esters from the yeast makes for a sensuous beer with a flavor profile that punches well above its 6.7% abv. I start to understand why the Bavarian monks devised this style to sustain them over the Lenten fast.
7:00 pm: I settle in to watch some NCAA hoops action. Next up is a Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout (5.0% abv). Featuring chocolate malts and organic cocoa, it’s as close as you can get to dessert in a glass (provided you exclude half of the Southern Tier catalog). By the end of the bottle the sweetness starts to accumulate and I find it a little cloying, something that Celebrator didn’t suffer from.
8:30 pm: It’s hard not to notice how many restaurants advertise during the NCAA tournament. Last week I had written off the commercial where Grant Hill orders a pizza with his shoe phone as ridiculous. It seems pretty compelling right now. Even Coke is running an advertisement about how well their beverage pairs with food. It’s as if Satan himself has directed the marketing team at Coke to taunt me.
10:30 pm: The hunger headache I had when I got home is steadily getting worse. It’s hard to get rid of a headache by drinking beer. Time for bed.
Friday, March 17
7:30 am: I wake up feeling better. The headache is mostly gone, and while hunger is ever present it seems manageable. After a glass of water, it’s time for my morning weigh in. The scale says 167 lbs, wow I’ve lost 4 pounds in the last 24 hours. It won’t be good if I continue losing weight at that pace.
8:30 am: I’m going with a different strategy today—try to avoid long breaks without beer and stay hydrated. I’m taking today off from work, so that should make it easier. I start the day with a half of a 20 oz bottle of Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout (5.0% abv). Oatmeal stouts were once touted for their health benefits, even promoted as the drink of choice for lactating mothers, so it seems as nutritious as any breakfast beer I can conjure up.
1:00 pm: It’s St. Patrick’s Day so my lunchtime choice is Resistor Irish Red (5.3%) from Actual Brewing. It’s a good beer, malty but not too sweet with a touch of unexpected but welcome flowery hop aroma. As much as I’m enjoying it, I’d trade all of the beer in my refrigerator for one reuben sandwich. Since the monks undoubtedly had to keep working through Lent I figure this is a good time to bottle a batch of homebrew. It’s a pale ale made with Belgian yeast (WLP550), Scottish malts (Golden Promise), and a mix of German and American hops (Mosaic, Hüll Melon, Hallertau Blanc, and Mandarina Bavaria). If the taste of the warm, uncarbonated beer is any indication I think this is going to be a good one once it finishes conditioning.
3:00 pm: My friend Ralph Wolfe drops by to help out with the bottling and afterward we head down to the Land-Grant taproom to watch some hoops and drink more beer. My always tenuous self-discipline slips a little and I end up drinking three Land-Grant beers and one guest tap over the next four hours. The just released Folie de Mars is a good take on the Biere de Garde style. I’m a big Crooked Stave fan, so when I see they have Nightmare on Brett on tap I know I’ve got to get one before heading home. The tart, balsamic taste of the sour stout is a nice change of pace from the sweet, malty beers I’ve been drinking.
8:30 pm: Back at home watching a movie with my wife. Though I’m surely well over the daily rations a monk would receive, my body and brain are saying that one more beer is a good idea. I figure its high time to break out a Trappist Ale, so I grab a bottle of Rochefort 6 (7.5% abv). It’s a lovely beer with a voluminous creamy white head and a deep amber hue. The dark fruits here are turned up a notch from the Celebrator Doppelbock. It’s a rich and calorie soaked end to the day, full of the flavors of raisins and plums. A better choice for an end of the evening desert beer than yesterday’s chocolate stout.
10:30 pm: The nightly headache returns with a vengeance. I retire to my sleeping quarters.
Saturday, March 18
7:30 am: After tossing and turning for half an hour I get out of bed. I had hoped to sleep longer but my growling stomach has other ideas. My headache from the night before is gone, but the hunger pangs are as loud as ever. I’m not the only one who is hungry, the cats won’t leave me alone until I feed them. The dry cat food is starting to smell like spent grain from a brewing session. No one warned me about olfactory hallucinations. I head back to the bathroom scale and find that I’m down to 166 lbs. The weight loss seems to have stabilized.
