Visitors to Russia can observe the following typical sight on Moscow street corners: a large metal drum, larger than a beer keg, turned sideways and mounted on wheels. A spigot on one end releases a brown bubbly liquid into a glass. Customers line up to pay for a draught, down it in several gulps and return the glass to the vendor who wipes it clean for the next customer.
The beverage enjoyed by Muscovites, other city dwellers and villagers throughout Russia is kvass, a lacto-fermented beverage made from stale rye bread. It tastes like beer but is not alcoholic. Kvass is considered a tonic for digestion, an excellent thirst quencher and, consumed after vodka, an antidote to a hangover.
It is also recognized that kvass is safer to drink than water. Tolstoy describes how Russian soldiers took a ladle full of kvass before venturing from their barracks onto the Moscow streets during a cholera epidemic. Because kvass protects against infectious disease, there is no worry about sharing the glass.
Russians have been enjoying kvass for at least one thousand years. Wrote Pushkin: “Their kvass they needed like fresh air. . . ” Lomonosov, a prominent scientist of peasant origins lived in “unspeakable poverty” as a student. “With a daily allowance of three kopecks, all I could have by way of food was half a kopeck’s worth of bread and half a kopeck’s worth of kvass. . . I lived like this for five years, yet did not forsake study.”
But kvass was enjoyed by czars as well as by peasant. In wealthy households, various kinds of kvass were made either with rye bread or with currants, raspberries, lemons, apples, pears, cherries, bilberries and lingonberries. Peter the Great enjoyed splashing kvass on red-hot stones in the steam bath, to enhance the steam with the fragrance of fresh bread.
It’s the Bread
Kvass is made from stale sourdough rye bread so it’s a natural for bakeries to make it from the bread that they do not sell. That is what Jeff Kaplanov does at his All Star Bakery in Toronto, Canada.
Jeff came to Toronto in the late 1980s. He wanted to make the kind of bread that was traditional in Russia. The sourdough rye bread that serves as the base for kvass is called Borodinsky bread, named after an area near Moscow that served as a battlefield during the Napoleonic wars. The bread—thick, dark and chewy—is made from freshly ground rye flour, water, salt and a sourdough starter. The process, which includes a slow rise and proofing, takes several days.
Kaplanov also makes other types of bread from wheat flour, all without preservatives or chemicals. These are distributed to health food stores and Russian grocery stores throughout Toronto. As the bread has a short shelf life, loaves are often returned.
Borodinsky bread that has gone past its shelf life is cut into 1-inch cubes, spread on trays and dried out in the bread ovens, set to low temperature. Then the pieces are added to a 200-liter tank filled with water—24 loaves go into one 200-liter tank. The brew is left 12 hours at room temperature. Yeast and a small amount of sugar is then added and the kvass is left another 12 hours at room temperature.
After that it is put into 2-liter bottles. Three or four raisins are added to the bottles which are then capped tightly. The kvass will be ready in about three weeks—foamy and refreshing. But the shelf life from that point is only about one week (or three weeks refrigerated), after which the kvass turns alcoholic.
Kaplanov makes about 2000 bottles of kvass per week in winter, 2600 in the summer, which are sold to the many Russians living in Toronto. The kvass sells for $3 (Canadian) per 2-liter bottle. He is currently exporting several cases per week to Ohio where it is sold in Russian delis in Cleveland and Cincinnati, and he is looking into arrangements for export to other cities. Shipping costs about $1.50 per bottle so the kvass needs to be priced at something like four or five dollars (US) per 2-liter bottle—still a bargain compared to wine or fine beer.
So far, Kaplanov is the only one making genuine kvass in the North American continent. A rival product made in New York is “more like Coca-Cola,” full of chemicals and preservatives to give it a longer shelf life. True kvass has a short shelf life and so is of no interest to the soft drink conglomerates.
Kvass can also be made from beets. The result is not so much epicurean as medicinal, although beet kvass is often added to borscht. No traditional Ukranian home was without its bottle of beet kvass, according to Lubow A. Kylvska, author of Ukranian Dishes, “handy and ready when a pleasing, sour flavor had to be added to soups and vinaigrettes.”
