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Beer

The Man Who Drank Only Beer, Part 1: Interview with a Part-Time Monk

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Wed, Apr 20, 2011 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge J. Wilson from Diary of a Part-Time Monk
  • J. Wilson from Diary of a Part-Time Monk
Millions of people the world over are giving up something for Lent, but few are doing it as publicly or as interestingly as J. Wilson, who's consuming nothing but beer for the 46 days leading up to Easter. The 38-year-old Iowa native, who lives eight miles outside of Corning with his wife and two children, isn't even a Catholic. He is, however, something of a history buff -- at least when it comes to beer.

If "nothing but beer for six weeks" sounds like a frat boy stunt, a quick scan through Wilson's blog, Diary of a Part-Time Monk, reveals otherwise. Inspired by the Paulaner monks of Neudeck ob der Au in Munich, a Lenten diet comprised solely of beer is a well-established though largely forgotten tradition.

A writer, a food-lover and an avid home brewer, Wilson is a non-denominational Christian, who had wanted, for some time, to explore the historical roots of the beer fast. But when you're running a burrito joint, that seems out of the question. This year, he was able -- with the help of a local brewery and a local pastor -- to take on the beer fast, consuming nothing but water and four to five glasses of Doppelbock-style beer for six straight weeks.

As Easter approaches, he talked to us about why someone who's not Catholic would take on the very Catholic tradition of fasting for Lent, the history of Doppelbock, the spiritual underpinnings of his journey and how he got to live out a home-brewer's fantasy. Turn the page, and check back tomorrow for part two.

click to enlarge monk_day_43.jpg
Squid Ink: What do you do in real-life?

J. Wilson: I'm the editor of a small weekly newspaper called the Adams County Free Press. When I originally had this idea, I was running a burrito joint. It wasn't feasible for me to do this project at that point. I was too busy and I would have burned through the calories [from beer] too quickly.

SI: Not to mention, you'd have to be around food all day.

JW:You get to a certain point where you can be around it and talk about it. A week after I break my fast we're going to smoke a pork shoulder and make some bacon. I'm a pretty food-centric person. I catered a lunch last weekend.

SI: How long have you been writing and blogging about beer?

JW: I've been doing my beer blog, Brewvana, for four years. I used to write a series about brewers for regional beer related newspapers. [Beer] comes up in my column from time to time, but it's a small newspaper in a rural county.

Day 28: One of the questions I pondered at the beginning of this project was, "Can one live as a monk in the world?" Not literally. But can one maintain a deeper connection to the divine and still function in society?

SI: When we first heard about this, we thought it was going to be a display of stunt-eating thing. But this has really been a journey of faith for you.

JW: I see headlines that say "Man Fasts on Beer for 40 Days and He's Doing it for Religious Reasons." And that's not exactly true. To be honest and clear the idea was born out of my affection for beer. I'm more interested in history than I was in high school. If they had talked about beer in history or math or science, I would have been a much better student. I'm a Christian, and since there are monks involved, I thought I would be open and explore that. And fasting is something you find all across the world in different cultures or religions, and there's usually a spiritual element to it.

SI: How has this enhanced or changed your faith or spirituality?

JW: I guess some of the interesting enlightening things popped up in the first few days. Then the long-haul part of it has been really a matter of discipline and remembering why you're choosing to do something. I think it has probably improved my prayer life and helped me not take that piece of my life for granted. It's busy world, even if you live in a small town in Iowa. There have been other times in my life where I was a more committed Christian, and that brought things into focus for me.

I'm not Catholic, but a couple weeks ago I went to Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri. It helped me gain a little more respect for Catholicism than I previously had. I always though it was a more ritualistic religion. It's not for me, but I have a better respect for it than I did previously.

Day 13: Unlike many of today's fast food-loving, woe-is-me, pop culture junky Americans, the life of the monk is embedded in economy. There is prayer. There is work. There are few bells and whistles. If the Coked-up cheeseburger-and-fries eater is a speed metal band, then the monks are certainly the BB Kings and the Stan Getzes of the music world.

SI: You're not Catholic. Why take on the Catholic tradition of giving something up for Lent?

JW: It's the origins of this particular style of beer. I thought well these monks made this particular type of beer and wanted to really explore that particular type of history. I want to do give something up for lent.

SI: Tell us about the history of the beer you're drinking.

JW: Doppelbocks typically have names like Maximator, Consecrator and that sort of thing. It's a traditional thing breweries have done. The beer was originally conceived and brewed by monks outside of Munich in the 1600s. Napoleon secularized the country and the monastery became a brewery. A guy by the name of Zacakerel leased it and began brewing this same recipe. For a long time, Salvator beer was the style of beer and other breweries made it too. When Zackarel died, his two nephews inherited the brewery. They wanted to copyright the name -- this was in the 1700s -- which they eventually did. So people couldn't call their beer Salvator. In homage to the original beer, people started naming their beers Celebrator or Consecrator or Maximator so they took that ATOR suffix and attached it.

SI: What about Illuminator Doppelbock, the specific beer you're drinking?

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