8:30 am: Truth be told I’m not anxious to drink a beer, but the hunger is pretty intense and it won’t be good if I don’t get some nutrients in my body. I finish off the remaining half of my bottle of Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. I can’t say the taste appeals to me very much, but it helps to quell the hunger.
11:30 am: I can’t stop thinking about savory foods high in fat and protein—roasted chicken, grilled cheese sandwiches, enchiladas, lamb curry. I lay down and take a nap wishing I could sleep until the fast is over.
1:00 pm: It turns out I can’t sleep until Sunday evening. Time for lunch, and I need something special to stop the incessant thoughts of food running through my head. I opt for a Schneider Aventinus Wheat Doppelbock (8.2% abv). The bottle comes wrapped in paper, kind of like the packaging they use on some brands of worcestershire sauce. After peeling off the wrapper I realize this beer was bottled in 2009, obviously this is no ordinary doppelbock. I pour a glass of Aventinus and draw water for a hot bath. Despite its age it still manages a respectable head when decanted into a tulip glass. This is one complex, delicious beer. It combines the rich, chocolate leaning malt base of a doppelbock with the banana and clove contributions of the hefeweizen yeast. The long aging has rounded off all of the edges and has presumably played some role in bringing out a lovely vanilla note. It’s an elegant sipper comparable to a glass of tawny port. The combination of an amazing beer and the hot bath do wonders for my morale. I emerge with a new conviction to meet this challenge. The effects of the 8.2% abv may also have something to do with my improved attitude.
3:15 pm: I see from Facebook that Barley’s has a new version of Tour de Hops DIPA on tap, this one brewed with Citra and Mosaic hops. When Angelo brews a new beer I always make it a point to seek it out. It’s not too hard to recruit Ralph to drive us downtown and have a glass at Barley’s Alehouse #1. It does not disappoint, bursting at the seams with fruity hop goodness. There may not be any vitamin C in this beer, but the fruity aroma alone is enough to stave off scurvy for a few more days. As a bonus Angelo joins us for some good companionship.
5:00 pm: Ralph and I head over to the Walrus, where they are having an IPA bracket showdown. Four local breweries (Land Grant, Seventh Son, Platform and Elevator) have a sixth barrel of their IPA on tap. They start pouring the beers at 5:15 pm and the first keg to blow is the winner. I’m drinking on the Land Grant team, who prevail by polishing off their keg in something ridiculous like 15 minutes. It reminds me of drinking contests I used to partake of when I was in college. I’m glad that the two pints I consume are Greenskeeper Session IPA (4.7% abv), instead of the more potent Stiff Arm. The wait staff are understandably busy, so that a plate of unattended steak fries sits on the table next to us for a good 15 minutes. I find the cold, leftover fries disturbingly tempting.
6:00 pm: Not surprisingly I’m in good spirits now, so I finish the evening out with a pint of Guinness (4.2% abv). I’m still a sucker for the mouthfeel and taste of a Guinness on nitro, and the low abv doesn’t hurt in a situation like this.
7:30 pm: Back home now. I make dinner for my daughter, just to show that I still have the willpower to do it. We play a half dozen rounds of double solitaire, but my reflexes are no match for hers. I watch the second half of the Arizona-St. Mary’s basketball game. No nightcap beers tonight. Once again staying up to 11 pm is more than I can manage.
Sunday, March 19
7:30 am: The last two mornings I’ve had trouble sleeping past 7 am because my calves are on the verge of cramping up. I’m guessing the diet is adversely affecting the electrolyte balance in my body. After feeding the cats I weigh myself and see that I’ve another pound, down to 165 lbs at this stage. The hunger seems a little more manageable today, perhaps my body is starting to reach a new equilibrium.
9:00 am: For breakfast today I think I’ll splurge and have my first coffee beer of the fast. Unfortunately, the taste of Rivertown’s Roebling Vanilla Espresso Imperial Porter doesn’t sit well with me. It tastes a little sour and not in a good way. Maybe it’s an infected bottle, maybe I’ve lost my taste for beer, perhaps I’m going mad. Whatever it is I can’t drink it. Plan B is a bottle of my homebrewed Fly To The Rainbow IPA. I’ve read that the suspended yeast from bottle conditioning has some health benefits. It tastes better than the Roebling though a little too highly attenuated for my current taste preferences. I fear I’m losing my appetite for beer at this point. I have half of a bomber for breakfast and save the other half for lunch.
