Updated: Mar 29
Bartenders are always searching for the next cool new ingredient or the next unheard of technique. One of the biggest trends of modern mixology is the application of sustainable working practices as well as fermentation especially since both generally go hand in hand. Especially when it comes to re-using ingredients or making by-products go the extra mile. One of the most commonly thrown away foods in the hospitality industry is bread. It is often said you should NEVER run out of bread in a restaurant & NOBODY likes to eat stale bread either! So what if we could use our stale bread too make a naturally fermented, low-abs & healthy beverage to use in our bar program? Say hello to KVASS!
A drink with an ancient history
Kvass is a fermented beverage from Russia & is rooted deeply in the history of the country. In fact, it can be traced further back than before Russia was even on the map. An ancient version of kvass is said to have existed in Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Greece, although the exact origin is unclear. Kvass came to Russia just over 1,000 years ago, and it was mentioned in Russian manuscripts from the time. It was an everyday drink in old Russia, valued for its thirst-quenching properties and energising effect. It was the drink farmers would take to the field on a hot day. Back in those days, people believed that kvass had healing properties, and modern science has proved that these beliefs were not without reason. Kvass does have properties that help kill parasites and harmful bacteria, which made it safer to drink than water at that time. Maybe you have never heard of this drink before today, but this is quite an ancient beverage. You might be surprised to know that we are talking about something older than vodka itself. This is especially surprising due to the modern association of Vodka & Russia. Kvass has been around since before the Red Square, vodka, the Cyrillic alphabet or even Russia as a country. Before Russians were creating the biggest country on Earth, people were drinking kvass by the Moscow River.
The first written mention of kvass takes us back to the year 989, but most probably it was being consumed centuries before that. In the 18th century, in the times of Peter the Great, this was the most popular drink among every class in society and during some periods of time it was reported that many people consumed more kvass than water. During the Soviet Union, kvass was nicknamed “The Communist Coca-Cola”. In those times Russians could freely buy Pepsi, but not Coca-Cola. Despite that, the nickname most probably is due to the fact that the colour of kvass resembles that of the American drink. Nowadays its per capita consumption reaches 3 litres a year.
The process of fermentation
There is a legend behind how kvass was first discovered in Russia, and, like in many great discoveries, it was by accident. One day, a farmer found that a bag of grain he was storing had been penetrated by water. The seeds had sprouted and grown through. In an attempt to save his grain, the farmer dried it and milled it into a flour. Yet this flour was no good for making bread. He decided to pour hot water over the mixture and leave it to ferment. This simple process is still used to make kvass on an industrial level. Kvass is a fermented beverage, which is made from rye bread. The colour of the bread used, you can use regular or black bread, contributes to the final colour of the drink. Apart from water and bread, you can add other ingredients such as yeast, malt, sugar or different fruits. Kvass is often flavoured with strawberries or other sorts of berries. You can also add herbs.
Kvass is brewed at home all across Russia, but you can also buy it bottled at supermarkets. It is classified as a non-alcoholic drink by Russian standards, as the alcohol content from fermentation is typically less than 1.2%. Generally, the alcohol content is under 1%.
Kvass’ place in modern Russia
Over time, Russia welcomed Western influences into its culture, especially after a European lifestyle was enforced during the reign of Peter the Great. As more influences took hold, Kvass was seen less and less in Russian communities. Even when a wave of patriotism inspired locals to return to their roots, it wasn’t enough to bring kvass back into daily use. Its true revival happened during Soviet rule, when the production of kvass was enforced by the government. Soon, trucks appeared hauling large barrels of kvass and vendors sold it in the street.
Although Russians are not so much in need of the healing qualities of kvass, it remains a symbol of patriotism and of true Russianness. Consuming kvass, as opposed to sugary Western alternatives, remains a sign of loyalty to the country and pride in national products.
The introduction of soft drinks in the Russian market made the consumption of kvass drop in the 90s. But this beverage was long from being forgotten. In the 2000s new inspiration came into the spirits of kvass drinkers and sales of bottled kvass tripled within a few years. The soft drinks market dropped by 15% and pushed companies like Coca-cola to start manufacturing their own brand of kvass. Today the kvass market is worth hundreds of billions of roubles every year.
Quick Recipe for Modern Beetroot Kvass from Bon Appetit: