17 September 2008

Kvas: Magic in a bottle

The clock is ticking and my time in Ukraine is quickly drawing to a close: in two weeks, almost to the hour, I'll set foot on my native soil once again. This will also mark the completion of my field research for my dissertation and as such, the last time I'll spend an extended period of time in the former Soviet Union, at least for the next few years. Because I don't have anything interesting to say about America (indeed, the circus seems to speak for itself), I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be one of the last posts on Darkness at Noon for some time.

Given that this is the end of a personal journey that has taken me to some of the most fascinating and bizarre places on earth over the last two years, you might think that I'm going to wrap up with a thought-provoking, introspective look at how my experiences have helped me grow as a human being. Or maybe I will draw some sweeping conclusions about the people and places I've seen. Maybe I'll declare that I've finally come to understand the Russian Soul, the Ukrainian Nation, or the Belarusian, um, Potato.

Nope. I'm going to devote these final words to the most magnificent of bubbly brown drinks, kvas. I've got a bottle of the magic elixir just inches away from my grasp even as I pen these lines, just waiting to take me back to a simpler time and place. You see, unlike 99.7 percent of non-Slavic people in possession of their full mental faculties, not only can I stomach the stuff, I am deeply and passionately in love with the bewitchingly aromatic, palette-tingling, mildly fermented beverage made of stale black bread. I love kvas so much that I even write poetry about it:

Квас, квас!
Как люблю Я Вас!

Kvas, kvas!
How I love you!

That's all I've got so far. I know it's not much, but it rhymes (in Russian) and I'm pretty sure that's the most important thing for a poem. Someday maybe I'll even share my poetry series on public transportation which is equally impressive... But in the meantime, we have tasty verses about kvas to quench our thirst for culture.

To be sure, kvas is the national drink of the East Slavic peoples. Vodka doesn't count because it is consumed largely for its well-documented medicinal benefits. Or at least this is what a local guide in Odessa recently told me. And while beer is certainly witnessing an impressive surge, nothing quenches that deep down latent-peasant thirst like a big mug of kvas. I'm sure Tolstoy would agree with me.

In fact, the work of another talented poet (much like myself) stands as testament to kvas's importance to Russian life. In Evgeny Onegin, Alexander Pushkin writes:

They needed kvas like air; at table
their guests, for all they ate and drank,
were served in order of their rank.

Now, I don't know if it rhymes in Russian, but I'll assume so since Pushkin is generally considered to be a pretty talented poet and clever rhyming is the hallmark of all great poets. Needless to say, it's telling that the father of modern Russian language and literature would focus his genius on this humble beverage, without which Russians could not survive.

Kvas's immense popularity is not just limited to the days when guys like Pushkin rode around in troikas and got shot in duels. In fact, kvas is apparently the fastest-growing soft drink market in Russia today, with sales increasing by 43 percent in 2007. It's probably no accident that I spent much of 2007 in Russia, but I don't think that I alone was responsible for the surge in demand. Rather, kvas is the summertime drink.

And why shouldn't it be? After all, ask any Russian why kvas is so great in the summer and you'll get the same answer from every single one: "it's refreshing!" And they're right, it IS refreshing! Better yet, it's versatile too: chop up some raw vegetables, a boiled egg, a forest's worth of dill, and any mystery sausage/meats you have lying around, pour some kvas over it with a big dollop of smetana, and you've got okroshka a refreshing cold summertime soup. Did I mention that it's refreshing? Because it is...

So enticing is kvas and its special place in Russians' hearts that Coca-Cola launched their own kvas label in 2008 called "Mug and Barrel." Doesn't that just make you want to pick up a sickle and go out and harvest some wheat? Well, maybe not - I've actually tried Coke's kvas, and while it's pretty good compared to the other bottled brands available for sale in stores, it, like all bottled kvases, is no match for the amber liquid bubbling away on babushka's window sill. For manufactured kvas is produced today just like any other soft drink: carbonated water is added to a flavored concentrate which probably never even touched a stale piece of black bread in its life.

