hist-brewing: Kvass

Burning Bridges Inc. burningb at burningbridges.com
Tue Jul 1 21:34:57 PDT 2003

Greetings to you all, fellow historical brewers.

It certainly is nice to see this list come alive again.  Hopefully some of
you are more knowledgable than I concerning the above mentioned drink (in
its historical form-- say 400 years ago somewhere in Eastern Europe.)  I'm
looking for a traditional recipe or at least references that limn the
outline of an authentic method to make it.  I found a bunch of recipes on
the web, but they mostly call for baker's yeast (in one instance brewing
yeast) and I suspect this to be incorrect methodology based on the following

Here's one description I found:
(A beverage of ancient heritage)
(The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition (1911),
Vol.XV., p.956d)

"Kvass (a Russian word for leaven), one of the national
alcoholic drinks of Russia, and popular also in Eastern
Europe. It is made, by a simultaneous acid and alcoholic
fermentation, of wheat, rye, barley and buckwheat meal, or of
rye -bread, with the addition of sugar or fruit. It has been
a universal drink in Russia since the 16th. century. Though
in the large towns it is made commercially, elsewhere it is
frequently an article of domestic production. Kvass is of very
low alcoholic content (0.7 to 2.2%) . There are, beside the
ordinary kind, superior forms of the drink, such as apple or
raspberry kvass."

Now note especially the "simultaneous acid and alcoholic fermentation."  You
won't get that from either modern baker's yeast or from brewer's yeast.  It
sounds suspiciously like Lactobacillus plus yeast fermentation, but done
purposefully.  In that light, consider this quote, from the "Domostroi"
(ca.1550) by way of http://jducoeur.org/carolingia/orlando_kvass.html :


In chapter 65: Ordinary kvass. To brew ordinary kvass, Take four parts honey
and strain it until it is clear. Put it in a jar and ferment it using an
ordinary soft loaf, without additional yeast. When it is done, pour it into
a cask.


Well, one might wonder, what is the significance of this?  IMO, that a "soft
loaf", ie. not well baked loaf is used.  So the fermenting organisms are the
same as what is used for leavening the bread of the period, and most of the
spores would be killed by thorough baking.  Now maybe then one might
conclude that baking yeast would be a good substitute for brewing kvass.
However, in one of Ed Wood's books on sourdough he states that prior to 1800
almost all bread was what we know as sourdough-- and he analyzed a good
number of surviving traditional sourdough cultures from around the world
finding in all cases a symbiotic mixture of  lactobacilli and yeast.  In
most cases the yeasts were _not_ strains of what we know as modern brewing
yeast S. cerevisiae.  From stuff I've read there seems to be a strong
affinity between brewing and baking as kitchen arts, and I'm conjecturing
that maybe not only kvass but perhaps other ancient beer forms were brewed
with the _same_ cultures that were used for baking.  If so then using modern
strains of brewing yeasts would not generally result in a flavor anything
like the original brews.

Interestingly, from http://www.usrg.com/script/recipe.asp?ID=107 , a San
Francisco area restaurant reports their strange recipe for kvass (containing
beets!) , which they use as the stock for borscht, which is quite tart:


      Ingredients 1 lb black bread, pumernickel
      3 quarts boiling water
      6 beets, large, peeled, thinly sliced

            1  In bowl, cut bread into pieces, add water & beets, mix well.


            2  Cover with towel and set in warm place for two or three days.


            3  Strain through fine sieve, or cheesecloth, mashing pulp
through screen. Discard the bread mix.


Probably they don't mind giving out recipe because it likely won't work in
other localities.  The SF Bay area is known for having an indigenous
sourdough strain (the same symbiotic mix) that reliably infects any
flour/water paste you leave laying around in that geographic location.  So
again, authentic kvass seems possibly to be made from a sourdough culture,
though I haven't any idea where the restaurant got the idea-- perhaps the
family recipe of a Russian or Lithuanian immigrant?

Recently I made some sourdough bread and it took a while to get the culture
going briskly, and I was lazy and kept putting off baking the bread, so kept
adding rye flour, honey and water each day to keep it active. The odd thing
was that after about a week it smelled very much like krausening beer
(including the alcohol smell-- I don't know how the wild yeast converts the
starches-- maybe that's part of the lactobacillus' job as symbiont?), at
which point I finally baked the (by this time very large) mass of dough. But
in retrospect I wonder if I should have kept some of the dough for

So, does anyone know if my conjecture has further corroboration, either
historically or through traditional usage (ideally an old family  recipe or
method from pre-modern times for kvass?)   Or refutation for that matter...


Hiram Berry

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