It’s not beer. It’s not kombucha. It’s not bread. It’s kvas, beer’s little brother.
Fermented from bread instead of malted grain, it’s a traditional, refreshing, carbonated drink, popular throughout eastern Europe. Like beer, it was traditionally made at home as a safer alternative to water, and then was taken over by mass production.
Today kvas is widely available from Poland to Kazakhstan, in both mainstream bulk products and traditionally crafted versions. Kvas is a soft drink, and its flavour is like a less-sweet ginger beer, with a range of different flavourings in place of the ginger. Local ingredients are used to flavour distinctly local variants.
New Zealand’s first commercial kvas producer is firmly in the craft tradition. Brod Kvas is made in Christchurch by Jack Bristow, who discovered kvas in 1994 when he studied in Russia.
“My host family made it and I liked it straight away. I spent 20-odd years in Kazan and Moscow, and in Russia kvas is the most popular drink. I think the kvas market in Russia is larger than all other fizzy drinks put together.
“Rye bread is common in every Russian home, and you make kvas with bread that’s gone stale. It’s dried out on the oven and you make it with that. The word 'kvas' just means 'fermented' in Russian.
“Russia is a country with a long winter so fermentation has been one of the key pillars of their cuisine, for preservation. To this day Russians do not drink milk – they drink fermented milk. There’s dozens of varieties – kefir is the most popular one. They ferment sauerkraut, but also tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, apples, pears, a lot of mead, lots of different fermented foods.”
Jack and his wife moved to New Zealand in 2013. “Our first thought was that the soft drinks were all really sweet. Then the new drink driving law came in and I wondered what people could drink if they weren’t drinking beer.”
Jack had brewed his own kvas in Russia. He started making it at home in Christchurch, selling it though a farmers market. People liked it, and Jack started to tweak the recipe with local ingredients for local tastes.
The Brod Kvas range now has nine flavours, including Black, with cacao, licorice root and chilli; Blueberry; Lemon; and Original, brewed over sultanas.
“I don’t need to eat the bread so I bake it for three hours to get it dried. Some people just add yeast, some sugar, and that ferments really quick and has a much shorter shelf life. I do a straight lactic fermentation. I like the lighter fresher flavour, and it keeps better. You just start with dried bread, add some sultanas, keep that at 30-35⁰ for a few hours and the fermentation will start by itself.
“Fermented foods have just blown up in the last year and that’s good for us. We tell people we have a new fermented product and they are interested. We want it to be something people want to drink, not something medicinal, so we have to be able sell it at a soft drink price.”
Jack says kvas should be enjoyed as a drink in its own right, rather than for any supposed probiotic benefits. “There are certain people in New Zealand who are charlatans with the fraudulent claims they are making. We don’t sell kvas on that basis. We think it’s just a nice drink, people enjoy it, and there’s a market for drinks that are not full of sugar that feel like a real drink rather than a glass of water.”
At the moment Brod Kvas is fermenting in 60L barrels. Jack is on the lookout for new premises and a bigger brew kit, but says beer fermenters are not suitable. “My batch at the moment is 500L and that’s selling faster than I expected. I’m looking for bigger equipment but haven’t been able to find the answer yet. I might have to go back to Russia to look there.”