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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sun Sets Slowly on Summer Brew

On a hot summer day, Moscow's largest kvas manufacturer can still sell 300 liters of the classic Russian concoction on the streets in a few hours. Citywide, loyal fans of the tangy fermented drink line up by cisterns to assuage their dry throats and exchange gossip.


But the rest of the year, convincing Russians to remember their former national drink has become an uphill struggle.


"My husband used to make kvas every summer," says retired railway technician Lyudmila Bistrova. "I don't buy it now because I can't afford it and I'm unable to make it myself."


A traditional drink concocted from fermented rye bread, sugar and mint, kvas takes its name from kvasit, meaning to ferment. It has a strong yeast-like smell and tastes a bit like a weak Guinness.


With only a trace of alcohol, if any, kvas was one of the few beverages akin to a soft drink in Soviet days and thus enjoyed a huge share of the nonalcoholic drink market. But in recent years, the vast choice of nonalcoholic beverages has forced kvas manufacturers to search for new ways to retain a spot in the market.


"Children these days don't even know what kvas is," laments Valida Gamzayeva, director of the Russky Kvas factory. "We shouldn't allow the tradition to die." Moscow's largest kvas manufacturer is now operating at 20 percent of its capacity. Crates of empty bottles are stacked up in a rundown courtyard of the factory where mangy dogs bask in the warm sun.


This summer has been especially hard on kvas sellers. Gamzayeva called it the industry's worst ever. Unusually cool weather at the start of the season -- usually the biggest kvas-drinking time -- dampened sales. Moreover, many kvas kiosks closed down after being unable to meet the higher standards of hygiene and equipment instituted as part of beautification efforts for Moscow's 850th anniversary.


Among the 19 kiosks that traded exclusively in kvas and sold Russky Kvas products in 1996, only two have renewed their contracts for this summer. In 1996, Muscovites consumed only 1.14 million liters of kvas, compared to more than 21 million in 1991. Russky Kvas recently bought 500, 20-liter plastic kegs to rent out to people wishing to sell kvas on the streets this summer, said Gamzayeva. The firm managed to lease only 300 kegs. Kvas sellers are further hard-pressed by increasing production costs due to higher prices of ingredients such as sugar. Today kvas sells for about 1,000 rubles (17 cents) a cup.


In an effort to revive sagging sales, the Moscow city government has a 10-member team of business officials and scientists drafting plans. One municipal official familiar with the kvas crisis, who asked not to be identified, says, "There will always be a demand for kvas. What we need now is to upgrade technology and modernize the packaging of the product."


There has also been talk of sending kvas more upmarket by selling the drink in cafes. But Gamzayeva thinks that would debase kvas culture.


"I wouldn't go into a cafe to drink kvas," she says. "I want to drink kvas on the street. Moscow is a cold city. People like to eat and drink outside in the summer." A St. Petersburg kvas producer recently began manufacturing canned kvas.


Summer kvas served from cisterns has a less bitter taste and is murkier than the bottled, factory-produced version available year-round. It also spoils faster -- in about two days -- while bottled kvas lasts at least one year.


Gamzayeva plans next year to produce limited amounts of kvas with a down-home flavor as well as adding strawberry, raspberry and black currant to Russky Kvas' current stable of 15 flavors.


Kvas traces its roots to 10th-century Kievan Rus and is possessed of healing properties, say kvas lovers. Some even sprinkle the drink on coals in a banya, claiming the steam is effective in replenishing body fluids.