The Kombucha of Eastern Europe: DIY Kvass

An ancient, subtly alcoholic Eastern European beverage—generally made from fermented beets or bread—kvass has slowly made its way into American bars and restaurants. Chris Crowley explores the DIY world kvass and kvass cocktails.

Savory, sour and effervescent, kvass is a subtly alcoholic beverage that’s been enjoyed by Eastern Europeans for over a thousand years. Its most famous form is tangy, malty bread kvass, made from fermented stale rye bread, yeast, sugar and, sometimes, herbs or fruit. But it can be made with nearly anything. There is Polish beet kvass (an earthy and tangy byproduct of fermenting beets for borscht), delicate Ukrainian lettuce kvass and even tea kvass.

In Russia, bread kvass was a staple of the peasant diet, customarily drunk chilled or used as a base for cold soups. Entranced by its folkloric past, the Soviets anointed it their answer to Coca-Cola and pumped up industrial production. (Even today, one popular brand’s slogan is, “kvass is not a cola, drink Nikola!”) The market is now dominated by commercial producers, though many brands—often sugary-sweet and made with soda syrup—have little in common with the genuine article. Russians still overwhelmingly consume kvass the traditional way. But, of late, Moscow bartenders are bringing it behind the bar for use in drinks like the classic whiskey soda or White Russian, replacing Kahlua with kvass syrup.

Although kvass was likely first brought to the states by Jewish immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side—and has long been produced by San Francisco’s Cinderella Bakery—it’s only recently that it’s promised to emerge beyond the furthest fringes of esoterica. This is thanks, in large part, to a renewed interest in lacto-fermentation, spurred by the likes of kombucha and tepache.

“I think what makes a kvass cocktail interesting, specifically, is how earthy it is. That, and a fermented tang,” says Liz Alpern, a partner in Gefilteria. “There just aren’t that many drinks that fit that kind of flavor.”

Taking cues from Moscow, a few American bartenders and restaurateurs—as well as brewers, farmers and even food producers—have been making kvass in-house and serving it either straight or in cocktails. The most devoted among them is Brooklyn’s The Gefilteria—a company dedicated to the production of old-world Jewish foods—which sells, in select stores, a ginger-laced beet kvass that they also use in cocktails for events.

“I think what makes a kvass cocktail interesting, specifically, is how earthy it is. That, and a fermented tang,” says Liz Alpern, a partner. “There just aren’t that many drinks that fit that kind of flavor.”

Just as the Gefilteria started making beet kvass to give a second life to the juice left over from fermenting beets for their borscht, Cortney Burns, a chef at San Francisco’s Bar Tartine, saw kvass as a practical solution to an excess of rye ends and scraps. “We do a lot of fermented beverages and we have Eastern European influences,” Burns explained. “It just seemed like something we should be making.”

Tartine’s recipe typically includes both beets and rye, but it’s really dictated by what they have too much of. While they’ve used their kvass in low ABV sherry cocktails, they prefer how its sour earthiness compliments beer. They serve it in a play on the pickle back—two ounces of house kvass over Moonlight Reality Czech, a pilsner—which Burns and chef Nick Balla grew up drinking in the Midwest.

While both like to stick to beer when mixing their kvass, the ferment’s greatest virtue is that it can be many things for many people. Scott Baird of San Francisco’s Trick Dog was inspired by a number of kvass cocktails he tried on a recent trip to Moscow and says kvass will likely show up on their next menu—perhaps in the form of an Old-Fashioned made with blended Scotch, kvass syrup and Leopold Brothers cranberry liqueur.

At Portland’s Kachka, Israel and Bonnie Morales’ Soviet-themed restaurant, they’ve been mixing dark spirits with both commercial kvass and local Nash Kvass, an unpasteurized brand from San Francisco. (Kachka, which has only been open since April, has experimented with making their own kvass and are looking for a brewer to produce it.)

“Rye kvass has many faces, but there are some overriding characteristics; you’ve got the breadiness and often times you’ll get walnut qualities and prune aromas,” says Morales.

Because of those flavors, it works exceptionally well with darker spirits like brandy, something they’ve proven with their signature cocktail, Pass The Kvassier. This winter, they’ll also debut a Russian Coffee made with brandy, kvass and chicory whipped cream.

For the home bartender, Baird suggests deferring to “the proverbial Collins,” while Israel says to think of kvass as a serious upgrade over soda or tonic. Though most of his non-Russian customers agree that its savoriness is surprisingly refreshing, it can be aggressively unfamiliar to many Americans. That could certainly limit its broader appeal, but for those who are hooked, it’s easy to use, even easier to ferment and brings a layer of savory complexity that few other ingredients can. 

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