Bread of heaven beer in Russia's post-red snows
It is well known that, before the technique of malting was devised, grains were baked into bread to make them soluble for the brewer, and that this method was used in Mesopotamia, now a part of Iraq.
It has always seemed to me that this way of brewing must have spread into Russia, giving rise to kvass.
Kvass is traditionally made by baking whatever grains are available, most often rye, and producing a brew of low-to-medium strength, occasionally flavoured with fruit or herbs. The name comes from the Russian word for "leaven". The Russians regard it as a distinct drink, but it is surely an early form of beer. Either way, it is significant in the history of drink.
It was principally distributed by trucks like small petrol tankers, which plied their trade in residential areas. People would come out with glasses, jugs, or jerricans to buy their kvass.
For the visitor to Russia, kvass was never easy to find. It was principally distributed by trucks like small petrol tankers, which plied their trade in residential areas. People would come out with glasses, jugs, or jerricans to buy their kvass.
It was a trade unseen by most visitors. Nor were the Russians ever proud of this traditional drink, seeing it as rather primitive.
My own occasional visits to Russia have also tended to be at the wrong time for kvass:
in winter, when vodka drinking is at its height. Kvass has traditionally been regarded as a summer beverage.
I use the past tense because kvass is becoming even harder to find as Russia's trend-setters turn away from tradition in favour of Western products.
Fortunately, such behaviour is not universal.
On a recent visit to St Petersburg, I did spot a roadside hut painted with a word that in cyrillic letters looked rather like KBAC.
I had with me a Russian-speaker who confirmed the word was "kvass". The wooden hut had a serving hatch, at which I met the proprietor, a young man with the splendidly alcoholic name of Sergei Smirnoff.
Mr. Smirnoff warned me that his stock of kvass had been delivered at the end of summer, in a 300-litre tank. Fresh, it had been sweet; now, it was somewhat sour, though I was told that some connoisseurs preferred it that way.
He poured me a glass, with a head of large bubbles like that sometimes found on cask ale from the stillage.
It had a thin, firm body, and the flavours of young lambic with nutty notes, some grainy breadiness and a minty spiciness.
The kvass had a dull amber colour, with a slight opalescence. It had a thin, firm body, and the flavours of young lambic with nutty notes, some grainy breadiness and a minty spiciness.
I feel sure the latter note came from rye, though peppermint is very occasionally used for spicing. Mr. Smirnoff told me the kvass was brewed 150 miles away, but could not explain why it was fetched so far. Nor was he able to answer any technical questions. He was, though, keen to show me a vessel with a jacket in which he could warm a glass of kvass or beer to ease my shivering.
This was, he said, very popular - especially with older people.
The traditional use in kvass of the grain rye probably led to its employment in more conventional beers. It is, after all, a staple grain in parts of Central and Baltic Europe.
In my hotel room, I found a bottle of beer called Baltika Original, the label of which bore, in English, the strange promise of "a dark beer with a harmonious bread flavour.
It was an amber-brown, strongish (5.6 per cent, from an original gravity of 1060) lager which did, indeed, have the flavour of a crusty rye bread. I found it tasty, interesting and warming.
Later, I had chance to visit the Baltika brewery, on a sprawling industrial estate on the edge of town. The place took some finding, among railtracks, but eventually its neon sign shone through the snow.
I discovered that Baltika Original contains about five per cent rye (and a fair dose of crystal malt). Apparently several other Russian breweries make similarly rye-tinged lagers.
The Baltika brewery was established as recently as 1990, by the state. As Communism faded, the brewery became a joint venture between its employees and a Baltic enterprise controlled by a major Nordic grouping:
Hartwall, of Finland, Pripps of Sweden and Ringnes, of Norway. It has by European standards a huge capacity:
three million hectolitres.
The Nordic notion for Baltika was originally to concentrate on an international interpretation of light-tasting lager. While this type of beer is popular among movers-and-shakers, the brewery soon realised that there was also a market for the fuller-bodied beers that are more traditional in Russia.
A Porter that in the past was produced occasionally as a winter special was added in 1995 as a regular brew. This is bottom fermented, but in the vein of a Russian Imperial Stout. It was a thrill to taste such a beer in the city that gave the style its name.
Baltika Porter has an ebony colour, an alcohol content of 7 per cent from an original gravity of 1068 and a woody aroma, with oily, creamy, fudgy, toffeeish, juicy flavours. It is soft and lightly dry.
Published Online: DEC 25, 1998
Published in Print: FEB 1, 1998
In: What's Brewing
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