In Russia, there is an infamous drink called kvass (квас). It is made by fermenting black or rye bread, and has existed for the better part of the last 13 centuries, with one of the first occurrences of the word happening in 989. This non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beverage is the focus of my blog post not only because it’s old and traditional, but because non-alcoholic beverages get ignored way too often for their alcoholic counterparts (I’m looking at you vodka). So here’s a short history and explanation of kvass’s place in Russian culture.
It has evolved from a simple drink, compared to beer from barley, millet beer of Africa, and the rice wines of Asia, and is now a widely consumed beverage. However, that was not always the case. Since the times of Peter the Great, kvass has been a drink of the masses, often being brewed by individuals but also being sold as a commercial good. Originally a drink meant for summer months, as a seasonal alternative to vodka, which was traditionally used to warm people during the winter.
As the popularity of the drink grew, it needed to be distributed in new ways. From this need came the use of trailers, not unlike small gasoline trucks. People would bring out their cups and pay for a fill of kvass. This new tradition was popular not only in Russia, but also in other Slavic nations, such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus. These can be compared to street vendors of hot dogs in the USA. Although it may not be the safest way to get your food or drink, it is a cultural mainstay.
Despite its cultural value, kvass doesn’t always have entirely positive connotations. The Russian phrase “Перебиваться с хлеба на квас”, which translates to “clambering from bread to kvass”, has a deeply negative meaning. It implies that someone is so poor that they have to use their stale bread to make their kvass. Although this may not be as popular a phrase today, due to the rise and fall of kvass’s own popularity, it doesn’t take away the meaning.
On the subject of the rise and fall of kvass’s popularity, it should be noted that its sale is on the upswing. Popular Western colas such as Coke and Pepsi had dominated the soft-drink market of Russia for a good deal of time, but since the mid 2000’s, kvass has been starting to take it’s place. This is partially due to a new marketing strategy which portrays kvass as a patriotic alternative to cola. It’s also partially due to the introduction of a few major players, including the Coca-Cola Company, which produces lower end kvass. There is indeed a distinction in Russia between lower quality kvass, made like a soda with flavorings and sugar, and higher quality kvass, made like beer with actual fermentation. Both types of kvass can be flavored with fruit or herbs.
I hope this blog post has shed some light on kvass. Definitely a cultural staple of Russia and worth a mention on Bear in a Hat.