Folk medicine values beets and beet kvass for their liver cleansing properties and beet kvass is widely used in cancer therapy in Europe. Anecdotal reports indicate that beet kvass is an excellent therapy for chronic fatigue, chemical sensitivities, allergies and digestive problems.
Another Gift from Russia
Another delicious, refreshing and salutary beverage consumed in Russia is chainyi grib, known in the US as kombucha, made from tea, sugar and a culture or “mushroom.” Actually, fermented tea is consumed throughout Japan, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Manchuria and Indonesia as well as Russia. Other names for the drink are teeschwamm, wunderpilz, hongo, cajnij, fungus japonicus and teewass.
The tea fungus or culture is a symbiotic combination of vinegar-producing bacteria (Acetobacter sp.) with at least two yeasts. The fungus can only form when the Acetobacter and yeasts are present together. When Acetobacter is used alone, gas is produced and the film or culture does not form. The culture transforms sweetened black tea into a slightly fizzy, sour drink, redolent of cider, via a combination of acetic, lactic-acid and glucoronic fermentation. In the process, virtually all the sugar and caffeine are transformed into other compounds.
Kombucha is safe and healthy when prepared according to directions. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil, remove from heat, add 1 cup of white sugar and steep with 4 bags of organic black tea. To avoid contamination, the sweetened tea should then be placed in a clean, clear glass bowl and the “mushroom” placed carefully on top. Place a crisscross of masking tape across the bowl and cover with a clean towel. Place in a warm, protected spot for about eight days until the beverage becomes suitably acid.
Some people claim that kombucha is not safe, but when reasonable care is taken, “you’re more likely to find contamination in a cup of coffee than in a cup of properly prepared kombucha,” according to Dr. Samuel Page of the FDA. Of course, if the kombucha develops mold, you should not drink it—just as you would not consume any food that developed mold.
Kombucha is rich in B vitamins and a substance called glucuronic acid which binds up environmental and metabolic toxins so that they can be excreted through the kidneys. Glucuronic acid is a natural acid that is produced by the liver. Kombucha simply supplies the body with more and boosts the natural detoxification process. Glucuronic acid is also the building block of a group of important polysaccharides that include hyaluronic acid (a basic component of connective tissue), chondroitin sulfate (a basic component of cartilage) and mucoitinsulfuric acid (a building block of the stomach lining and the vitreous humor of the eye).
In some cases, consumption of kombucha tea can provoke an allergic reaction. According to some practitioners, this is evidence that the liver is very toxic and cannot handle the detoxification products that the kombucha helps release. In these cases, it is best to begin the detox process using beet kvass, which helps the liver cleanse itself. Usually after two or three weeks of taking 8-12 ounces daily of beet kvass, the kombucha will be well tolerated and can be drunk both for its good taste and medicinal qualities.
Glucuronic acid content usually reaches its maximum on the eighth day, when the pH reaches 2.6. For testing, use pH Hydracid Papers 1-6, which can be obtained through any pharmacy.
Researchers looking at the toxic effects of fluoride have recently raised concerns about kombucha because most commercial tea is very high in fluoride. Fortunately, kombucha made with organic tea contains very little fluoride. We had fluoride levels tested in organic black tea and in the kombucha made with the tea. The levels in the tea were only slightly higher than those in the filtered water from which it was made and actually slightly lower in the kombucha than in the black tea. These results suggest that the process of fermentation actually removes some of the fluoride from the tea and may explain why the kombucha “mushroom” eventually gets black. These older, darkened “mushrooms” can be replaced with the newer, cleaner “babies” that grow on top of the original “mushroom” during the fermentation process.
A Drink from Down Under
While fermented drinks can be made at home, the goal is widespread availability of a variety of delicious lacto-fermented drinks, locally produced and offering a healthy alternative to modern soft drinks. Two brands of kombucha are now being produced in California and Jeff Kaplanov’s kvass is available in Toronto.
