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On Capitol Hill, a Thirst for That 'Heavenly Brew'

St. Mark's Has Its Own Beer, and Young Adults Beat a Path to Its Door

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page B09

Since introducing its own brand of lager this fall, St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill has seen an influx of twenty- and thirty-somethings on Sunday mornings.

"I can't say it's a compelling reason," Rector Paul Abernathy said when asked whether the addition of Winged Lion Lager to Sunday's pub lunch menu had anything to do with the new faces at St. Mark's.

Last summer, Rick Weber made the first batch of Winged Lion Lager for St. Mark's Episcopal Church. His brews are popular at the church's pub lunches. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

But he acknowledged the coincidence and said with a smile, "I'll find out."

Pub lunches are a long-standing tradition at the 135-year-old church, which has 700 members who pride themselves on their spirit of fellowship and conviviality, Abernathy said.

Sharing a brew in a family atmosphere is one way they take part. Every Sunday after the 11 o'clock service, more than 100 people gather in the parish hall for pub-style fare that includes soup, sandwiches, salad, bread, beer, soda and wine.

For 31 years, the beer selection was dominated by commercial brands such as Samuel Adams. That changed last summer, when parishioner Rick Weber rented a kettle at Shenandoah Brewing Co. in Alexandria and cooked up a batch of Winged Lion.

At the church's fall fair in September, the parish's own "heavenly brew" premiered -- in bottles featuring a winged lion, the symbol of Saint Mark the Evangelist. The first five cases, 120 bottles, lasted only a few weeks, and Weber returned to the brewery to make a second batch of lager.

For holiday variety, Weber, 45, decided to make an English-style nut brown ale with touches of nutmeg and chocolate malt and headed to the brewery a third time. The congregation loved the Christmas Cheer ale and and scarfed up all 60 bottles at a Christmas fundraiser for the church two weeks ago.

With the Christmas Cheer gone and the Winged Lion down to a few bottles, Weber plans to brew a honey porter for Mardi Gras. People are saying they don't know if they can go back to commercial beers, and two other parishioners have offered to help with the next batch.

Weber, a journalist, said he enjoys brewing time because Shenandoah's do-it-yourself area "has a laundromat feel." People chat or read books while waiting specified intervals before stirring the hops and other ingredients.

After the cooking process, which lasts about two hours, Weber transfers the liquid into a fermenting cask, where it sits for several weeks. He then uses a hand-operated machine to put the beer into bottles and adheres specially made labels.

On a personal level, he feels joy at "seeing something everybody at the church was excited about, something that contributed to the sense of community and belonging."

Parishioners consume the beer as part of the pub lunch, a nonprofit service to the parish. Participants buy pub tickets for $10, a donation to the church, and redeem the tickets for food and beverages.

Abernathy welcomes the excitement Winged Lion Lager has generated. And he makes no apologies for serving alcoholic beverages in the parish hall.

"This is a religious community made up of people, people who do drink socially," the priest said. "We also serve nonalcoholic beverages in a way that is as attractive as alcoholic beverages. We do not encourage or dissuade people from drinking [beer or wine]. And we do offer a choice."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company