30 May, 2014.
VELKOPOPOVICKY KOZEL - Babcock's Dinner Party
I have wasted a good part of my adult life listening to one Thomas P. Babcock Esq. explain the difference between a drinkable pint and a great beer. For the past ten years, Tom and I have met every night after work at the Cambridge on Charing Cross Road and enjoyed a pint and a bite to eat before heading home to family. Tom loves beer. He REALLY loves beer. He has even applied to be admitted to the British Guild of Beer Writers.
"Tonight, I have a special surprise for you," he began before I could get my umbrella down and stow my Macintosh. He took a half-step back from the bar and stared at a glass of dark beer sitting alone on the bar in front of him. "This, my friend, is a true nectar," he announced with theatrical flair. "As you know, I have spent my entire life searching for ale perfection. I have come close many times, have I not?" he asked with a touch of gravitas.
"I imagine," I muttered, staring at the glass of dark beer that was obviously the object of Tom's new affection.
"Please allow, therefore, T.Q. Babcock, Esq. to introduce VELKOPOPOVICKY KOZEL CERNY," he said with a sweeping gesture of his arm and a bow to the lonely glass of beer sitting on the bar. "This one is special," he said picking up the glass in his left hand, covering the glass with his right, swirling the beer gently, then bringing the glass close to his nose to test the aroma. "Perfect," he said. "I am about to buy you a glass of Kozel from the Czech Republic. I know. I know. It's not a British beer. But wait till you taste it. This beer has little hints of bitterness from hops, yet retains the caramel sweetness of the barley sugar. These Czech brewers are doing something that no one else does. Just taste this beer," he invited while signaling the bartender to bring another.
Ten days later, Tom Babcock and I were heading south out of Prague on Rte. 1 in the Central Bohemian District of the Czech Republic toward the town of Velke Popovice, the home of the Kozel Brewery. As insane as this was, I was glad to be driving in the summer sunshine through the beautiful rolling fields of barley and wheat that glided gently past on either side of the highway. Rivers and streams, lakes and springs refreshed this country and somehow made you feel clean as you left the city behind.
The Babcock party was booked for a private "Follow the Goat" tour of the Kozel Brewery. I'm not sure what Tom presented as our credentials, but the old guide treated us like visiting royalty, and Tom showed no reluctance for acting the part. "No secrets," our guide muttered under his breath as he led us to the masher. "You will know how we make our wonderful beer from grain to glass. This is where it all begins. The crushed malt is added to the hot liquor here in this tank."
"Liquor?" I asked. "You add malt to liquor?"
"In brewing, water is referred to as 'liquor'...never, 'water.' 'Water' is for washing. 'Liquor' is for brewing," the guide explained. "Our water is always, and only, from the purest local springs. This is one of the secret ingredients that make our Kozel Beer No. 1 in the world."
"What exactly is malt?" Tom asked as if he already knew, but I would need further education.
"Malt is barley that has germinated, then it is toasted," the guide explained to me, with Tom nodding knowingly in the background. "The liquor (Bohemian natural spring water) gradually extracts the sugar, the colours and flavours from the barley making what is called sweet wort. It is brought to a boil in these coppers. Then we add the hops."
"Hops," Tom said knowingly, glancing from me to the hops the guide was holding. "Hops are the thing," he asserted pointing at them.
"Both the barley and the Saaz hops are grown right here in this region so we are assured the finest quality. The hops add bitterness and balance the sweetness of the wort. Later we add whole flowerhops for aroma."
We then travelled to the cold side of the plant where the fermentation rooms were located. "In these stainless tanks we add yeast to the hopped wort and wait at least seven days for the yeast to turn the sugars to alcohol and release naturally occurring carbon dioxide into the beer. The beer is then transferred to the lager tanks where it develops delicacy and balanced taste. The barley malt gives the beer caramel sweetness and the hops add a touch of bitterness. Our second addition of exotic hops adds a fruity flavour and a citrus aroma that creates our signature grassy finish."
After work the following Monday, Tom extended an unusual invitation to dine at his flat and have a ceremonial taste of Velkopopovicky Kozel Cerny. "For our inaugural meal, I was able to order theKozel from Halusky.co.uk, the Czech importer on the Upper Richmond Rd.," he announced. "Tonight, the Kozel will be complimented with traditional Czech pickled sausages with onion, meat brawn, and Spiss Frankfurters all imported from the Czech Republic by Halusky.co.uk. Prepare for a special introduction into the art of eating and drinking... the most natural of Czech traditions.