One other lacto-fermented drink is in production in Australia. Called BE Wholegrain Liquid, it is a dark, bubbly slightly sour concoction of grains and legumes, cultured with lactic-acid-producing bacteria and yeasts. The secret to this process was discovered during research on ancient breadmaking techniques in Iraq. Like Russian kvass, the Iraqi drink was a by-product of the bakers.
BE Wholegrain Liquid is imported into Vancouver and available in health food stores in Canada. AGM Foods, the producers, have yet to find a distributor in the US. Perhaps this article will inspire a reader to contact them and make it available here.
The list of commercially available fermented soft drinks is a short one. We hope that when we write an update five years from now, it will fill pages. Consumer demand will be the deciding factor in determining the growth of this fledgling cottage industry. You can do your part by teaching others about the value of kombucha, kvass and similar drinks and encouraging their production in your communities.
Kvass made at home requires careful attention to detail, especially to temperatures. To avoid failures and frustration, purchase a thermometer that will measure liquids between 50-175 degrees F. You will also need to find a warm place that stays about 76-78 degrees in your kitchen or in a closet .
Be sure to use bread that is made only with rye flour, and that contains no food additives or preservatives. Kvass made from bread that contains oats or other grains is said to turn the fermenting liquid bitter. (Whole Foods markets imports a 100 percent sourdough rye bread from Switzerland and some Russian bakeries make a genuine rye bread without additives.)
Do not worry about using white sugar as most if it will be turned into beneficial acids.
The kvass should be stored in bottles with screw on tops or tops with wire fasteners. This recipe makes about 5 quarts.
1 pound rye bread, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 1/2 cups sugar, in all
1 package dry active yeast
1 tablespoon unbleached white flour
About 1 dozen raisins
Spread the bread on cookie sheets and bake for about 30 minutes at 325 degrees. When cool, chop into 1/4-inch pieces in a food processor.
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and then cool to 175 degrees. Add the bread, stir well, cover with a lid and leave in a warm place (76-78 degrees) for 1 hour. Strain and reserve both the bread and the liquid.
Bring another 2 1/2 quarts of water to a boil, cool down to 175 degrees and add the reserved bread. Cover with a lid and leave in a warm place for 1 1/2 hours. Strain and discard the bread. Combine both batches of liquid.
Place 1/4 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon water in a small cast-iron skillet. Stir continuously over heat until the mixture turns golden brown. (Be careful not to burn it.) Remove from heat and gradually blend in 1/2 cup of the reserved liquid. Then stir this mixture into the entire batch of liquid.
In a small saucepan place 1 cup water and the remaining 1 1/4 cups sugar. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, skimming once or twice. Stir this syrup into the reserved liquid and allow the mixture to come to room temperature (about 75 degrees).
Mix the yeast with the flour and combine with 1 cup of the liquid. Return this yeast mixture to the pot. Make an X of masking tape across the top of the pot. Cover the pot with 2 layers of cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel and leave in a warm place (73-78 degrees) for 8-12 hours or overnight. Cool the kvass to about 50-54 degrees. Transfer to bottles, seal tightly and refrigerate for 24 hours. The kvass will keep in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.
In addition to its role as a refreshing drink, kvass is added to a number of typical Russian cold soups containing vegetables, sour cream and fish.
Adopted from The Art of Russian Cuisine by Anne Volokh, 1983.
Lacto-Fermented Beverages from Around the World
Bousa (Egypt): An opaque drink made of wheat.
Braga (Middle Europe): A fermented gruel or sour porridge.
Chicha (South America): A clear, bubbly beverage made with corn. Balls of cooked corn mush are chewed and inoculated with saliva, then added to water and allowed to ferment. The taste is similar to kombucha.
Kiesel (Russia and Poland): An important grain-based lacto-fermented drink mentioned in a 997 AD text.
Kombucha or CHAINYI GRIB (Russia and Asia): Made from sweetened tea and a culture.
Kvass (Russia and Ukraine): A lacto-fermented drink usually made from stale rye bread. Another version is made with beets.
Mead (Europe): Made from honey. Some methods produced a lacto-fermented drink, very low in alcohol.
