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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Revival for Sour, Fizzing Kvas

Outside the Savelovskaya metro station, Galina Krivonosova performs one of the city's rites of summer, pouring draughts of the national semisoft drink from a tanker-trailer that looks like it could be used to haul toxic chemicals.

"I don't like Pepsi or Coke at all," says Krivonosova, 41. "I prefer kvas."

The reason for her preference for the ancient beverage? Russians are practically raised on it, she says. And what's not to like, she asks, about a drink traditionally made of fermented stale rye bread? "Bread is very healthy and tasty."

With the first warm weather every year, the green-and-yellow kvas tanks, mounted on chassis with truck tires, swarm near bus stops and subway stations. For 15 to 20 rubles (50 to 65 cents) per liter, peddlers fill plastic cups with the murky, fizzing liquid.

Kvas -- the name comes from the Russian for "sour" -- is zesty, piquant and, in its traditional form, somewhat alcoholic.

The stout-colored liquid once seemed headed for oblivion, threatened by a glasnost-era infatuation with Western soft drinks and a post-Soviet preference for Western products in general. According to one survey, per capita kvas consumption fell from 61 liters annually before the 1917 Revolution, to 2.5 liters by 1989 to just less than half a liter by 2003.

Although Russians are drinking a lot less kvas than they once were, experts say consumption is increasing. For nostalgic and patriotic reasons, all things Russian are suddenly stylish. Kvas -- like the Orthodox faith and Communist-era symbols -- is once again a source of pride.

The brew has traditionally been produced at home or in small-scale commercial plants. But now, some of the Moscow area's largest beer breweries, including the mammoth Kostroma Brewery, are engaged in commercial kvas production. The city government has even launched a string of kiosks called Moscow Kvas, dispensing a traditional form of the beverage from taps like beer.

There also are plans to start commercial-scale production elsewhere in European Russia, including Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar near the Black Sea.

But commercially brewed kvas doesn't always taste like the traditional beverage, gourmets say. The reason is that kvas is like homemade bread: It's only good when its fresh, and it doesn't stay fresh long.

Normally, the beverage spoils after 48 hours, about the time it takes a Moscow peddler to sell a 300-liter tanker load.

To extend kvas' shelf life, manufacturers are forced to pasteurize it, filter it or -- worst of all, in the eyes of purists -- make a kvas-like beverage using syrup, sugar and artificial carbonation.

So the government has started a crash program to figure out how to keep traditional-style kvas fresh without ruining its flavor.

Leading the effort is Konstantin Kobelev, a scientist with the All-Russian Scientific and Research Institute of Beverages, who works in a lab about a kilometer west of the Kremlin.

Like the best beer, Kobelev says, the best kvas is unfiltered, unheated and unadulterated.

"As soon as we begin to process kvas, so it can be stored, that changes the content," he says. "And that changes the flavor."

Russians are finicky about the taste of their kvas. Almost every cook has his or her own secret recipe for the beverage, used as the basis for hundreds of kinds of summer soups.

One Moscow brewery has succeeded in producing a traditional-style kvas that can be stored for up to 60 days, Kobelev says. But that's still impractical for large-scale brewing and distribution.

Kobelev is working on perfecting a method to extend the shelf life of kvas up to six months. He predicts that his new method will be ready for testing next spring.

When it comes to competing with Western soft drinks, kvas faces another handicap. Drinking kvas is a strictly seasonal activity.

So the kvas breweries are planning to use advertising to persuade Russians that it's a drink for every season.

Changing the drinking habits also means changing the traditional use of a food that dates back more than 1,000 years to the creation of the Russian state.

When Prince Vladimir, the Grand Duke of Kiev, set about converting Russians to Christianity in 988, kvas was a staple. As an incentive to stubborn pagans, Vladimir reportedly ordered the distribution of barrels of honey and kvas to converts.

Kobelev keeps a list of the names of some of the 150 kvas recipes he's collected: "Northern," "Spring," "Ancient," "Dark," "Monastery," "Cossack's," and, of course, "Moscow." In addition to bread kvas, he says, there are berry, honey and fruit kvases.

Kobelev says he frequently gets calls from entrepreneurs who want to start a commercial kvasovarnya, or kvas brewery. He says the cost would be at least $100,000 for the equipment needed to meet health standards.

Traditionally, kvas is quaffed by everyone from babushkas to babies, despite its alcoholic content -- now limited by law to 1.2 percent.

"By many, kvas is considered nonalcoholic," Kobelev says.

As to the taste: "Many people don't like beer the first time they drink it," he says. "Kvas grows on you."