Kwas — fermented old rye breadYeah, I saw your hippy eyes light up after reading the title. You know who you are. Sorry, but we are talking about kwas here. A healthy, refreshing, lightly carbonated alternative to beer and water. A favorite among the Slavic tribes since Pagan times for its restorative and curative qualities. Why, oh why hasn’t this wonderful, natural elixir taken over the world? Well, here’s the clincher — it’s made from fermented old rye bread.

Yes, fermented rye bread. Just mentioning that to many Americans will have them run away in fear or at least become very reluctant to wet their lips with the stuff let alone taste it. The trick is to simply call it non-alcoholic beer. In Western parts of Poland, a version of this fine elixir, is called podpiwek, from pod — meaning under and piwo — meaning beer.

Światowid — the all-seeing Slavic diety. In the night of the Summer solstice the pagan Slavs celebrate water, fire, youth and sex during the festivities of Kupałki. — painting by Henryk Siemiradzki Kwas is sold in Eastern Europe — bottled or by street vendors like this one in Kiev.
Światowid — the all-seeing Slavic deity. In the night of the Summer solstice the pagan Slavs celebrate water, fire, youth and sex during the festivities of Kupałki. — painting by Henryk Siemiradzki Kwas is sold in Eastern Europe — bottled or by street vendors like this one in Kiev.

And, it is a fine, refreshing, versatile and ancient elixir. As a healthy alternative to water and a non-alcoholic substitute for beer, kwas, has been enjoyed by the Slavic peoples for thousands of years. In the days when most water was unfit to drink its health benefits were touted by bards, kings and philosophers. It has been claimed that kwas will invigorate, detox, deoxidize, improve metabolism, prevent cancer, strengthen the cardiovascular system, clean and regulate the colon and harden the libido. Sounds like snake oil? Yes, but at least some of these healing properties can, in part, be explained by the availability of lactic acid, a plethora of vitamins, free amino acids and a diverse batch of trace elements. In any case it’s a lot healthier, especially when homemade, than most soft drinks. In fact in parts of Eastern Europe it is making a comeback and even threatening cola as the number one choice in non-alcoholic beverages. Maybe here in America it can also catch on and we can gravitate away from the poison that is  high fructose corn syrup. As Lucyna Ćwierczakiewiczowa wrote in her mid 1800s cook book, Only the Best Practical Recipes, “…in every one of even the poorest households it (kwas) is served daily with meals, much healthier and easier to make than beer…”

Like with the Blues the basic principles of making kwas are very simple and straightforward but the opportunity for improvisation, personalization and innovation are endless.

Although you can make kwas from malt, grain, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and birch sap I will just cover the most common — the one made from old dry rye bread.

I’ve worked out a standard for the basic ingredients and process from different recipes and my own personal experience. This works for me and makes 5 to 6 liter bottles, but, as they say — your mileage may vary.

Old, dry, rye bread ready for cubing. You can just dry fresh bread in the oven. Dissolved yeast waiting for the water to cool. Raisins, honey and lemons ready for the second fermentation.
Old, dry, rye bread ready for cubing. You can just dry fresh bread in the oven. Dissolved yeast waiting for the water to cool. Raisins, honey and lemons ready for the second fermentation.

Ingredients:

  • ¾ pound (⅓ kilo) of dry rye bread cut into small pieces
  • 1 ¾ gallons (6.6 liters) of water
  • 1 packet (¼ oz, 7 g) of dried yeast
  • ¼ pound (114 g) of sugar/honey/molasses etc.
  • handful (about 2 oz, 50 g) of raisins
  • 1 lemon cut in half
  • herbs and spices (optional)

Equipment:

  • 2, 1 gallon, food grade, brewing buckets (they really hold almost 2 gallons) with lids
  • 1 straining bag or a very large strainer
  • 1 syphoning tube (optional)
  • bottles — I use "beugel" also known as "swing top" style 1 liter bottles
Cubed old rye bread in boiling water. You have to cool down the water/bread mix before introducing the yeast. After a few hours you should see bubbly action and the bread will float back to the top.
Cubed old rye bread in boiling water. You have to cool down the water/bread mix before introducing the yeast. After a few hours you should see bubbly action and the bread will float back to the top.

Process:

  • Cube the dry rye bread and place in the brewing bucket.
  • Boil 2 gallons of water and pour over the bread.
  • Dissolve the yeast in a cup of lukewarm water.
  • Wait for the water and bread to cool to between 80° and 90° F (26° - 32° C).
  • Pour in the yeast, stir, cover and leave in a warm place to ferment for about 12 hours. For yeast to work temperature is key — 50° F (10° C) is too low, 150° F (65° C) is too high,  between 80° and 90° F (26° - 32° C) is ideal.
  • Strain out the bread.
  • Ad the sugar, or what ever other sweetener you are using, raisins and lemon.
  • Ferment for another 12 hours.
  • Strain out all the solid ingredients.
  • Put 1 raisin into each bottle and syphon the liquid into the bottles.
  • Seal the bottles and let stand in a warm place for at least 48 hours.
  • The kwas will keep for at least a month but since it is still live in the bottle it will change with time reaching it’s peek at about 5 to 6 days.
Prepare a bucket for straining out the bread. Squeeze out as much liquid as you can without getting too much of the bread goop. Frement the kwas water with your flavorings and sweetner for about 12 hours.
After about 12 hours prepare a bucket for straining out the bread. Squeeze out as much liquid as you can without getting too much of the bread goop. Ferment the kwas water with your flavorings and sweetener for about 12 hours.
Put one raisin in to each bottle. This will feed the yeast and produce carbination. This is my bottling setup but you can do better. After just 24 hours in the bottle you can enjoy your kwas.
Put one raisin in to each bottle. This will feed the yeast and produce carbonation. This is my bottling setup but you can do better. After just 24 hours in the bottle you can enjoy your kwas. Here paired of with Polish rye and smalec.

Well these are the basics and it should get you well on the way to making acid, I mean kwas. Now lets go into the details, tips, discoveries and variations.

Ahh... the Slavic meal — bigos, buckwheat and a bottle of kwas.

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