The Salt
3:55 am
Sun August 11, 2013

America, Are You Tough Enough To Drink Real Russian Kvas?

Originally published on Wed August 14, 2013 1:09 pm

While American kids stand in line for the ice cream truck on sweltering summer days, kids in Russia have historically queued up for something different: the kvas truck.

Kvas is a fermented grain drink, sort of like a barely alcoholic beer. And in the heat of the summer, it was served from a big barrel on wheels, with everyone lining up for their turn at the communal mug. It may sound like a far cry from rocket pops and ice cream sandwiches, but most Russians have fond memories.

"We didn't have sodas in the Soviet Union when we grew up — we barely had water to buy on the street. So kvas was saving our lives, actually!" remembers Eugenia Glivinski.

To create that tangy fermented flavor, kvas makers start with Russian brown bread. You soak it in water, and then add some yeast (other additions — raisins, honey, mint — vary from recipe to recipe). The whole mixture ferments for a few days, a process that creates a natural carbonation, as well as a distinctive sour flavor.

According to Russian writer Alexander Genis, that sourness is beloved in the region. "The sour is the taste of Russia — everything is supposed to be sour for Russian taste. Like sour cream, for example, or pickled cucumber. Cabbage, mushroom."

It's no surprise Russians have a taste for pickles. Fermentation helped preserve vitamin-filled fruits and vegetables for the long, cold winter. And the acid that comes from fermentation gives you more than just an addictive tang. It lowers the pH enough to kill bad bacteria — which means that drinking kvas can be safer than drinking questionable water.

Consequently, kvas has been popular for centuries — Genis sites a mention from the end of the 10th century. Soldiers were issued rations of kvas and spread it even further (a process Genis jokingly calls "kvas imperialism").

But these days, the kvas you find in the stores doesn't always resemble this long lineage. Because of the living bacteria that ferment the drink, traditional kvas is a living beverage. But commercial kvas? It's more like a malt soda. The natural bacteria are killed, and the sour tang is often buried under heaps of sugar.

"Nowadays, it's almost impossible to drink real kvas in America," Genis sighs. "Because it's not alive — it's like difference like draft beer and bottled beer. All bottled kvas is basically water and sugar."

But while there is mainstream Coca-Cola kvas, there are also some new kvas makers who are looking to revive the traditional methods. In Pennsylvania, Beaver Brewing has started making kvas — and even wrote a book about it. And in Brooklyn, the Gefilteria — a company that is reviving old-world Jewish foods for modern gourmet markets — makes a beet kvas, with bright notes of ginger. The company is also working on a rye and mint kvas, using leftover rye bread from a local deli.

"We are Brooklyn young 20-somethings making a naturally fermented drink. But we're actually reaching into something that actually has a lot of meaning in the world, and reintroducing it," says Jeffrey Yoskowitz, one of Gefilteria's co-founders.

Yoskowitz and his partners realize that savory, sour, fermented drinks may be a hard sell to American palates. But Yoskowitz points to kombucha tea, virtually unknown in American stores a few years ago, and now easily found in many markets. And they hope that with the growing interest in home brewing, pickling and probiotics — not to mention kvas' old-world Slavic charm — they can find some new fans for this old drink.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ice-cold vodka may seem like the beverage of choice for Soviet summers. But the real way Russians have historically beat the heat is a drink made from fermented bread. It's called kvas. And some think it's ready to find new fans in America. Deena Prichep went to Brooklyn to find out.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: When Eugenia Glivinski was growing up in Ukraine, she didn't line up for the ice cream truck in summertime. Instead, she lined up for the kvas truck.

EUGENIA GLIVINSKI: We didn't have sodas in the Soviet Union when we grew up - we barely had water to buy on the street. So kvas was saving our lives, actually.

PRICHEP: Kvas is a fermented drink, sort of like a barely alcoholic beer. And in Russian towns and villages, you could find the kvas truck every summer - sort of like a big tank on wheels.

GLIVINSKI: It was a very dark-colored kvas, always the same taste. Always the same taste.

PRICHEP: The dark color and distinctive taste come from Russian brown bread. You soak it in water, then add some yeast, sometimes a handful of raisins. Then let it ferment until it bubbles up with a surprisingly refreshing sour taste.

GLIVINSKI: It's a very, very, very old, old recipe. I believe Russians always had kvas.

ALEXANDER GENIS: It's so old that nobody can tell you how old it is. The first time when kvas was mentioned in Russian chronicles, it's something in the end of the 10th century.

PRICHEP: Russian writer Alexander Genis says there's good reason for kvas' long history. First off, there's the flavor.

GENIS: The sour is the taste of Russia. Everything is supposed to be sour for Russian taste. Like sour cream, for example, or pickled cucumber. Cabbage, mushroom.

PRICHEP: It's no surprise Russians have a taste for pickles. Fermentation helped preserve vitamin-filled fruits and vegetables for the long, cold winter. And the acid that comes from fermentation gives you more than just an addictive tang. It lowers the pH enough to kill bad bacteria, which means that drinking kvas can be safer than drinking questionable water. But modern kvas isn't quite the same animal.

GENIS: Nowadays, it's almost impossible to drink real kvas in America. Because it's not alive - it's like difference like draft beer and bottled beer. All bottled kvas is basically water and sugar.

PRICHEP: Large commercial kvas companies in Russia, including Coca-Cola, make something that's more like a malt soda. It's got lots of sugar and fizz that comes from carbonation, not fermentation. But the old methods haven't disappeared.

JEFFREY YOSKOWITZ: We are Brooklyn young 20-somethings making a naturally fermented drink. But we're actually reaching into something that actually has a lot of meaning in the world, and reintroducing it.

PRICHEP: Jeffrey Yoskowitz is one of the founders of Gefilteria, a company that revives old world Jewish foods, and sells them in gourmet stores. They make a bright-tasting beet and ginger kvas, that bubbles up with a spectacular purple foam when you open it.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPING AND FIZZING)

PRICHEP: They're also working on a rye and mint kvas using leftover bread from a local New York deli. This may seem like a tough sell to American palates. But Yoskowitz and his partner, Liz Alpern, point to other strange-sounding fermented foods that are now popular - like kombucha tea.

YOSKOWITZ: We always say similar bacteria to what's in yogurt, we call it a beet kombucha.

LIZ ALPERN: Because kombucha is sort of mainstream, to a certain extent, in our own little, you know, hipster shtetl, I guess.

PRICHEP: And with the growing interest in home-brewing, pickling, and probiotics - not to mention kvas' old-world Slavic charm - they're hoping they can also find some new fans for this very old drink. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.