No, for delicious authentic kvas your inner peasant will have to turn elsewhere. One deceptively attractive option is the ubiquitous kvas tank found on street corners throughout Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian cities, often accompanied by a buxom female attendant that resembles her kvas tank both in shape and demeanor. Often yellow in color, the tanks are also easy to identify by the helpful description inscribed in large letters on the side of the tank - КВАС - just in case you get them mixed up with the tanks dispensing martinis on the opposite street corner...

Here are a couple of examples of kvas tanks, the first in Kiev and the second in Sevastopol:

From Darkness at Noon

From Darkness at Noon

As you can see from the photos, they're rather mobile beasts (the tanks, that is, not the attendants): each tank comes with a trailer hitch and a set of wheels. At night when it's time for the kvas tanks to sleep and get refilled, they get hitched together in long chains, snaking through the streets behind a truck. Whenever I see a parade of kvas tanks in the city I have to restrain my urge to join the parade or simply run after it like a dog chasing a car on a country road. Because it IS refreshing, you know!

When you come across a kvas tank, you will likely see the customers standing around the tank enjoying their beverage right there without leaving the vicinity of the tank. This phenomenon has its roots in the Soviet era, when kvas tanks were ubiquitous but cups were not. Back then there was but one cup for customers and thirsty Soviet citizens had to line up for their refreshment, just like they lined up for everything from cabbage to Lenin. After each customer was served, the attendant would dip the communal cup into a bucket of water to "wash" it (I use the term loosely) and then fill it for the next customer. Not exactly hygienic, but then again the Soviets were never really known for their attention to little details like this. The point is, you couldn't wander away with the only cup (I imagine that would be enough to get you arrested since denying people their kvas would constitute oppression of the proletariat) so people became trained to stand at the kvas tank while quenching their thirst. While the communal cup has been replaced with disposable plastic ones (everyone gets his own cup), the conditioned behavior remains: people stand around the kvas tank sipping from their plastic cups as if held there by Comrade Brezhnev's invisible leash...

While the probability of catching a nasty bug from the communal cup has gone down, unfortunately the prospect of catching something unpleasant from the contents of the tank has risen considerably since the good old days. There wasn't much that the Soviet economy did well, but maintaining quality control on kvas was apparently one of them. Since the Soviet collapse, I am told that quality control has gone down the drain, and much of what should go down the drain ends up in the kvas tank. As such, I have been warned by several locals not to drink from the kvas tank, lest I wish to spend a week in very un-refreshing discomfort.

So what is a kvas lover to do if the bottled stuff doesn't cut it and the stuff on the street corner deserves a "thanks, but no tanks..."?

If you're lucky enough to have a babushka around, you should have started with her in the first place. I probably should have mentioned that at the beginning, sorry. If you don't have your own babushka, I suppose you might be able to rent one of the little ones selling flowers outside the metro station and convince her to make some for you. But if this approach fails, you're on your own - you gotta make it yourself.

This is the point where all you Americans can just stop reading since you think the stuff is wretched anyway. And you Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians can stop reading too since your babushka can do this in her sleep. So I guess that leaves us with a few Aussies, a couple of Brits, a handful of Canucks, and the occasional Dane. So welcome to the few of you that are still with us and want to learn how to make kvas.

Like most things worth having, making kvas is more of an art than a science. I say this because it sounds a lot better than saying, "every time I make kvas it comes out different." But I do have several homemade batches under my belt by now, so at least I can tell you where things are going to go wrong despite the fact that you're following the recipe...

Here's the basic recipe I use, which I've tweaked a bit based on experience. I should also point out that there are as many kvas recipes as babushkas, so I don't claim to have the "best" one. If you've got a babushka with a better recipe, by all means, send it my way!

