Lip-Puckering Kvass Is One of Several Eastern European Beverages on the Rise

At Café Glechik, Borjomi and kvass flow freely.EXPAND
At Café Glechik, Borjomi and kvass flow freely.
Uli Knörzer

In the oddly competitive quest to find (and market) foods that are not only the healthiest but also the healthiest-with-a-story-to-tell, fermentation has become the darling of the Goop-loving masses — and for good reason. Fermentation, an edible way of life since practically the beginning of time, is the picture of eco-friendliness and culinary frugality, ensuring that nothing (really, not even lettuce) goes to waste. Now Pinterest boards devoted to at-home kimchi-making are a dime a dozen, and there's a veritable ROYGBIV of kombucha in just about any bodega. But when this wave of pickling becomes passé, what's next?

My money is on kvass. A naturally fermented, lip-puckering elixir with barely detectable levels of alcohol (usually between 0.5 and 2 percent), kvass — or kvas, as it's spelled in some circles — is an entrenched drinking tradition across Eastern Europe. Like a hardcore, slightly boozier version of kombucha, kvass tantalizingly walks the tightrope between brine and beverage, using a host of vegetables and grains to deliver a probiotic-packed slug of health with just a wink of naughtiness.

"Historically, beet kvass was used in the Ukraine as a base for cold borscht, but here in America we've started drinking it straight," says Carly Dougherty, co-founder of Food and Ferments, a small-batch fermentation company based in Truxton, New York. Along with her husband, Dave, she's been producing kvass for three years. "It has a potent tanginess that's more like a rich brine tonic. It's less vinegary than kombucha, [and] the depth of the beets makes it both smooth and sour at once."

Some contemporary kvass-makers see its rise as inevitable, after the pickling craze of the past five or ten years. According to Jeffrey Yoskowitz of Clinton Hill's Gefilteria, which places a modern spin on old-world Jewish foods, "The beautiful thing about the tradition is that really anything that's sort of sour and fermented can be called kvass, so you can expand the category pretty quickly."

That's not to say there aren't regional differences when it comes to what "kvass" actually means. "We make a beet kvass which is, depending on who you talk to, not really kvass," Yoskowitz says. "If you talk to a Russian, they'll say, 'No way! Kvass is only made from rye and like a malt soda.' If you talked to a Ukrainian, they'll be like, 'Oh, yeah, kvass.' If you talked to an Eastern European Jewish person, they might know it as rossl, which is a sour beet liquid."

Kvass is so open to interpretation that in Yoskowitz and partner Liz Alpern's forthcoming book, The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods, there are recipes for four different kinds: beet, parsley, lettuce, and Russian-style, made from old rye bread. "[The rye] is my favorite one, because I love making use of foods that would otherwise go to waste," says Yoskowitz. "I think that's the essence of a lot of these foods."

Though beets are having a moment, the Russian rye version might be the most widely known, with a malty, currant-like flavor and funky, modest fizz. It's been part of a health-focused revival in Russia since the mid-2000s (it's said to boost metabolism, among other things) and enjoyed as a daily drink for centuries — even before historian William Tooke described it in 1801 as "clean and well-tasting." Today, bottled, commercial versions (like that produced by the brand Nikola, which translates roughly to "not cola") are served in restaurants along the Brighton Beach boardwalk, but the drink somehow tastes much better snagged from a nearby grocery store and sipped surreptitiously in the sand.

And kvass isn't the only Eastern European beverage on the cusp of bubbling over into the mainstream. Take a stroll down the aisles of any supermarket with a significant Russian or Ukrainian clientele — Brighton Bazaar, for instance — and it's clear we've only dipped a toe into the waters of sippable sour, salty drinks.

There's kompot, a chunky, non-alcoholic fruit punch made by simmering cherries, plums, or apples with sugar and water to create a freshly preserved version of Kool-Aid. Like kvass, it historically used up leftover, almost-too-ripe fruit. (Try a glass at Café Glechik in Sheepshead Bay to feel it out, or make a batch of it yourself.)

Outside the realm of fermentation, there's Borjomi, a bright and briny Georgian mineral water with oceanic levels of salinity and a natural, nose-tingling effervescence. (It's how I imagine the burp-inducing fizzy-lifting drink from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would taste in real life.) Borjomi has been commercially bottled from mountain springs in the Caucasus region since the 1890s but lauded for its healing properties for digestive issues since the seventh century. (Borjomi straight-facedly claims it serves as "a shower from within.") The first time I swigged it, at We Are Georgians in Gravesend, it felt like a wash of brackish Pop Rocks bursting across my tongue.

So will any of these traditional, palate-challenging, good-for-you beverages catch on? Ultimately, that will rely on the road paved by their predecessors. "The success of kvass will come down to whether or not it can join the health drink craze of kombucha or kefir," says Dan Woodske, author of Kvass: History, Heath Benefits, and Recipes for the Russian Bread Drink. "One benefit is that it is really easy to make at home — that might help."

Yoskowitz agrees. "When we were making it and selling it at markets, we were calling it the Jewish kombucha," he laughs, noting how fermentation's swell of popularity is, in the end, just bringing once-familiar foodways full circle. "It's funny. It takes this whole evolution just to get back to where we once were, with a beverage tradition from not that long ago and not that far away."


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