Take malted barley and water. Add hops for flavor. Allow to brew. Add yeast and allow to ferment. That's it: the recipe for beer. It sounds simple enough. Then, why, oh why, do most American beers look and taste like caramel-colored, carbonated water?

We brew the beer we deserve. Americans, it would seem, want an ice-cold, thirst quenching, mildly alcoholic and uniformly dull beverage. In an industry which is being controlled by fewer companies (Anheuser-Busch and Miller have half the market), there's little likelihood of an improvement in quality.

It's cause for despair to note that the fastest growing segment is light beer. Its growth, from 2 percent to 13 percent in five years, is a credit to the advertising, which has more taste and character than the beers themselves.

Why should a committed wine drinker care? Well, there are times, mostly tropical, when a beer is just right for the weather or food. There are also times, mostly economical, when a beer is just right for the pocket book. Given the monotony of American beers, the choice at those times will be an imported beer.

The joy of the imports is in their variety. They come from every continent and, while hardly a threat to the American brands, their 3-percent market share is considered to be "significant" by industry analysts. The best sellers are lagers, with the exception of Guinness, the stout which is Ireland's contribution to international nutrition, being a meal in itself.

A new, and tenuous, link between wine and beer is a range of imported beers distributed by Merchant du Vin Authentic Beers. How they managed to trademark "authentic" is beyond me, but the pamphlets on the special display stands state that all the beers contain only the "four classical, natural ingredients."

I didn't have the courage to try Belgium's Lindemans Kriek Lambic, an ale described as "the pink champagne" of beer. The pink is by way of an infusion of fresh sour cherries! Nor was I up to a smoked malt lager from West Germany, Kaiserdom Rauchbier.

In the lagers, the provocatively named Aass ($1.35), from Norway, was delightful. One of the ligher ones, it was thirst quenching, but had a rich, smooth, well-hopped taste.

Diekirch Malt ($1.35), from Luxembourg, was meant to be stronger, but in fact was thinner. It did have a good frothy head.

LutMece Biere de Paris, ($2.99 for 750 ml.), had a copper-brown color, sweetish nose and malty rich taste, but was a little flat.

Heineken, by far the largest-selling import, was tasted against the lagers, as a control. In comparison, it was effervescent, crisper and more bland.

My favorite ale was Samuel Smith Old Brewery Pale Ale, ($1.69), from Yorkshire. Medium brown in color, with a soft foamy head and mildly bitter finish, it would be good with a Ploughman's, the lunch of a hunk of strong cheddar and crusty bread.

Vaux Double Maxim, ($1.69), a Sunderland Brown, had a strongly hopped smell, but a flabby taste and nondescript character compared to Samuel Smith.

Authentic beers, trademarked or not, are more expensive than American brands, but I'd rather trade quantity for quality and drink a beer that tastes like--beer.