The practice of observing a period of repentance prior to the celebration of the Easter feast is one of the oldest and longstanding traditions in the Church. Fasting from certain foods has been always been an integral part of and intertwined with Lenten practices. Today, the typical Lenten fast is abstaining from meat on Fridays, however in the past the fast was more diverse. So diverse that in the 17th century, German monks only consumed a special brew of beer for the entire 40 days of Lent.
“Some abstain from every sort of creature that has life, while others of all the living creatures eat of fish only. Others eat birds as well as fish, others abstain from fruit covered by a hard shell and from eggs. Some eat dry bread only, others not even that.” – Socrates, Church History V. 22
In the early 1600s, Paulaner friars of the Order of Minims moved from Southern Italy and settled in the monastery Neudeck ob der Au in Bavaria. The friars observed a strict ascetic lifestyle, living in perpetual abstinence from all meat and dairy products. This “Lenten way of life,” termed vita quadragesimalis in Latin, is a distinct character of the Order of Minims. Because they already observed a Lenten lifestyle year round, they invented a beer only diet for Lent as a special fast beyond what they already observed.
In 1634, the Paulaner friars came up with a special brew, so malty and rich they could sustain themselves on it alone for the entire 40 days of Lent. The “liquid bread” as they called it, was full of carbohydrates and other nutrients, with the idea being that liquids cleanse both body and soul. It was a common belief that the more “liquid bread” one consumed, the more purified they would be for Lent.
The doppelback, as it is called in German, was quite strong for its time, and people occasionally got drunk off it. When the friars recipe improved, they feared the beer was too tasty and intoxicating to be drunk during Lent.
Around the year 1700, they sent a barrel to the pope asking for his opinion. However, on its travels through the Alps and through the hot Italian sun, it went foul and the pope received a flagrant concoction that resembled nothing of the original brew. After tasting it, the pope sent a message that the disgusting liquid would most definitely help cleanse the friars of their sins, and so the Order of Minim’s tradition of leitenbock was born: 40 days without solid food, drinking only water and beer.
The monastery sold the doppelback during various holidays, gaining local fame. By 1780, they were licensed to sell it during ordinary times. However, in 1799 the cloister was abolished and in 1813 purchased by Franz Xaver Zacherl who opened a brewery in its place. Today, the tradition continues on in the current Paulaner Brewery of Munich, who brews a beer using the same recipe used by the friars almost 400 years ago.