1 lb stale black bread or 1 lb stale pumpernickel bread
1 cup sugar
a few raisins
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves or 1 tablespoon dried mint leaves or a packet or two of mint tea.
1/2 teaspoon Active dry yeast (or more or less, I'll discuss below...)
1/4 cup luke warm water

-Cube the bread and let it dry completely. You can do this on a cookie sheet in a low-temp oven, or just let it sit out for a few days. I think the stuff in the oven tastes better and it makes the kitchen smell like black bread. Mmmm, Borodino! The darkest black bread you can find is the best - the stuff that seems denser than pig iron. If you can't find that, pumpernickel does work fine.

-Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add the bread cubes. Cover it and let it sit at room temp for 8 hours or overnight, whatever works for you.

-Strain the juice (mmm, bread juice!) through several layers of cheesecloth - you don't want bread chunks floating in your kvas. Alternatively, you can use an old (but thoroughly washed) pillowcase. But don't tell my landlady that I suggested this - I don't think she'd be happy knowing I've been using her linens to strain my kvas....

Carefully pour the juice through (making sure you have a vessel underneath to catch it) and dump the soggy bread goo into the pillowcase. You can hang it up and let it continue to drip drain, but I'm usually too impatient to wait for too long and you never get that much extra liquid out anyway.

-Put the yeast and a 1/4 teaspoon of sugar into the luke warm water and let it dissolve. Put it aside for a few minutes while it gets excited an bubbly. Can you blame the yeasties? They want to be refreshed too!

-Dissolve the remaining sugar in the bread juice and add the yeast mixture and the mint. Stir everything to dissolve well, cover it with a towel, and set it aside for another 8-12 hours at room temperature.

-Strain the stuff again if you've got little things floating in it like renegade bread goo, mint leaves, or dill (which somehow finds its way into everything Slavic but is best left out of kvas)

-Add the raisins and re-cover. Put it in a cool (but not cold) place if possible, otherwise room temperature works fine too. Then you wait for the raisins to float up to the surface. My original recipe said that this would happen in 4-5 days, but it only takes one day for most of my batches. In general the fermentation process depends on three factors: 1) the amount of yeast turning sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, 2) the amount of food (sugar) the yeast has to consume, and 3) the temperature at which fermentation takes place. More yeast and higher temperatures will produce faster fermentation, and if you let it go long enough all the sugar will be converted and fermentation will stop (though I don't know how much sugar & time would be required for it to become anything more than minimally alcoholic).

But before you kvasaholics get ahead of yourselves and triple the yeast to hurry up the process, a word of warning: once you bottle the stuff and refrigerate it, fermentation and the resulting carbonation will continue to take place if there is still sugar in the liquid. The original recipe I used called for 2 TABLESPOONS of yeast, and my bottles were gushing violently upon opening them after only a couple days in the fridge. By contrast, homemade root beer recipes call for 1/8 TEASPOON of yeast which is enough to carbonate a gallon of soda. Ultimately you'll have to experiment with what level you prefer between these extremes. Using less yeast will take longer to achieve that nice sour/sweet balance that is good kvas, but then you won't have as many volcanic eruptions in the kitchen later on.

-Regardless of how much yeast you used, at some point your raisins should start floating because they are bloated and gassy, much like the kvas tank attendants you now know to avoid. At this point taste the kvas. If it's pleasantly sourish with still a bit of sweetness, and if you like the way it tastes, you can go ahead and bottle it. If most of the sugar has been fermented already and you'd like it to be a bit sweeter, add some sugar a little at a time until it tastes good to you. Or, if it's still too sweet and not enough sour, then let it ferment some more.

-When you are satisfied with the taste, filter it one more time to remove the raisins and anything else that might still be in there. Pour it into bottles and cap them tightly.

