Wild Culture: Can a Fermented Russian Bread-and-Water Drink Dethrone Kombucha?

Fermentation with fervor

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With the rise in popularity of fermented drinks, by now you are probably well versed on the merits of kombucha, but have you heard of the other k-drink, kvass?

This lacto-fermented beverage is an old staple on the Russian drink list, dating back over 1,000 years. In the United States it has gone mostly under the radar, but thanks to our newfound appreciation for all things that bubble, people are started to talk about—and drink—kvass.

Kvass has a rich history. It first appears in The Primary Chronicle of Kievan Rus, where we learn that with the baptism of Prince Vladimir in 989 AD, there was “food, honey in barrels, and bread-kvass.” A drink fit for a prince, so to say.

Kvass—also spelled in a variety of other forms like kvas and kbac and found around the majority of the Slavic countries—is a fairly simple fermented beverage, traditionally made from a base of bread and water that’s left for a few days to ferment. The result is a tangy, sour beverage, and one that’s pretty easy to make if you’re gung-ho about homebrewing.

“I started making it five years ago… as more or less a novelty thing,” says Dan Woodske of the nanobrewery Beaver Brewing Company, one of the only breweries in the U.S. who brews and sells kvass. Woodske has also written about it extensively in his book, Kvass: History, Health Benefits and Recipes.

As a brewer, he was intrigued by the potential of kvass, and Woodske searched all over to find a traditional recipe so that he could make it and sell it at his brewery. He searched old Soviet cookbooks and eventually came upon a basic recipe made with bread, water, yeast, lemon juice and raisins. “It kind of caught on,” says Woodske. His kvass has developed such a following that, since he doesn’t ship (he believes in keeping things truly local), he had one customer drive 10 hours just to buy some.

The fermentation process for kvass is fairly short, and once it’s made, it’s intended to be consumed within a short time period. That, among other things like looks and taste, is what has kept a kvass explosion from happening in the microbrewery world. “It’s not very appealing to the eye… it’s super cloudy, you might get a chunk of bread in there once in a while,” says Woodske. “The places making it are really small breweries, and when people go there, they really want beer.” Kvass has a very low alcohol content—usually between three and four percent—so beyond it having less of an alcoholic kick than a traditional beer, it also doesn’t keep as long, which makes it tough to sell commercially. Woodske keeps his for a maximum of 10 days. After all, he reminds me, “it’s an alive drink.” Unless you live near Woodkse’s brewery in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, “the best way to do it is just make it at home,” he says.

In fact, kvass has certainly caught on with the home fermentation crowd, both with the traditional bread version and more modern variations. Even Woodske makes variations, adding ingredients like mint, lavender and sage. There are many recipes out there for making beet kvass, leaving you with a deep red, briny drink. Just like brewers of kombucha, makers of beet kvass talk up its probiotics, not to mention that it’s pretty easy to start brewing on your kitchen countertop. “Many people adhere to gluten-free diets by necessity or choice, and having a version that excludes bread has been helpful for them,” says Jenny McGruther of Nourished Kitchen, noting that this modern version of kvass that has made the round on blogs focused on whole foods and health was originally popularized by Sally Fallon Morell of the Weston A Price Foundation. “l love the magical transformation that happens as foods ferment,” says McGruther. “Beets go from sweet to sour and briny, and beet kvass has a wonderful savory flavor that I appreciate.”

Beet-Kvass.jpgFishermansdaughter, CC BY

While they carry the same name, beet kvass and traditional kvass made with bread have different flavors, and as Woodske is describing his kvass to me over the phone, I keep thinking of øllebrød, a Danish porridge that’s made from soaking dried-up rye bread in beer, a way of ensuring that food scraps don’t go to waste. This porridge also has a very yeasty, sweet flavor to it, although not the sour component that kvass has. While these types of flavors may seem new and different to our palates, these are tastes that our ancestors were used to, and date back probably farther than we can trace our family tree. It’s our modern world of processed food that has made yeasty, funky flavors, flavors “that I don’t think a lot of people are familiar with,” says Woodske.

But those often unfamiliar flavors, caused by fermentation, make for foods that are inherently good for us. While our ancestors may have had an affinity for stronger tasting beverages—simply because they were more used to them—today our palates have gone bland, killed by sugar. Even in Russia and other Eastern European countries where kvass is traditional, Woodske says that today the supermarket version of kvass has nothing to do with the original (yes, even Coca-Cola has a version), and its nutritional value certainly isn’t anywhere near the fermented stuff. “[It’s] not really made from bread, just made from a bread extract,” says Woodske. “It’s not really good… it’s sickeningly sweet.”

That’s a far cry from the original, which Woodske points out was a way for people to be make their water more drinkable, calling it “the early sanitation method of early Russian peasants.” As he points out, “most people’s water supply was coming from their backyard pond.” They added in all the other ingredients and let it ferment, “just to make it palatable to drink.”

And while most of us don’t have a reason to make pond water drinkable, as our taste for fermented foods and beverages returns, this tangy sour drink might just be something that we too start craving, be it from a craft brewer or a home recipe.

Let the kvass revolution begin.

Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break and runs Foodie Underground, a site about real food for real people. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.

Main image: Mricon, CC BY-SA