Bread and beer have gone together for a long time. Consider the English concept of the ploughman’s lunch, which has endured in some form or another for centuries, and contains both beer and bread as its central components. A decade ago, the storied post-punk band Scritti Politti dubbed their 2006 album White Bread Black Beer—making a rare album with a built-in menu. But sometimes simply eating bread and drinking beer isn’t enough. Sometimes, finding a way to conjoin the two is essential for certain palates.
That’s how I found myself walking through the streets of industrial Bushwick on a bitter cold Sunday night. My destination was a bar called Honey’s—a spot with a solid array of beers on tap, some nimbly-assembled cocktails and a host of tasty wine available. None of these were why I was there, though. Instead, I’d come to order the one nonalcoholic option on their menu: Kvass, one of the only beverages you’re likely to find on the menu of both a cutting-edge cocktail bar and a traditional Russian restaurant.
Honey’s is operated by Enlightenment Wines, which specializes in numerous forms of mead. Basically, it’s taking traditional beverages that hearken back to an earlier time and using modern technology to create something fresh. Kvass is a beverage with origins in Russia, and the process of making it incorporates rye bread as it naturally ferments. Adding to the theme of dough here is how Honey’s serves their kvass: The straw is uncooked pasta, which in turn takes on its own tastes and textures over the course of the drink.
If one was to make an analogy to its fellow fermented beverage kombucha, then kvass would be a stout to kombucha’s pilsner.”
How does it taste? As befits something made with bread as a primary ingredient, the word “dense” comes to mind, which creates a contrast with the effervescence present. If one was to make an analogy to its fellow fermented beverage kombucha, then kvass would be a stout to kombucha’s pilsner. There's a milkiness present as well as a heftiness. This seems like an ideal winter beverage, one to be savored in a warm space with good music playing over the stereo.
This isn’t to say that the essence of kvass can’t also be enjoyed in a boozier form. Illinois’s Scratch Brewing Company, for instance, makes a very tasty kvass in the form of a sour ale made with rye bread, along with some caraway seeds in the mix. While there are certainly aspects of the kvass I tried in Brooklyn present there, the fact it was an ale remained paramount in my mind. In other words, it was light, both in the drinking and in the relatively low ABV. There was an earthiness to it as well, with some lighter notes of apples and hints of the bread that had been used to make it. All in all, it was a fine blend of an older style with modern brewing sensibilities—refined enough that the label “craft” could be used, but with classic simplicity at its heart.
Revisiting beverage styles that date back centuries is a favorite pastime for many brewers. Recently, the UK-based brewery Toast attracted media coverage for its distinctive technological and business model. Specifically, they utilize surplus bread in their beer-making process. Toast’s website notes that this hearkens back to some of the earliest beer recipes on record, in this case one from ancient Mesopotamia. Their work blends an ancient technique with modern social consciousness: Their profits are donated to a nonprofit that works to reduce food waste. In 2017, Toast began brewing in New York. The result of this is an easy-drinking, hoppy American Pale Ale. Like Scratch’s kvass-inspired beer, this keeps the alcohol by volume relatively low. All in all, it feels like a solidly made beer, a kind of baseline from which other things can arise.
Toast is far from the only brewery to tout their connection to beer-making techniques that date back to the ancient world. In 2014, Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing and Denmark’s Evil Twin Brewing collaborated on Columella, which takes its inspiration from an ancient Greek technique of winemaking. Scotland’s Williams Brothers Brewing Company brews Fraoch, a heather ale, inspired by techniques that are four thousand years old. The name of the ale references the flower, which is among the ingredients. Lastly, Beau’s, an Ontario brewery, created the MaddAddamites NooBroo in collaboration with Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson. The beer draws inspiration from the dystopian MaddAddam trilogy while hearkening back to decidedly non-futuristic techniques: This beer is a gruit ale, which uses spices and herbs in lieu of hops in the beer-making process. In doing so, it echoes Atwood’s trilogy, in which the pastoral and futuristic collide.
The same styles that warmed the stomachs of beer drinkers numerous generations ago still have the power to satisfy contemporary tastes.”
Serendipitously, Atwood’s novel MaddAddam also provides the epigraphy for Dr. Patrick E. McGovern’s recent book Ancient Brews. McGovern is a frequent collaborator with Dogfish Head Ales, and has a background in biomolecular archaeology. In Ancient Brews, he details the process of how one can go about discovering the components of beverages made thousands of years ago. This often involves analyzing residue found in jugs and other drinking implements unearthed in archeological digs and then determining the best way to replicate these using modern technology. Several of the brews discussed here were produced by Dogfish Head, including recipes inspired by beers originally made hundreds or thousands of years ago in China, the Middle East and Scandinavia.
McGovern’s book abounds with the history of brewing and how different techniques may have migrated from one part of the globe to another. He notes that trade between ancient Canaanites and Egyptians led to the latter’s enthusiastic adoption of wine consumption, for one thing. The book also discusses the migration of a beer utilizing bread in the recipe, taken from a song of praise to the Mesopotamian goddess Ninkasi, from its roots in ancient Phrygia (located in modern day Turkey) to as far north as Russia, where McGovern speculates that it may have evolved into what is now kvass.
In his book, McGovern speculates that the bread utilized was made with barley, and abounded with yeast—two ingredients that help explain that otherwise unlikely combination. And, as the efforts of brewers worldwide have shown, the same styles that warmed the stomachs of beer drinkers numerous generations ago still have the power to satisfy contemporary tastes. Whether you’re drinking a beer alone or pairing it with a sandwich or a roll, you’re delving back into the history of brewing. Science and history never tasted so good.