Russians are known for their drink, especially one drink in particular that doesn’t freeze during even the coldest of Siberian winters: vodka. Yet although it’s better known, vodka is a veritable latecomer to the Russian table when compared to a quintessentially Russian beverage that is over 5,000 years old: kvass.
Photo by mricon
But while kvass is centuries older, few outside of the former Soviet States know it even exists, and no wonder—trying to describe kvass to a foreigner is akin to making sense of the platypus.
Just like beer?
Kvass is similar to beer in that it’s a result of a fermentation process but instead of malt, hops, and grain, kvass is made by mixing Russian black bread with zakvaska (заква́ска, literally a kvass fermentation starter), yeast, and sugar. And although the fermentation process results in both beer and kvass having an alcoholic content, the percentage of alcohol in kvass is so low that it’s considered to be a non-alcoholic beverage that is served to even the youngest children.
The Cola revolution in Russia and abroad
Like Western sodas, kvass is a fizzy beverage and while some still refer to it as “Russian Cola” because of its similar dark colour, consistency, and bubbly texture, properly made kvass is a much healthier alternative that contains no dyes, preservatives, or corn syrup but instead is high in Vitamin B.
Photo by P. Vecrumba
In fact—and especially during the Putin era, which spurred the country’s nationalistic fervor—there has been a certain amount of backlash against the Cola comparisons and the infiltration of Western soda companies into the Russian market; Nikola—a Russian beverage company whose name sounds like ‘Not Cola’ in Russian and which based its marketing campaign on a slogan of “Anti Cola-nization”—has been making kvass in a variety of flavours and leading the resurgence of kvass-drinking within the Eastern European populace.
The Western companies took notice and Coca-Cola quickly adapted to the changing market conditions in the Eastern European beverage market by creating their own kvass brand: Krushka & Bochka (Кружка и Бочка, literally “mug and barrel”), which they’ve even begun importing from Russia into parts of the United States. Since its introduction, Krushka & Bochka has become one of Russia’s best-selling brands within the quickly moving category of non-alcoholic fermented beverages.
Another oddity of this unique drink is that kvass is an important ingredient in a traditional Russian dish: okroshka (окрошка). Okroshka is a cold soup made from mixed raw vegetables such as cucumbers and onions, as well as boiled potatoes, eggs, and a variation of a cooked meat which, depending on one’s preference, can be anything from beef to ham. The ingredients are diced and mixed with kvass just prior to serving. Although similar to salad, okroshka is considered to be more refreshing and light and, therefore, is traditionally served in the summer months.
Kvass: Five thousand years and counting
Similar to the platypus, kvass shares features with other members of its class but, in the end, is a unique and different animal when all of those characteristics are combined. Kvass is more tangy than sweet, with a mild fizz and a slightly tart aftertaste.
Painting by Vladimir Fedorovich Stozharov
Healthier than soda due to its Vitamin B content and antibacterial properties that are rumored to help with everything from irritable bowel syndrome to enhancing one’s immune system, it still contains small amounts of alcohol that may help with the overall feeling of wellbeing reported by its consumers.
Unlike other fermented drinks such as beer, however, kvass may safely be consumed with every meal without having to worry about finding a designated driver or a pounding headache the following morning. With its unique taste and rumored health benefits, kvass is not only a distinctive Russian drink but also a taste of its collective history, savored through millennia by its people and to be enjoyed in the future as its recognition grows in the US and elsewhere around the world.