There are all sorts of ways obsession can take a man: finding the Loch Ness monster, climbing Mt. Everest, growing the world's largest pumpkin.
For Mark Weiner of Berose Liquors, 1711 17th St. NW, the obsession is beer. While most drinkers content themselves with choosing between light (or lite) or dark, Weiner now has 165 different brands of imported beer for sale at his store and, like all good obsessives, he's still seaching for more.
If Mark Weiner can make a life work out of beer, we can make a party, and a beer-tasting is much more appropriate to August than a wine-tasting. Not only is beer the warm-weather drink favored by many people, you don't have to spend much time in the kitchen to produce pub food: hard boiled eggs, pickles and cheese, platters of German salami and sausages, dark rye bread and mustards. Borrow or rent enough glasses so that everyone can have tastes of a variety of different beers.
Germany and England lead Berose's list of imports with Germany contributing 30 different brands, from a smoked beer (Kaiserdom Rauchbier, $1.50 a bottle) to one that is made with 20 percent wheat (Pinkus Weizen, $1.50) to produce a lighter and crisper beer than barley, to Augustinerbrau ($1.50 a bottle in either light or dark), which comes from a brewery that started making beer back in 1328.
There are 15 different beers from England including Samuel Smith pale ale ($2), Taddy and Porter ($2.75) Whitbread Ale ($1.50) and Mackeson stout ($1.25). With stein in hand, you can take a round-the-world-beer-tour, drinking your way through Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Italy, India, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Poland, Scotland and Switzerland.
With so many things standardized today and with people more concerned with calorie content than flavor, it's easy to forget just how diverse beers can be.
Back in the days when people brewed their own, they might have contained almost anything in the way of herbs and spices--from scurvy grass to sage to raisins to a parboiled hen. The latter was steeped in ale to produce a drink that was considered a remedy for consumption.
Everyone, even children, drank beer and drank it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Beer was considered as nutritious as it was delicious and when tea began to make inroads into the diet of the working man, it was denounced by social critics like William Cobbett as a very bad thing indeed.
Back in those days, before the fear of beer bellies, the drink was held in such universal favor that when the Mayflower unloaded our Puritan forefathers on Plymouth Rock, a squabble ensued over the beer. The captain, fearing his supplies would run out before he returned to England, refused to share the crew's beer with the pilgrims. They "Were hastened ashore and made to drink water," wrote William Bradford--clearly shocked by such a fate--in History of Plymouth Plantation.
Ah, tradition. We can spice up a beer-tasting by offering a toast to our beer-lorn ancestors or by announcing the party the way the old brewers did. They hung a stake outside their door to show they were in the business of selling ale. When a new batch was brewed, they were obligated by law to adorn the stake with a bunch of greenery, usually ivy, so that the ale-conner (taster) could come, sample the new batch and set a price.
This brings us to another quaint old custom, the ale-conner's test, which a daring guest or one careless of clothing might want to try:
To see whether the ale had fermented long enough, a bit was poured out onto a bench and the ale-conner sat himself down on top of it. If, after a few minutes, his britches stuck to the bench, it was a sign that unconverted sugar had made the bench sticky, and the ale hadn't fermented long enough.
Do not try this if you are unsure of your ale; you might be stuck with your guests all night.