Give Us This Day Our Liquid Bread: What Is Lentbier?

Drink Features lentbier
Give Us This Day Our Liquid Bread: What Is Lentbier?

Lent is a 46-day period (40 regular days plus six Sundays) in the Christian liturgical calendar meant to commemorate Jesus’s 40-day fast in the wilderness. It spans from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. The observation of Lent, and the practices around it, vary widely across denominations and time periods. Today, it is most widely observed among Catholics, who abstain from eating meat, with the exception of fish, on Fridays (which is why 25% of McDonald’s annual Filet-O-Fish sales occur during Lent). It’s also common to give up certain indulgences, such as sweets, social media and alcohol during Lent. 

In the days of the early church, Lenten observances were much stricter than they are now. Black fasts were common at the time among Christians. This involved a sunrise-to-sunset fast for the entirety of Lent, and meals were limited to bread, vegetables and herbs. By the Middle Ages, fasting rules had been relaxed to a fast which lasted until 3:00 p.m. Another important exception that developed during this time period was the allowance of beer.

‘Liquidum non frangit ieiunium’

“Liquidum non frangit ieiunium” is a Latin axiom that states that “liquid does not break the fast.” In this case, the allowance of beer was less of an indulgence and more of a practicality, as fermentation was one of the only ways to make water safe to drink. At the time, low-ABV beer was brewed for daily consumption by adults and children alike year-round. Thankfully, the head brewers of the time, monks, were also the most observant followers of Lenten fasting, and they had a few tricks up their robes come fasting season. 

During Lent, a slightly more nourishing brew was concocted to give people additional sustenance during the daily fasts. The resulting product was a brew that was mildly darker and sweeter, albeit only slightly stronger in alcohol. These beers were made using a higher ratio of grain to water. This resulted in a wort with more sugars. However, not all of the additional sugars extracted from the grains were allowed to ferment into alcohol. This is what resulted in a beer that was more filling and nutritious without being substantially stronger than typical beer. 

The resulting concoction came to be known as Lentbier, or fastenbier (i.e., “fasting beer”). Traditionally, they are lagered, unfiltered and have a malt-forward sweetness. It’s the ideal beverage to sip on while keeping up with your chores around the monastery and waiting for 3:00 p.m. to hit. It’s heavy enough to fill you up but weak enough to allow you to keep your wits about you. 

Doppelbock Deceit 

When reading into the role of beer during Lent, one of the most common stories you’ll encounter is the legend of the monks of Paulaner Monastery inventing the strong and sweet style of doppelbock to aid their fasts (the resulting product, Paulaner Salvator, is still available today). Unfortunately, while the beer is delicious, the Lenten connection is a myth. 

As outlined in the article, “The Real Story of Doppelbock” by author Mark Dredge, “[Salvator] was a beer for a feast, not a fast.” Specifically, it was made for the Feast of St. Francis of Paola, which fell on April 2, close to when Easter usually lands (thus, the end of Lent). In fact, this is the only time the monks of Paulaner were allowed to sell their beer, and it was a hit. 

The myth of the doppelbock being brewed for Lent is fairly widespread among advanced beer nerds, even getting a mention in the history section of the official Beer Judge Certification Program’s “doppelbock” entry in their Style Guide. Part of the myth came from the misconception that the monks did not eat at all during Lent, heightening the need for an extra-strong beer. 

It makes sense, too. Both styles came from the monastic brewing tradition and are fuller and sweeter iterations of the lager style. Additionally, both were consumed in the spring. Regardless of accuracy, past perceptions impact modern practices.

Live Fast and Drink Not So Hard

As truth-adjacent legends of monks fasting solely on strong beers have persisted, a few dedicated individuals have committed to recreating a beer-only fast in modern times.

Ironically, it was an interest in testing out the feasibility of the Paulaner monk’s all-doppelbock diet (which, again, did not actually exist, as the monks ate some food every day and only drank doppelbocks during the feast) that led J. Wilson to attempt a beer-only fast for the 46-day duration of Lent in 2011. He had a special doppelbock brewed for the endeavor and documented the experience on his blog. Del Hall has also completed multiple beer-fasts during Lent in an effort to raise money for charity, accumulating over  $10,000 during his 2020 fast. Both fasters lost a significant amount of weight and were under the supervision of doctors throughout the process. 

Looking for Lentbier

While doppelbocks are easy to come by, finding an actual Lentbier can be much more difficult. Few breweries produce them at all, and even fewer distribute them. 

The most well-known example of the style might be Schlenkerla’s Lentbeer, a seasonal release only brewed during Lent. Schlenkerla, a brewery out of Bamberg, Germany, is known for roasting their malts in wood fired ovens, a historic brewing method. This gives the beer a distinct smokey taste. While all of their beers are smoked, the Lentbeer is notable for its fuller body and malt-sweetness, yet still drinking at a pious 5.9% ABV. 

One of the few American breweries currently making a Lentbier is OEC Brewing out of Oxford, Connecticut, where it’s available to drink in their taproom and is distributed in cans. This one spares the smokiness and has a copper color and malt-forward sweetness, also weighing in at 5.9% ABV. 

More examples of the style could also possibly be found in smaller breweries as experimental one-offs. To be fair, the style itself is hard to pin down, as it lacks a precise definition and brewing parameters. Timing and intent may be the most important part of what makes a Lentbier a Lentbier.

With Lent having recently come to an end, it may not be too late to go out and find a sweet, malty, lower-ABV snack that could tide you over till dinner. Of course, now that Easter has passed, whether or not you participated in a Lenten fast, consider celebrating with a strong and decadent doppelbock. After all, that’s what they were brewed for.

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