Ancient Fermentation: Homemade Kvass

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Looking to add another recipe to your fermenting repertoire? Try your hand at Kvass. Bonus: it is the perfect entry-level project.  

Kvass is an ancient and beloved beverage from Slavic Eastern Europe. While it is basically a low-alcohol beer, it is enjoyed as a soft drink, even by small children. This nourishing beverage calls for just a few simple ingredients and only takes a couple of days to ferment.  If you’ve got bread, water, sugar, herbs, and yeast, you are already good to go!

The possibility for creativity is endless!  You can use the following recipes to get started, but feel free to freestyle and experiment with different herbs, fruits, and any other flavorful local ingredients to make your own delicious kvass.

The following excerpt is from The Wildcrafting Brewer: Creating Unique Drinks and Boozy Concoctions from Nature’s Ingredients by Pascal Baudar. It has been adapted for the web.


 

Traditional Bread Kvass

My grandpa was very, very Belgian and loved his beers. I remember a time we visited him when I was around 5 years old. It was still early in the morning, and there he was, sitting at the table, having his favorite breakfast. It was a simple one consisting of long strips of sliced bread that he dipped into beer and ate with absolute relish. Watching him, I could not make up my mind: Either I was in the presence of a genius or it was one the most unappealing breakfasts I’d ever seen.

I was born with an inquiring mind, probably my curse, and thus I asked him if I could try a bit of this possibly awesome and innovative dish. He handed me a piece after dipping it into the beer, and upon placing it in my mouth and chewing on it, I had the revelation that my grandpa wasn’t a genius. I still loved him after that, but gosh, it was definitely an acquired taste. Maybe it’s that childhood trauma that caused me to avoid making kvass until very recently. In my head, bread and a fermented drink didn’t seem to fit together.

From a historical perspective, though, I could not have been more wrong. Bread and beer have a history together that goes back thousands of years, to when bread was one of the main ingredient in some Egyptian beers. In fact it’s probable that bread and beer were invented around the same time. Both share the exact same ingredients: grains, wild yeast, and water. Some breads, like beers, use herbs as flavoring agents.

Kvass is an interesting Slavic/Baltic drink, and probably comes from the same heritage as those ancient drinks. It’s not really a beer but a fermented soda-like beverage made from bread (itself made from barley, wheat, rye, and so on). It’s often flavored with fruits, berries, or herbs. It’s usually not very alcoholic, though you can find some recipes for strongly alcoholic kvass.

Like those ancient beers, kvass was mostly a “people’s” drink, similar to the weak Belgian saison beers that were meant to quench the thirst of the working classes while adding some valuable nutrition to their diet. Due to its bread content, the drink is a good source of vitamins and calories. It is often advertised as a drink to promote digestion and a healthy gut.

Today kvass is very much enjoyed like a soft drink and often carbonated. Like commercial sodas, however, the modern fizzy versions sold at the stores are often a far cry from the original recipes and use corn syrup, sugar, malt extract, and artificial flavorings.

But we can keep the tradition of making healthy drinks alive! Kvass is easy to make and quite enjoyable, and despite my childhood trauma I now like it very much. Changing the ingredients allows you to make countless types of kvass: wild currant kvass, mint kvass, and so on. My local Middle Eastern supermarket even sells kvass flavored with thyme.

Ingredients

  • ½–1 pound (227–454 g) rye (or other) bread
  • 1 gallon (3.78 L) water
  • 1½ cups (300 g) sugar (I like to use brown sugar, but honey is okay, too)
  • Small handful dried herb(s), for flavoring (usually dried mint, but I’ve seen basil, thyme, or rosemary used)
  • 0.4 ounce (12 g) raisins
  • ½–¾ cup (120–180 ml) wild yeast starter or commercial beer yeast

Procedure

  1. Slice the bread and break the slices into smaller pieces. Place them in a preheated 350°F (177°C) oven for 10 minutes, then broil on high until golden brown—this can take 3 to 5 minutes depending on your oven. You basically want your bread to look like slightly overdone toast, which will give the brew a nice amber look and better flavors.
  2. Meanwhile, pour the water and sugar into a pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Place the toasted bread, herbs, and raisins in the boiling liquid and stir briefly. Bring the liquid back to a boil, then remove the pot from the heat.
  3. Place the pot (with the lid on) in cold water and cool the liquid to 70°F (21°C), then add the yeast (½ to ¾ cup or 120–180 ml for wild yeast starter). Either keep everything in the original pot with the lid on or transfer the contents into a fermenting bucket fitted with an airlock or a clay pot/glass container with a clean towel on top.
  4. Ferment for around 8 to 12 hours, until you see some bubbling going on, then strain the liquid into a bottle or into recycled soda bottles if you want carbonation. Check the pressure and place the bottles in the refrigerator when ready. Drink within a couple of weeks.

Southern California Kvass

Of course, once you realize that kvass is a beverage that just requires bread, sugar, wild yeast (you can also use beer yeast), and water as the base—the rest is flavoring—the gate to making your own creative drinks swings wide open.

Instead of using dried mint or basil, you can use herbs from your garden or forage some flavorful wild ones. For my part, I also have tons of wild berries I can add to the drink.

Like my wild beers, I can easily brew some kvass representing all kinds of environments, such as the mountains or my local forest. Here is a recipe that I have made and enjoyed very much.