Munkoyo (Africa) A lacto-fermented brew, containing less than 0.5 percent alcohol, made from millet or sorghum. Also called sorghum beer, it is consumed in large quantities by field workers and at celebrations. It is also given to babies to protect them against infection and diarrhea. The missionaries to Africa discouraged its use because it contains alcohol in very small amounts. They thus unwittingly paved the way for commercial soft drinks in Africa.
Pulque (Mexico): A lacto-fermented drink made from the juice of the agave cactus. With time, it goes alcoholic. Distilled pulque is tequila.
Palm Wine (Africa): The lacto-fermented sap of the palm tree, consumed in tropical areas of Africa and Asia.
Rice Beers (Asia and India): These were traditionally very low in alcohol, and mostly lacto-fermented.
Tesguino (Mexico): A low-alcohol beer made with sprouted corn.
Fluoride in Tea and Kombucha
|Tap water||0.86 ppm|
|Filtered water||0.62 ppm|
|Organic Black Tea||0.94 ppm|
Testing by Soil Control Lab,
Watsonville, CA (831) 724-5422
Laurel Farms (941) 351-2233
GEM Cultures (707) 964-2922
Kombucha mushrooms, ready-made beverage, and equipment:
AF Distribution, Encino, California (818) 784-2345.
Toll-free 1-877-KOMBUCHA (566-2824)
Kvass in Canada:
All Star Bakery (905) 738-9624
BE Wholegrain Liquid from Australia:
www.AGMFoods.com (07) 3396-2866
A Kombucha Testimonial
I am writing to you about the benefits kombucha tea has had on my health. In 1978, I found myself getting progressively ill with many symptoms (possibly as many as 30) and a debilitating fatigue. For many years I tried to figure out what was happening to me. After consulting as many as twelve doctors and specialists, I was left with a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. After dozens of tests nothing could be found, and no one knew what to do for me. My last hope came along when a prominent hematologist found that my immune system resembled the immune system of an AIDS patient, although I was negative for HIV. To my disappointment he did not know the cause of my poor health and did not know what to do for me.
Finally I decided to be my own doctor and do my own research. After trying many holistic approaches, I was somewhat improved but far from being well. My last straw was to have my mercury amalgam dental fillings removed. My hematologist was against it and felt it would be money wasted. After much research I decided to have all the amalgams removed—all 14 of them.
At this point I had spent nearly $15,000 and was unable to afford chelation to remove the heavy metals from my tissues. I tried many things with some degree of success. One day a friend of mine gave me a nice tall glass of kombucha to drink. I immediately became very ill with all of my symptoms reinforced. I thought I was allergic to the tea and decided it was not for me until one day I met John Thomas, the author of Young Again. I proceeded to ask him why I was so allergic to kombucha. His answer was that, because my body was so toxic with mercury, I had taken too much for the first time. He recommended I start with only a small amount.
After following his advice, I realized that he was right. Minutes after taking a small amount of kombucha tea there was much inflammation in the areas where mercury had accumulated, and burning sensations in the bowel and bladder occurred as mercury was eliminated. I patiently persisted, watching the areas affected getting smaller and fewer, my symptoms diminishing and disappearing one by one. I had fibrocystic disease of the breasts and it is now all gone. The inflammation in the breasts was severe as the mercury was being chelated by the kombucha. My vision was full of floaters and they are now nearly all gone.
It would be too long to describe in detail all the improvement I experienced but I can say that my health is 80 percent improved and I have greatly increased strength and energy. The most important improvement is that I no longer have to live in a “glass bubble” because of severe chemical sensitivity. I owe most of my health recovery to kombucha tea and I truly feel that this delicious drink is the safest chelator available today. Dr. Baker, a specialist in chelation therapy for mercury toxicity, told me in a telephone conversation that all her patients who take kombucha tea tell her the same.
Kombucha tea contains glucuronic acid which, according to some practitioners, the body uses as a detoxifier, especially for the hemoglobin salvaged from old worn-out red blood cells called bilirubin. Glucuronic acid helps the liver detoxify bilirubin, thereby preventing jaundice. Glucuronic acid also assists the P450 enzyme system which the body employs for detoxification inside the cells.
–Francoise Asselin, UxBridge, Ontario, Canada
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2001.