-At this point you have a choice depending on how much yeast you used. If you used a lot of yeast, they will continue to ferment enough in the fridge so that carbonation will develop there (assuming there's still some sugar to ferment and your kvas hasn't gone completely "dry"). If you used the minimum amount of yeast, you can leave the bottle at room temperature for several days while the carbonation builds up, testing it every day or so to make sure you don't over carbonate. Once it's bubbly to your satisfaction, stash it in the fridge.

Once it's chilled, there's only one thing left to do: pour yourself a big mug, kick back, and enjoy that delicious kvas down to the dregs.

Because after all, it's refreshing!


Lydia said...

Oh boy. CJ, you better make a Linens n Things run to get more pillowcases...

umniy said...

Dear Rubashov,
(Obviously, that's not your real name).
I stumbled across your blog a few days ago and became instantly addicted to your sharp observations, sense of humor and superb command of English language.
I am a "Russian" immigrant from Kiev. Having lived in the US for 16 years, I still haven't lost my old memories of previous "incarnation". Regular Americans are shocked most of the time when I start telling them my past life stories.
Your blog is very refreshing, but I beleive only Russian immigrants can fully understand and appreciate it, because we have been on both sides of "the barricade" and can see it through your eyes, but even with the deeper understanding. It's like a 10000-feet bird's view at the familiar landscape: you are already above it and moving on at the fast speed, but still recognizing those half-forgotten details.
Beleive it or not, I've been dreaming of writing a book about our life in there. I had this idea of having 365 small chapters, each of which would be dedicated to one day of ordinary family events. Staying in bread (or vodka) lines, working on the dreaded "kolkhoz" crop fields or taking cold showers due to "hot water repairs" would find their place in that memoir book. But that's just a dream...
Anyway, I was wondering if you would respond, or will be interested in talking. My email address is umniy2000~at~yahoo~dot~com Give me a jingle.
Best regards.

Lyndon said...

Thank you, R, for giving voice to the thoughts of kvas-lovers worldwide! I will admit that I do not eschew the street kvas tanks, not even in areas where it's especially advisable to do so (e.g., near Chisinau's central market). Now, in some places, you can find kvas being sold from a little stand beneath which sits a kvas keg, a small cousin of the wheeled behemoths in your photos (you jest about martinis, but I once saw such a trailer in Tiraspol with the legend ВИНО). It still refreshes better than anything else on a hot summer day.

I agree with you about avoiding bottled kvas generally but should point out that the Ochakovo brand (in 1L or 2L plastic bottles or in 0.5L cans) is often available in "Russian" grocery stores in the US and is the only one I've found to be reliably kvas-like after a long journey across the ocean. It's also the only store-bought kvas I would actually seek out in the countries where kvas is a local beverage. Other brands are almost invariably too fizzy and/or too sweet and syrupy.

Anyway, if you'll permit me to add a political observation to this feel-good post, I can't help but notice the juxtaposition of color schemes on the kvas trailers from Kiev and Sevastopol. The latter's red-white-and-blue design proclaims, none too subtly, that Sevastopol is indeed with Russia (or the US, I guess, but that's a bit less likely).

Kelsey said...

Hey there. I found your blog while surfing expat blogs, and I have been enjoying reading it.

So, I was wondering, would you mind if I added you to the blogrolls on two of my blogs? You can look at them at these links, if you want:


Again, good writing! Thanks for giving me something quality to read!

Linnae said...

Xopowo! You have an excellent writing style. What a fun piece about KBAC.

The Expatresse said...

PMSL! You are funny! I enjoyed this immensely.

Anonymous said...

Greetings from US!
I saved the recipe. I can bake my own black bread, so I feel that I am good to go! And I am babushka too, so it should help me somewhat.
I am missing okroshka for 30 years now! Not to prolong the agony any further, I am making the dough for black bread as I write this note.
Before you depart from old Soviet Union, can you find out how to make cheburecky, the kind they sell in the stalls of Arcadia beach in Odessa?
That would be a great service to humanity!
Thanks for the blog!