The "communist Coca-Cola" is the perfect drink for sweaty summer days
All throughout Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltics, ordinary people are beating the heat with kvass, a drink made of fermented rye or black bread that’s so popular it was dubbed the "communist Coca-Cola” during the era of the Soviet Union. Like Coke, it’s brown, fizzy, and irresistible; but unlike Coke, it’s got an ancient and distinguished history, appearing in some of Russia’s most vaunted literary classics. It’s a cheap and simple way to refresh yourself in the heat-haze of July—and a Slavic tradition that’s been passed on for at least a millennium.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a monk lays out a repast. “Here were three kinds of well-baked bread, two bottles of wine, two of excellent mead, and a large glass jug of kvass,” Dostoevsky writes approvingly, noting that, in deference to monastic tradition, “there was no vodka.” A restless guest peeps into the kitchen and spies “all these good things,” plus boiled fish, blancmange, and sterlet soup. Sterlet soup and blancmange may have lost some of their popularity in contemporary Russia, but kvass is still ubiquitous.
One of my fondest memories from my travels in Russia and Ukraine is the sight of huge yellow barrels of kvass, from which street-corner peddlers sell small plastic cups of the amber drink to passersby for a few kopecks. Under cheerful umbrellas that shade the kegs, sellers announce the virtues of their kvass to anyone within earshot, offering the simple delicacy to anyone with change in their pocket. To the Western palate, it’s initially strange—not quite beer, not quite kombucha, not quite anything else—but can quickly become addictive.
Kvass can be comfortably described as “ancient.” It’s referenced in the Primary Chronicle, an eleventh-century text describing the history of Kievan Rus,’ as one of the foods tenth-century ruler Vladimir the Great distributed to the poor. Sustenance for beggars is an appropriate role for a humble, peasant drink; in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 masterwork Dead Souls, a snobbish noble lauds the best French Champagne by noting that “Compared with it, provincial stuff is kvass.” But rich and poor alike enjoy kvass, particularly in summertime, when its distinctive tang (the word "kvass" comes from an ancient Slavic word meaning "sour”) can offer a pick-me-up in the most suffocating Sochi heat wave.
So what does it taste like? Basically, exactly like what it is: fermented bread. A typical kvass recipe is disarmingly simple. It usually involves black or rye bread, water, berries or herbs to sweeten the mixture, and time. Throughout the Soviet Union, housewives prided themselves on their homemade recipes for kvass; even now, it’s not unusual to spot an unobtrusive jar in a cool corner of a Russian or Ukrainian household, in which bread is slowly foaming into liquid. The resultant drink has a caramel-ish color and a mild viscosity, not unlike a yeastier version of an O’Doul’s. Kvass is considered nonalcoholic by Russian standards; it’s usually around 0.5 to 1 percent alcohol, and enjoyed by children and adults alike. The Soviets began mass-producing kvass as they industrialized Russia’s economy; nowadays, even Coca-Cola itself has gotten into the kvass game.
Despite its status as a mass-manufactured item, kvass is as difficult to find in the United States as it is ubiquitous in Russia. While a New Yorker might be able to take a train ride down to Brighton Beach in order to quench their thirst, the simplest way to get a hold of some kvass in the U.S. is to brew it yourself. If you’re interested in fermentation, kvass is a great entry-level experiment – it’s a relatively quick process, and doesn’t involve attaining the high levels of alcohol other home-brewed drinks require. (A note of caution: All home fermentation should be pursued carefully, in order to avoid explosions or bacterial infections!) All you need is a large jar, some black or rye bread, plenty of water, and a handful of the sweetener of your choice. (It’s also a great way to resuscitate bread that’s gone stale.) There’s a great recipe on my favorite Russian cooking blog, Natasha’s Kitchen, which takes about three days to complete, and produces three large bottles of kvass. Though this recipe uses raisins as a sweetener, you can swap in any type of dried fruit or berry as desired. And, as is appropriate for a peasant recipe, t’s incredibly cheap: the cost of ingredients comes to about four dollars.
Drinking kvass is a way to replicate a fundamentally Russian experience, one that gets to the heart of the thrifty, practical, and deeply delicious nature of Russian cuisine. At a typical stolovaya—a modest cafeteria-type restaurant scattered through post-Soviet republics—you can almost always find kvass, homebrewed or manufactured, alongside other Russian drinks like kissel (a cornstarch-thickened sour fruit brew), mors (a drink made from boiled berries and sugar), and kompot (boiled fruit)—all ways to make precious fruit stretch long past a short growing season. But kvass, made from the black bread that’s a Slavic staple food, holds a special place in the post-Soviet heart. There’s a Russian saying that encapsulates its primacy best: “We have bread, and we have kvass, and it’s all we need.”