Kvass is a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread. The colour of the bread used contributes to the colour of the resulting drink. It is classified as a non-alcoholic drink by Russian standards, as the alcohol content from fermentation is typically less than 1.2%. Overall, the alcohol content is low (0.05% - 1.0%). It is often flavoured with fruits or herbs such as strawberries, raisins or mint. Kvass is also used for preparing a cold summertime soup called okroshka.
It is popular in Russia, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and other Eastern and Central European countries as well as in former Soviet states, such as Kazakhstan and Armenia, where one can see many kvass vendors in the streets. Kvass is also popular in Harbin and Xinjiang, in China, where there is a strong influence of Russian culture.
The word "Kvass" derived from Old East Slavic квасъ, kvasŭ, meaning "yeast" or "leaven". Today the words used are almost the same: in Belarusian: квас, kvas; Chinese: 格瓦斯/克瓦斯, géwǎsī/kèwǎsī; Latvian: kvass; Polish kwas chlebowy; Russian: квас, kvas; in Ukrainian: квас/хлібний квас/сирівець, kvas/khlibnyy kvas/syrivets. Except Lithuanian: gira, which means beverage similar to Latvian dzira. In Estonian: kali, which means leaven.
Kvass has been a common drink in Eastern Europe since ancient times, comparable with other ancient fermented grain beverages including beer brewed from barley by the ancient Egyptians, the pombe or millet beer of Africa, the so-called rice wines of Asia, the chicha made with corn or cassava by the natives of America. Kvass was first mentioned in Old Rus Chronicles in the year 989. In Russia, under Peter the Great, it was the most common non-alcoholic drink in every class of society. William Tooke, describing Russian drinking habits in 1799, stated that
The most common domestic drink is quas, a liquor prepared from pollard, meal, and bread, or from meal and malt, by an acid fermentation. It is cooling and well-tasted.
Later, in the 19th century, it was reported to be consumed in excess by peasants, low-class citizens, and monks; in fact, it is sometimes said that it was usual for them to drink more kvass than water. It has been both a commercial product and homemade. It used to be consumed widely in most Slavic countries, where in almost every city there are kvass vendors on the street. Today it forms the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry. Kvass was once sold during the summer only, but is now produced, packaged, and sold year-round.
Kvass is made by the natural fermentation of bread, such as wheat, rye, or barley, and sometimes flavoured using fruit, berries, raisins, or birch sap collected in the early spring. Modern homemade kvass most often uses black or regular rye bread, usually dried (called plural suhari), baked into croutons, or fried, with the addition of sugar or fruit (e.g. apples or raisins), and with a yeast culture and zakvaska ("kvass fermentation starter").
Commercial kvass, especially less expensive varieties, is occasionally made like many other soft drinks, using sugar, carbonated water, malt extract, and flavourings. Better brands, often made by beer rather than soft drink manufacturers, usually use a variation of the traditional process to brew their products. Kvass is commonly served unfiltered, with the yeast still in it, which adds to its unique flavour as well as its high vitamin B content.
There is only one brewery in the United States that brews kvass year round. That is the Beaver Brewing Company in Beaver Falls Pennsylvania. They make it with the addition of raisins and lemons.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary the first mention of kvass took place sometime around 1553. Although the introduction of western soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi had reduced the commercial sale of kvass in Russia, kvass has been more recently marketed as a patriotic alternative to cola, sparking a "kvass revival". For example, the Russian company Nikola (whose name sounds like "not cola" in Russian) has promoted its brand of kvass with an advertising campaign emphasizing "anti cola-nisation." Moscow-based Business Analytica reported in 2008 that bottled kvass sales had tripled since 2005 and estimated that per-capita consumption of kvass in Russia would reach three liters in 2008. Between 2005 and 2007, cola's share of the Moscow soft drink market fell from 37% to 32%. Meanwhile, kvass's share more than doubled over the same time period, reaching 16% in 2007. In response, Coca-Cola launched its own brand of kvass in May 2008. This is the first time a foreign company has made an appreciable entrance into the Russian kvass market. Pepsi has also signed an agreement with a Russian kvass manufacturer to act as a distribution agent. The development of new technologies for storage and distribution, and heavy advertising, have contributed to this surge in popularity; three new major brands have been introduced since 2004.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the street vendors disappeared from the streets of Latvia due to new health laws that banned its sale on the street and economic disruptions forced many kvass factories to close. The Coca-Cola company moved in and quickly dominated the market for soft drinks, but in 1998 the local soft drink industry adapted by selling bottled kvass and launching aggressive marketing campaigns. This surge in sales was stimulated by the fact that kvass sold for about half the price of Coca-Cola. In just three years, kvass constituted as much as 30% of the soft drink market in Latvia, while the market share of Coca-Cola fell from 65% to 44%. The Coca-Cola company had losses in Latvia of about $1 million in 1999 and 2000. The situation was similar in the other Baltic countries and in Russia. Coca-Cola responded by buying kvass manufacturers and also started making kvass at their soft drink plants.
