Kvass is the most popular of all the Russian sodas, and it might be the most unusual. Though we've explored the wild world of Russian sodas available in West Hollywood and Valley Village before, kvass requires its own, more in-depth examination and explanation for anyone who isn’t from Russia, Ukraine or the Baltic countries.
Sometimes called bread drink or bread soda, kvass is Russia’s summertime soft drink of choice. It’s a fermented beverage made with dark rye bread, malt and/or barley extract, yeast and water. Basically, kvass is like a dark beer, minus the hops and using a less involved brewing process.
To say kvass has a deep Russian history would be an understatement. It’s referred to in the first known Russian text, Primary Chronicle, dating the drink back 1,000 years. Traditional kvass was tart and sour and, being a fermented grain beverage, also contained a small amount of alcohol. During the Soviet Union era, it was commonly sold from metal tanks by street vendors, and many a babushka had her own home recipe, often flavored with fruits, caraway seeds, honey, berries or raisins.
The arrival of U.S. cola brands led to a sharp decline in kvass sales and interest. That has all turned around over the last decade, with a strong resurgence and return to preeminence to the point where Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Carlsberg have all entered the market with their own brands of kvass. The kvass you’ll find on store shelves is produced much like any commercial soft drink, using sugar, carbonated water, citric acid and malt extracts, and is primarily nonalcoholic.
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Referred to as an acquired taste, a fermented bread soda might seem unappealing, but it is quite refreshing. If you’d like to try kvass, you’ll need to head to West Hollywood or the Valley, particularly Valley Village, and the markets catering to L.A.’s Russian community. There, you’ll find anywhere from five to 11 brands on shelves. It can all be a bit overwhelming, so we offer these shopping tips:
First, look for bottles or cans reading kvass, kvas or, in Cyrillic, KBAC. The flavor is breadlike and varies greatly from brand to brand, from sweeter to tangier, milder to slightly tart, even dry. This is where the label is your friend. If you want a sweeter taste, simply look for one with higher sugar content (a couple of Ukranian brands featuring monks on the label tend to be sweeter), while some can be sussed out as using honey. Conversely, if you’re seeking something more tart, go for a lower sugar content. Or, you could simply ask someone at the counter for their recommendations, which is something we’ve had good luck with at the small markets. If you don’t want to commit to a two-liter bottle, the markets have some cans and smaller bottles in coolers. As you might expect, taking a whiff off a freshly opened bottle or can presents the aroma of bread. Kvass should be served slightly chilled or at room temperature and never over ice.
Odessa Grocery usually has the largest selection, with Tashkent Produce featuring just a few less. Pacific Coast Food, aka "the Russian Costco," has more Ukrainian and Baltic brands along with more bottles smaller than two liters, but who carries what brands seems to vary from one visit to the next. At some, you also can find Russia's leading brands, Nikola and Ochakovskiy; the latter even shot a kvass ad at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Grandma's Deli, 4818 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; (818) 762-8980.
Mechta Deli Market, 7712 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 654-2893.
Odessa Grocery, 12129 Magnolia Blvd., Valley Village; (818) 762-0331.
Odessa Grocery, 7781 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 848-9999.
Pacific Coast Food, 10703 Vanowen St., North Hollywood; (818) 985-6900, pacificfoodusa.com.
Sunland Produce, 8840 Glenoaks Blvd., Sun Valley; (818) 504-6629, sunlandproduce.com.
Tashkent Produce, 5340 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; (818) 752-7222.