Ingredients

  • ½–1 pound (227–454 g) rye (or other) bread
  • 1 gallon (3.78 L) water
  • 1–1½ cups (300 g) piloncillo sugar
  • 0.2 ounce (6 g) local wild mint or other aromatic herb such as water mint (Mentha aquatica)
  • 0.1 ounce (3 g) bitter herb (mugwort, yarrow, or California sagebrush)
  • 3 lemons
  • 1.2 ounces (36 g) or more local wild berries such as currants, coffee berries, or Mexican elderberries (mixing them is okay, too)
  • 1 ounce (30 g) manzanita berries
  • ½–¾ cup (120–180 ml) wild yeast or commercial beer yeast

Procedure

Use the same brewing method as for Traditional Kvass, above. The lemons should be squeezed and thrown into the water with the sugar before boiling.


Northeastern Kvass

This recipe is based on the forest I like to hike in Vermont. It’s a mix of pine and root flavors, a bit like a kvass root beer. It’s quite enjoyable and nutritious. The method is a bit different, as the pine branches and spruce are not boiled. Of course, maple syrup is the source of sugar for this fermentation, and the wild yeast is from a dandelion flower starter.

Ingredients

  • ½–1 pound (227–454 g) of rye (or other) bread
  • 1 gallon (3.78 L) water
  • 1–1½ cups (355 ml) maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons (10 g) sassafras root bark
  • 1 tablespoon (5 g) sarsaparilla roots (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon (5 g) chopped dandelion roots
  • ½ teaspoon (1 g) dried wintergreen leaves
  • Handful of turkey tail mushrooms (just because I like them and they’re good for you)
  • Small piece (¾–1 inch/2 cm) ginger (optional)
  • A couple of small spruce or white pine branches, or any lemony-tasting pine needles (you can also use a couple of lemons if you want; juice them and then throw them in the pot)
  • ½–¾ cup (120–180 ml) wild yeast or commercial beer yeast

Procedure

Use a similar brewing method as Traditional Kvass. The main differences are that you can place the turkey tail mushrooms in the water from the start (at the same time as the sugar) so they boil longer than the other ingredients. The spruce or white pine branches are added when the liquid is cooled down and the yeast goes in. It’s a personal choice, but I don’t like the flavor of boiled spruce/fir/pine. Don’t forget to cut the top of the needles so the flavors can be extracted.

Because I use lots of barks, dried leaves, and roots in this recipe, I don’t place the pot in cold water but simply set it outside. The warm water cools slowly, and I extract more flavors that way.


Fruit Kvass

As you’ve just read, kvass is a fermented beverage usually made with bread and often flavored with fruits, but there are a few other variations such as beet or fruit kvass. These probably developed as extensions of original recipes, but the bread was omitted, possibly due to dietary restrictions. And if you remove the bread from a regular kvass, you’re basically fermenting fruits.

I think it’s stretching the definition of a little bit, but if you do some research, you will find that, yes, there are such drinks as kvass made with just one fruit/berry or mixed fruits/berries.

Interestingly, some recipes use yeast (usually from a ginger bug) and sugar, while others recipes use whey as starters. Both methods work, but with the whey method (lacto-fermentation), the flavors are a bit more sour.

Procedure for Wild Yeast

  1. Cut your fruits in fairly large pieces. Some berries may need to be smashed a bit.
  2. Pack a ½-gallon (2 L) jar with enough berries and fruits to fill 70 to 80 percent of its volume.
  3. Pour in ½ cup (120 ml) ginger bug
  4. Add filtered water to almost fill the jar, leaving about a 1-inch (2 cm) head space.
  5. Add ⅓ to ½ cup (75–100 g) white sugar and shake the jar.
  6. Don’t screw on the lid too tightly; you want fermentation gases to escape. Three times a day, screw the lid down tight and shake for 10 seconds or so, then unscrew the lid again a bit. Depending on the temperature, after 2 or 3 days you should have a nice fermentation going. The drink is now ready to enjoy. It may be a good idea to place a plate under the jar, as sometimes when the fermentation is very active it can push the fruits/berries up and some leakage may occur. This usually doesn’t happen with large chunks of fruit.

Note: You could also use ½ cup (120 ml) of raw unpasteurized honey instead of sugar. The raw honey contains wild yeast, so it’s not necessary to use ginger bug.

Procedure for Whey

  1. Cut your fruits in fairly large pieces. Some berries may need to be smashed a bit.
  2. Pack a ½-gallon (2 L) jar with enough berries and fruits to fill 70 to 80 percent of its volume.
  3. Pour in ½ cup (120 ml) whey.
  4. Add filtered water to almost fill the jar, leaving about a 1-inch (2 cm) head space.
  5. Add ⅓ to ½ cup (75–100 g) white sugar and 1 teaspoon (5.5 g) salt. Shake the jar.

Finish your kvass using the same method as for fruit/berry kvass using wild yeast, above.


Adding Local Flavors

This is where the fun is. Sure, you can ferment fruit kvass using just fruits, but you can also create unique flavors by using local aromatic or flavorful ingredients. In many of my Southern California recipes, I use pinyon pine or white fir branches with the tips of the needles cut off so the flavors can infuse. This adds some citrus/pine qualities to the drink. I’ve made other kvass using my regular bitter herbs (yerba santa, yarrow, mugwort, California sagebrush), wild mints, or local aromatic sages (white or black sage).

If I lived in the Northeast, I would probably use local fruits and berries such as apples, pears, blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, and so on. To add more local flavors, I might add a white pine branch or spruce tips. Or I could push the flavors a bit toward a sort of root kvass by using wintergreen leaves or sarsaparilla root. Of course, maple or birch syrup would be the sugar source.

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