Although it's not quite as popular there as it is in Russia or Ukraine, kvass can still be found in many grocery shops throughout Poland - where it's known in Polish as "kwas chlebowy" (pronounced: kvass hlebovyy). Commercial bottled versions of the drink are the most common variant, as there are companies that specialize in manufacturing this more modern version of the drink (some variants are manufactured in Poland, whilst others are imported from Lithuania). However, recipes for a traditional version of kvass exist; some of them originate from Eastern Poland. Although commercial kvass is much easier to find in Polish shops, Polish manufacturers of more natural and healthier variants of kvass have become increasingly popular both within and outside of the country's borders - one good example being a company that has made itself known not only on the Polish market, but also in Slovakia. Street vendors selling fresh kvass also appear from time to time in some places, especially during summer in cities like Zakopane, where tourists sometimes crowd the streets seeking refreshment on a hot day.
In Lithuania kvass is known as "gira", and is widely available in bottles and draft. Many restaurants in Vilnius make their own gira which they sell on the premises. Strictly speaking, gira can be made from anything fermentable — such as caraway tea, beetroot juice, or berries — but it is made mainly from black bread or barley/rye malt.
Kvass has a long tradition in Russian culture. In Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, monastery kvass is mentioned in the dinner scene as being famous throughout the neighborhood. In Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, kvass is made first thing on a holiday morning. In Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, kvass is mentioned early in the play, "Bring me some kvass, would you?". In Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov and in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, kvass is repeatedly mentioned. In Tolstoy's War and Peace, French soldiers are aware of kvass on entering Moscow, enjoying it but referring to it as "pig's lemonade". In Sholem Aleichem's Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son, diluted kvass is the focus of one of Motl's older brother's get-rich-quick schemes. The Russian expression "Перебиваться с хлеба на квас" (literally "to clamber from bread to kvass") means to barely make ends meet, remotely similar to (and may be translated as) the expression "to be on the breadline". To better understand the Russian phrase one has to know that in poor families kvass was made from stale leftovers of rye bread. In Against Nature (À rebours) the protagonist, Jean Des Esseintes serves kvass, along with porter and stout, for a funeral banquet "in memory of the host's virility, lately but only temporarily deceased."
Other beverages from around the world that are traditionally low-alcohol and lacto-fermented include:
- Kvass (Russian Fermented Rye Bread Drink) Recipe
- ГОСТ Р 52409-2005. Продукция безалкогольного и слабоалкогольного производства ("GOST Р 52409-2005. Production of non-alcoholioc and mildly alcoholic products") (Russian)
- Ian Spencer Hornsey. A history of beer and brewing, page 8. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003. "A similar, low alcohol drink (0.05% - 1.0%), kvass .. may be a "fossil beer"
- Katz, Sandor (2003). Wild Fermentation. White River Junction, VA: Chelsea Green Publishing Company. p. 121. ISBN 1-931498-23-7.
- Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter - Porter and kvass in St. Petersburg
- Etimologicheskyy slovar slovianskikh yazikov (Etymological Dictionary of Slavic Languages), Science Academy of USSR, Moscow, 1987, Volume 13, p 153.
- Anthropology, By Edward B. Taylor, page 268.
- Tooke, William (1799), View of the Russian empire during the reign of Catharine the Second, and to the close of the present century, Volume 1, Piccadilly: T.N. Longman and O. Rees, Pater-Noster-Row, and J. Debrett, p. 362
- Russia's patriotic kvas drinkers say no to cola-nisation. The New Zealand Herald. BUSINESS; General. July 12, 2008.
- Kvass at Merriam Webster Dictionary (Encyclopædia Britannica)
- The real thing?: Coke cashes in by producing nostalgic, Soviet-era drink
- Latvian Mailer - June 2, 2001
- Coca-Cola HBC - Products and Marketing
- "Coca-Cola ups stake in Estonia". June 1, 2001.
- Gerima dystrybutor kwasu chlebowego w Polsce Gerima - distributor of kvass in Poland. (Polish)
- Kwas chlebowy sapieżyński kodeński Information about traditional Polish kvass. (Polish)
- Przepis na domowy kwas chlebowy Recipe for home-made kvass. (Polish)
- Ich kwas chlebowy podbija rynek News article about Polish manufacturers of kvass made from traditional recipes.(Polish)
- Oficjalna strona firmy Eko-Natura Official website of Polish traditional kvass manufacturer. (Polish)
- Eko-Natura - producent kwasu chlebowego More information about Polish kvass manufacturer. (Polish)
- The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoevsky. p. 85. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 14, 2002). ISBN 0-374-52837-3.
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich'. Leo Tolstoy. p. 127 Penguin Classics (May 27, 2008). ISBN 0-14-044961-2.
- Tom Stoppard (translator), The Cherry Orchard, Grove Press, 2009
- Book 10, chapter 29, Pennsylvania State University translation.
- перебиваться с хлеба на квас – idiomcenter.com
- Svyatoslav Loginov, "We Used to Bake Blini..." ("Бывало пекли блины...") (Russian)
- J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature, trans. Robert Baldick, New York: Penguin Books, 1959.
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