The Catholic season of Lent is a period of introspection that symbolizes the 40 days Jesus Christ wandered the wilderness before his persecution and crucifixion on Good Friday. For some, it is also a time for fasting and denial to emulate Christ’s suffering. What does all this have to do with beer? As it happens, plenty.
It seems that the German Paulaner monks at Munich’s Cloister Neudeck ob der Au took their fasting seriously during Lent. Indeed, they ate no solid food whatsoever during the Holy time. Instead of making bread with their grain, they brewed beer. They called it “liquid bread,” as it sustained them through the long season. The style of beer they brewed has gone by several names including Fastenbier or Starkbier. It is more commonly known as Doppelbock. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines, this brew should be very rich and malty with a touch of chocolate but still crisp and smooth. Doppelbock, literally “double bock,” is generally high in alcohol (between 7 and 12 percent).
This classic Bavarian style has a long and checkered history. Depending on which documents you believe, it was born between 1630 and 1670. Being men of the cloth, the monks were not sure that they should drink such an intoxicating and delicious brew during Lent, which is, after all, typically a time of denial. So they sought clarification from their earthly leader, the Holy Father himself, in Rome.
The monks dispatched a keg of their brew to the Vatican, but since the journey was long and wound through first the Alps and then the hot plains of Italy, the beer got shaken up and warmed in the sun over a period of several weeks. By the time it arrived in Rome, it had been through quite an ordeal and was less than ideal for consumption. The Pope took one taste of the spoiled brew and decided that such a vile concoction was pure liquid hair shirt, a most fitting drink for any sad penitent who sought to eschew earthly pleasure.
Recently, an Ohio man announced that he was observing Lent in the traditional fashion. Del Hall works at Fifty West Brewing Company in Cincinnati and is going the way of monks by abstaining from all food and drink except beer and water for this year’s Lenten season.
“Just like the monks used to do it back in the 1600s, I’m going to do the same thing,” Hall said in a YouTube video. “It’s not necessarily about the weight loss as it is the challenge of replicating what the monks did.”
Hall plans to document his journey on social media and keep in close contact with his doctor. (After just one week, Hall has reported losing 15 pounds.)
To return to our medieval master brewers, the monks eventually named their beer Salvator after the savior. In deference to that original brew, when imitators began making their own versions, most were named with the –ator ending to the appellation. Commercial versions that are currently available include Spaten Optimator and Ayinger Celebrator.
While depriving yourself of food is not necessarily suggested, would a true beer-lover consider a 40-day binge as sacrifice? We’ll see on Good Friday, when Hall ends his fast.