Boza, a fermented wheat drink with a barely there alcohol content of 0.5 percent, is popularly known in Bulgaria as a breakfast staple served with phyllo pastry. It's one of the Balkan country's most treasured beverages that foreigners can't help but hate.
For Bulgarians, boza tastes of tradition, childhood, and the old country. But for someone that hasn't been drinking it their entire life, it could best be compared to breadmaker slop that's been sitting around for days.
In this part of the world, boza's been consumed over the centuries; variations on it are beloved in countries like Turkey and Kazakhstan. Historians say the word "booze" could be derived from it, since it was a much stiffer concoction during the Ottoman Empire. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, boza exports spiked thanks to men buying up stock for their girlfriends and wives. The traditional belief in Bulgaria is that it gives women bigger boobs.
So I ordered my first boza at a downtown café in Sofia, the capital. What happened next was an assault on my taste buds. The drink was at once slimy, smooth, and grainy, and it reminded me of a milkshake made from flat beer. As it went down my throat, I was hit with a jolt of sour flavor that felt like it should've been coming up instead of going down.
It was perhaps the worst thing I've ever tasted.
Knowing I would be writing this article (and drinking a lot more boza) I thought to myself: Dear God, what have I gotten myself into?
My friend's Bulgarian mother laughed at my misery and downed the rest of the glass. "Good, but not my favorite," she said. "It could be less sweet, and more fermented."
To me, that sounded like regurgitation waiting to happen. But as it turns out, that comment was the key to understanding boza and how it's made. When communism fell in 1989, producers began replacing real cane sugar with aspartame and artificial sweeteners. The boza of yore is one that Bulgarian Millennials wouldn't be used to, but that the older generation still reminisces about.
In search of anyone still making traditional boza, I stumbled upon Bio Bulgaria, an organic food company that produces yoghurt, cheese and boza the old-fashioned way, with real sugar and no preservatives. Founded by tennis star Magdalena Maleeva, Bio's boza brand Harmonica hit the market in 2011. Recently, the company has started investigating the beverage's nutritional value.
"The [real] sugar triggers a spontaneous 'wild fermentation,' which brings the authentic sour aftertaste, but also breaks down the gluten in the grains," said Bio Bulgaria's Venko Simeonov. "Most importantly, the sugar feeds and creates a huge amount and variety of microorganisms, which are known to be so beneficial for our guts."
Simeonov fancies himself as "Bulgaria's probiotic guy," making homemade butter with schoolchildren and teaching them about the importance of gut flora—or as he calls them, the body's "good soldiers." Organic boza is high in iron and vitamins, he says, and many people don't realize how bad some preservatives can be.
Boza is also known to be highly caloric, which is where the old wives' tale about cleavage comes from. (Your chest may expand, but so will the rest of you!) Simeonov told me that it's also a popular drink among new mothers, as yeast is believed to be good for breastfeeding.
Producing organic boza definitely comes with many more obstacles than the artificial stuff, especially logistically. Organic boza has a shelf life of around three days, whereas preservatives can keep one bottle good for three months. Ingredients like organic grain and cane sugar from Brazil are more expensive, too. Improper refrigeration can affect the taste and viscosity. Worst-case scenario? A customer can get a serious case of the poops.
I traveled to Radomir, a village 50 minutes outside of Sofia, to find out how boza is made from one of Bio Bulgaria's handful of producers. Radomir is known as the country's "Boza Capital," and the majority of factories are located there. The tradition started with Albanian immigrants who made the beverage here in wooden barrels and sold it on the street. There's even a statue of a boza vendor in the town's center.
Factory owner Valentin Danailov—a jolly blue-eyed Bulgarian puffing away on a cigar—welcomed me inside the production room, which was small and packed with machinery, smelling like freshly toasted Cheerios. A lifelong Radomir resident, Danailov got into the boza game 18 years ago; before that he made bread, but he couldn't stand the competition with larger factories.
There are four people working at Danailov's factory at any time, doing everything from labeling to shrink-wrapping the bottles. Danailov produces 1.5 tons of boza a day, a small yield compared to larger factories in the area that do up to 30.
Danailov explained that the first step in making boza is cooking grain and water together at 153 degrees in a high-pressure tub, similar to how beer is made. The resulting mash is cooled down in another machine before being filtered. (Danailov sells the leftover dark brown chunks as horse feed.) Sugar is then added; after the mixture cools down further, boza is the final product. According to Danailov, the process is exactly the same when making boza with artificial ingredients—just add fake sweeteners instead of sugar.
I sat down in his office for a taste test. This was the moment I was dreading. Danailov and Simeonov lined up three glasses of boza before me: one made with rye, another with millet, and Danailov's own personal brand of boza made with artificial sweeteners.
They all tasted amazing. Well, at least compared to what I was expecting. My favorite was the millet, which was mild, slightly sweet, and tasted like a cup of liquid cereal. The rye was more sour and sharp, smelling of stronger fermentation. Still, the thickness of the drink was the most off-putting part. But even Danailov's own boza tasted better than the abomination I had tried a few days before.
So, why do Bulgarians buy crappy, unhealthy boza when there's an option like this? Well, they like it and they're used to it. But price is a major factor in Bulgaria, which is the EU's poorest country. For some Harmonica's boza could be considered a rather niche, luxury product. A one-liter bottle retails for 2.60 lev (about US $1.50) compared to one with preservatives at 55 stotinki (about 30 cents). It's considered a thick, hearty breakfast that can last for a while.
"It's a bad imitation, said Venekov of the artificial stuff. "The taste isn't the same, and the feeling's not the same."
A deep affection for boza probably develops over time. I hated Turkish ayran at first, and now I love it. Bulgaria's economics might leave a sour taste in my mouth, but at least I know that quality boza doesn't have to.