A traditional tonic in Eastern Europe, beet kvass is tangy fermented beverage that is consumed regularly, in small doses, to promote good health. In recent years, this vibrant red liquid has become increasingly popular in the United States among those seeking for natural remedies and healthy whole foods.
This trend may be attributed to its mention in popular books such as “Nourishing Traditions,” a 2001 guide to traditional foods written by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, both of Washington D.C.
Beet kvass “is valuable for its medicinal qualities and as a digestive aid,” the book states. “One 4-ounce glass, morning and night, is an excellent blood tonic, promotes regularity, aids digestion, alkalizes the blood, cleanses the liver and is a good treatment for kidney stones and other ailments.”
Another source, the 2007 book “Grow Your Own Pharmacy” by Linda Gray, asserts that beets — or beetroot — have been used to treat ailments such as fever and constipation since Roman times and is an excellent source of folate, vitamin C and dietary fiber.
“It was regularly consumed by the well-known Russian centenarians,” the book states, referring to Russians who are 100 or more years old.
Making beet kvass is easy and requires few ingredients, according to Mary Margaret Ripley, who teaches workshops on fermented foods and beverages from her farm in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. Beet kvass only takes a few days to develop, unlike many fermented drinks, such as wine or beer, which take several weeks to develop.
While kvass is often described as a non-alcoholic beverage, it typically contains between 0.5 and 1 percent alcohol by volume, depending on how long you age it, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau requires any substance with more than a 0.5 percent to be regulated. In comparison, beer averages at 5 percent ABV.
Ripley has experimented with various beet kvass recipes to develop one that works for her. The ingredients are simple: chopped beets, water, a little salt and whey.
Whey with live cultures (the liquid obtained from straining yogurt with live cultures) serves as a “starter culture,” an ingredient that contains “good” bacteria that will start the fermentation process in the drink. Fermentation is a chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms. Some examples of fermented foods are yogurt, kombucha, sourdough, cheese and anything pickled.
“Fermentation can enhance the nutritive value, healthfulness and digestibility of foods,” according to the 2012 book “Real Food Fermentation” by Alex Lewin. “The microbes responsible for fermentation often create enzymes and vitamins, break down difficult-to-digest food components, and make minerals more available for your body to assimilate.”
Some people prefer not to use whey in their beet kvass because whey is a byproduct of dairy. An alternative for starters in beet kvass is sauerkraut juice, pickle juice or a handful of shredded raw cabbage.
“It’s really easy [to make beet kvass],” Ripley said. “You can do it even if you want to remain someone who ‘doesn’t cook.’”
The biggest challenge in making kvass or any fermented beverage or food, Ripley said, is remembering to observe and interact with it when its developing at room temperature. This includes releasing pressure from the bottle or jar regularly (usually daily at first, then weekly) and tasting it frequently until you enjoy the flavor. Once you enjoy the flavor, you’ll refrigerate it to slow the fermentation process so the taste remains the same.
“I often hear from people in my classes, ‘I tried that, but it went bad,’” she said. “Part of the process is watching it, observing and interacting with what you’re making, because it’s not canned food. It’s a live food going through a process. People forget and don’t check on it, and when they come back, they’re afraid to try it, afraid it’s gone bad.”
In closed mason jars, Ripley said beet kvass can develop in just two or three days at room temperature but that she will often leave it out longer, sometimes even up to three months, for the desired flavor and effervescence.
“It’s strong,” Ripley said. “It’s definitely not something you’re going to be drinking a whole lot of at once. It’s more like you take a little shot of it. Have you heard of the term ‘gut shots’? The idea is that you’re kind of seeding your gut with good bacteria.”
With a tart, earthy flavor, beet kvass is also often used to add flavor to salads, soups and other foods.
Also, if you want to spice up the flavor of the kvass a bit, some recipes include ginger, onions, hot peppers, horseradish, garlic and other ingredients. When it comes to fermented beverages, the fun is in experimentation.
Author: Mary Margaret Ripley
Serves: 16 4-ounce servings
2-3 cups red beets, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon sea salt
¼ cup whey or ¼ cup shredded raw cabbage
Water to cover
Combine all ingredients in a glass half-gallon jar, and stir to incorporate salt. Make sure to leave at least 1 inch below the top of the jar and cap it tightly and label with a date. Leave jar at room temperature for at least two to three days or until you like the taste of the drink. We generally leave ours out at room temperature for weeks or months because beet kvass takes a long while to develop a full taste with nice effervescence (usually one to three months). When you like the taste of your beet kvass, store it in the refrigerator.
Occasionally, you’ll get some foam or white film at the top of your Beet Kvass drink. This is fine. Just skim it off of the top and the rest is fine to drink.
Important tip for aging your beet kvass at room temperature: As with all things fermented, pressure tends to build up in the jar and needs to be released from time to time. During the first few days at the beginning of rapid fermentation, usually the first 1 to 5 days, we’ll “burp” or release the pressure of this jar at least once a day. Once the period of rapid fermentation subsides, every week or so we’ll “burp” the jar to release the pressure.
This recipe is reprinted with permission.