J Wilson has vowed to fast on beer this Lent. The 38-year-old Iowan is following the example of 17th-century Bavarian friars who did not allow solid food to pass their lips during the penitential season but kept going on strong, dark specially brewed beer called doppelbock.
The first three days of the fast are meant to be the worst, says Wilson when I speak to him two days after Ash Wednesday. He says he feels fine and on Day Three he is certainly sounding more cheerful and compos mentis than I would have expected from a man on a diet of four 12-ounce bottles of dark lager a day. He has a headache, he says, but doesn’t feel bleary or even that hungry. Wilson is writing about the experience on his blog, Diary of a Part-Time Monk, and plans to write a book on the topic.
Like the Paulaner friars of Munich, Wilson, a home-brewing English teacher turned newspaper editor, brewed his own doppelbock, adapting old recipes. The beer, which is sweeter, stronger and darker than normal lager, is filled with nutrients and was called “liquid bread”. Doppelbock received papal approval in the late 1600s, so the legend goes, because the Paulaner friars sent a cask of the brew to Rome which turned sour on the long journey across the Alps. The pope tasted the sour liquid and decided that anything so disgusting must be good for penitents, giving it his sanction. The Paulaner doppelbock, which is a strengthened version of the original Lenten beer known as bockbier, was called Salvator, and the other Bavarian breweries which make doppelbock give the brew a name ending in the letters “-or”. Wilson’s beer is an Illuminator. Although hops play a minimal part in the flavour of doppelbock, Wilson has used a mixture of different hops, including a type originally grown in the Holledau region of Bavaria from where the friars would have harvested hops used in the Salvator beer.
As well as being the editor of the Adams County Free Press, Wilson is a beer blogger for a site called Brewvana. The idea for the beer fast came to him some years ago. He says he was first drawn to the “storied history” of the Paulaner friars developing the doppelbock to sustain them during Lent.
“I’ve got a little history interest in me,” he explains. “I certainly enjoy the beer angle. And a couple of years ago I thought this would be a really interesting project to see what their lives would have looked like. I thought this would make an interesting book. I think people might agree with me.”
With his wife’s approval and the support of his colleagues at the Adams County Free Press, the father of two started developing the project in earnest. Reckoning that he would lose some weight over the 46 days of fasting, Wilson bulked up. Then there was a test run, surviving a day on nothing but beer. Although he experienced some pangs of hunger and a slight headache, the trial went well and he decided he would go ahead. A friend who runs the Rock Bottom Brewery in Des Moines, Iowa, brewed the beer in large enough quantities for the project.
While at university Wilson discovered good food and beer when he was working shifts in restaurants. He swore to himself that he would start home brewing as soon as he had a full-time job. He began in 1996, just as the craft-brewing movement started to gain momentum in the United State, while he was working as an English teacher in a Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. His first brew was a German Altbier.
Although some people have dismissed Wilson’s project as gimmicky he has taken the beer’s history and the spiritual aspects of the project seriously. Four years after moving from Raleigh, North Carolina, Wilson and his family still haven’t found a “home church” in Prescott, Iowa, but for the non-denominational Christian beer enthusiast faith is clearly very important. His blog is littered with Scripture references, alongside allusions to the Beatles and Johnny Cash.
In preparation for his Lenten fast, and with an eye to understanding the Paulaner friars better, he read both the Rule of St Benedict and the Rule of St Francis. He has spoken by phone to a monk in Conception, Missouri, about his project and about monastic life in general, as well as speaking to his local Catholic priest.
In his forthcoming book Wilson plans to outline some of the historical context of the project. He also hopes to give readers a sense of Christianity’s historical relationship with brewing and alcohol.
“In the States,” Wilson says, “beer and alcohol are looked upon really negatively by certain Christians. There’s certainly a neo-prohibitionist kind of movement that’s very much alive today. To me that is really unfortunate because there is this rich history that I think these people just choose to overlook. I’ve said before that beer people have something to learn from God and about God. I think that during this project as well Christians and people of God will have something to learn from beer. I think it goes both ways. There is more than one audience from it.”
Wilson says he has been really happy that some Catholic publications have picked up the story and he has had a rush of positive comments.
As well as regular check-ups with a doctor during his beer-fast, Wilson is having weekly meetings with his spiritual adviser, local Presbyterian pastor Rev Ken Rummer, who he describes as “a good man and a good man of God”. On Ash Wednesday the pastor launched Wilson’s fast with a 17th-century prayer and a Celtic blessing – which, Wilson writes on his blog, “really knocked my socks off”.
But one practical aspect of Wilson’s fast bothers me. How is he going about his daily business in the land of the automobile if he is keeping alive on beer? What does he do about driving?
Wilson says he has been very conscious of the safety issue and has bought himself a breathalyser. (“It helps me to check in and manage my alcohol levels,” he says.) Although he can space his four servings of beer to suit his needs and responsibilities, he says he is lucky enough to live in a small town where he can pretty much walk anywhere he needs to get to.
Finally, I ask Wilson whether he has any plans to go to Bavaria, the land where Christianity and brewing go hand-in-hand. He explains that he can’t go this year because of financial considerations but hopes that it will be possible in the future.
You can follow J Wilson’s progress at http://diaryofaparttimemonk.wordpress.com.