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.
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?
JW: I wanted to model the beer I'm drinking after that to make it as historically accurate as possible but be pretty appealing to a modern day palate. I've been a home brewer for about fourteen-and-a-half years, so this beer is based on a recipe of mine.
I approached Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery in Des Moines and said, “I wonder if I could brew my beer on your system. I'll use it for this project, and you could sell it commercially.” They were all for it. This was last August. The next few months, we exchanged emails, hammered out the details and the recipe and how we would scale it up.
We brewed the beer together in January. It's been really successful. It's going to sell out. It's kind of a one-shot deal. Maybe they'll do it again in the fall. It's probably a home-brewer's dream come true, and it's given those guys some attention.
Rock Bottom is a chain, but they are really high quality. It's not like McDonalds. There's some local autonomy to the brewing. There are usually 15-16 beers on tap and they have really good brewers.
SI: And this beer is unfiltered. Why?
JW: A regular Budweiser or Bud Light is filtered to make it clearer, which is palatable to American eyeballs but a lot of the nutrients and some of the character is stripped out of it. The yeast is completely stripped out of it. The beers are pasteurized for better shelf life, so any yeast that did make it through the filtration process is killed. It's a dead product.
Some of these craft-brewed beers that are maybe unfiltered are living products. Like wine, they will improve with age. There are a lot of really good B-complex vitamins in unfiltered beer. I wanted to make sure the beer I was drinking was unfiltered, so I'd have as many nutrients as possible available to me.
Day 21: There are a number of goals that I established at the beginning of this project: spiritual tune-up, a hands-on historical study, re-evaluate balance, detox, evaluate my future, gain deeper appreciation, contribute to both the worlds of beer and Christianity.
SI: What's the alcohol content?
JW: 6.67% which is kind of strange for doppelbock. Traditionally, the monks' beers would have been a little sweeter and lower in alcohol than mine. The yeast would not have been able to metabolize or chew up all the sugar that the barley provides. The alcohol content of their beer would have been about 5.5%, 6 % tops. Nowadays, 7-7.5% is generally the starting point for doppelbocks. I've seen them as high as 11%, but 7-8% is more typical. And a lot sweeter.
I'm drinking four of these per day and nothing else for 46 days, so I wanted it to be on the lower end of the alcohol content spectrum. It's not a matter of trying to be hammered for 46 days.
SI: How does it taste?
JW: It's known as liquid bread. It tastes really bready. It has a crusty bread type character and a nuance of caramel. This beer is what I call medium full bodied.
SI: What did your pastor first say when you told him?
JW: There's a local guy, Reverend Ken Rummer, who's the local Presbyterian pastor in our area, and he's just a really good guy. When I thought it would probably make sense to chat with a pastor on weekly basis to keep me on track and keep me growing and not get hammered and hold myself accountable, Ken came to mind immediately. He's really good guy. I don't think he's a beer-hater, but he does not drink. He's know me for years. When I asked him, he said, “I'll definitely do that. It's not a problem.”
He just smiled and this big smile crept across his face, just like every other pastor I spoke to. I talked to a monk and a priest. I talked to them over the phone, but I could hear them smiling.
Day 34: “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that's a tough call. That's rebellion.” -Alice Cooper
SI: Did he have any words of warning?
JW: Ken said, “This is a piece of history, an extended fast of this nature. It's in our history and not in our present so much. And to have somebody explore that is pretty fascinating.” I think he knew where my heart was and I was taking it seriously, so he didn't have any words of warning. He just thought it was neat that somebody would want to explore that. To have someone come to him and say they're doing this and want spiritual guidance, how could I turn that down?
SI: What were the intended spiritual effects of the fast?
JW: I don't know if it's possible to know. I guess you want God to tell you, “You should start a band and be a rock star.” But I didn't have any specific expectations. I just let whatever happened, happen and keep my eyes open and notice it. It's a way to give myself a spiritual tune-up.