10:00 am: It wouldn’t be much of a monk-like Lenten fast without going to church. Plus I figure even the monks didn’t deny themselves communion bread. It’s the best communion I’ve had in ages.
11:30 pm: I finish the rest of my homebrew IPA for lunch, without much conviction. My concentration is largely consumed in planning the meal I’m going to eat to break my fast.
1:00 pm: I haven’t had a bowel movement in three days, but on the plus side the hunger isn’t as bad today. Maybe this is what Wilson was talking about when he said his body adjusted after two days. Nevertheless, I feel weak and lack the drive to do anything constructive. Time for another nap.
5:00 pm: In the closing stretch now, only four hours to go. Once again I turn to a Doppelbock when my need is greatest. Today I’m going local, with a bottle of Sustinator Doppelbock (8.0% abv) from Wolf’s Ridge. The description on the bottle talks about how the German monks sustained themselves during lent with this malty style. Seems fitting I should turn to it in the final hours. It doesn’t have the complexity of the German imports, not too much in the way of fruity esters from the yeast, but it is rich, malty and satisfying. It gives me the boost I need to make it to the finish line.
8:50 pm: A pot of ham and beans is simmering away on the stove, the smell in the kitchen is pure deliciousness. I’m baking a loaf of bread in the oven and making a salad for the end of my fast. I weigh myself one final time, 164.3 lbs. I’ve lost nearly 7 pounds over the 96 hour fast.
9:30 pm: The meal is supremely satisfying. The taste of melted butter on warm bread, the savory flavors of ham in the soup, the crunchy consistency of the salad, even the taste of milk, are sweet music to my senses. Soon after eating I feel extremely tired, looks like another early bedtime for me.
I’m sure some people think that a beer-only fast was a flimsy excuse for going on an irresponsible multi-day bender. I can’t deny that a small part of me was attracted to the allure of drinking beer all day. The reality was much different. The last four days have been much more an exercise in self-denial than debauchery. After a couple of days, the thought of having another beer held little appeal, especially in the mornings. I think it’s safe to conclude that the monks of olden days were engaging in an act of penitence during their Lenten fast.
By the fourth day my body had made some adjustments and the fast was getting a little easier to handle. I probably could have kept going for another several days if I had to, but to what end. At no point in the journey did I feel like I had entered the “tunnel of clarity” that Wilson described. More like the fog of hunger if you ask me. The lack of calories sapped my strength and kept me from operating at my full mental capacity. The lethargy and lack of mental acuity was exacerbated by the effects of adding ethanol to an always empty stomach. On the other hand, putting yourself in a weakened state does turn down the volume of the outside world. You focus on the simple tasks of managing the day, and your thoughts become more introspective. I can see how a long fast would be a spiritual experience for the monks.
Probably the biggest lesson I learned was how good doppelbocks taste when you’re hungry. The rich maltiness and chewy mouthfeel were just what my hungry body craved, and unlike a few other beers that I tried during the four day fast the residual sugars did not come across as off putting. The Ayinger Celebrator is really an underrated gem of the beer world, and the Schneider Aventinus is a treat that should be spoken of in the same terms as the barrel aged imperial stouts that are all the rage. I guess those German monks knew what they were doing when they devised Salvator.
For those keeping score at home I consumed 19 different beers, roughly 240 ounces, and lost 7 pounds. Land-Grant Greenskeeper was the only repeat beer (3 pints). I’m down to my 18-year-old weight for the first time in a decade or two, but I’m not optimistic that will last for long (Editors note: 2.5 days later I’ve gained back 4 lbs). The experience made me appreciate food even more than I already did. I’m looking forward to how much I will enjoy my meals this week. I guess it reinforces what I’ve always believed, the most likely outcome of self-denial is a heightened appreciation of what you denied yourself. When you put it that way maybe I should reconsider giving up beer for some portion of Lent.