It was either a brilliant PR stunt or an unfortunate gaffe, but when Vladimir Putin quipped that a journalist was drunk on kvass—a traditional Russian drink made from fermented bread—during a televised interview in 2014, it paved the way for a full blown kvass comeback.
"I feel that you've had some kvass already," was the president's retort when questioned by journalist Vladamir Mamatov on why a particular brand of the drink wasn't able to compete with Coca-Cola for shelf space in Russian stores.
As analyst Yury Barmin correctly predicted on Twitter shortly after the incident: "Kvass sales will go through the roof."
Demand suddenly boomed for the drink, which dates back to 11th century Slavic settlers and is usually made with black rye bread flavoured with fruits and herbs. Sales grew by 12 percent in the months following Putin's slip of the tongue and Heineken soon announced that it would be producing a non-alcoholic kvass in four of its breweries across Russia.
"Kvass always been consumed in Russia but at some point in the early 2000s, drinking it was considered mauvais ton because historically the beverage is characteristic of Russian peasants," Barmin explains to me. "Today there's an opposite trend and high-end restaurants offer all sorts of kvass."
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Having tried both artisan kvass and a few commercial brands, I've found the drink to be refreshing—bittersweet with a yeasty, malty pong. It's oddly moreish and satisfying thirst-quenching on a hot summer's day in Moscow, which can reach temperatures of 30d degrees Celsius.
Kvass was most popular during Russia's Soviet era, sold from mobile barrels during the summer months. But the introduction of storage and transportation regulations all but killed the kvass street trade. Bottling the drink became the only way to shift it but production costs soon priced many artisan vendors out of the market.
Today, kvass usually only clocks a few percent ABV, sometimes none at all, but is touted as a hangover cure and beneficial for both metabolism and circulation.
Thirty-year-old Muscovite Tania Kukhareva has been drinking kvass from the age of six. She tells me she enjoys the drink in the summer and often prefers it to beer because she can hit the roads afterwards.
"My dad loves the stuff so we always had some in the fridge growing up," she says. "I sometimes prefer it to beer because I drive and I don't want to give up the car, so anything non-alcoholic is great. Although good kvass is rather tricky to come across."
Kvass can be used as an ingredient too. Peter Baronov, also from Moscow, tells me he uses the drink make a soup called okroshka with cucumbers, radishes, and spring onions.
But the kvass comeback isn't just fueled by its adaptability in the kitchen.
"I think [the recent popularity of kvass] has something to do with the rising nationalistic sentiment in the country, hence Russian culture and its rich traditions are being exploited for political purposes," adds Barmin.
However, not all see the kvass revival as politically charged. More agree that plummeting beer sales, which fell 9 percent in Russia during the first three months of 2015 compared to the previous year, are playing a hand in kvass' resurgence. Higher duties, stricter laws (including a 2011 decree that beer is in fact alcoholic, limiting where it can be sold), and of course Russia's stuttering economy have all taken their toll on the beer market.
"Many people who can't afford beer have switched to drinking either strong alcoholic drinks or kvass," says Vladimir Antonov, vice president of major Russian beer manufacturer Ochakovo Group.
At Heineken Russia, three brands of kvass are now being produced: Ostmark, Shikhan, and Rusich. All differ in taste, catering to the regions of Russia that prefer sweeter kvass, and those favouring the sourer variety.
"The popularity of kvass shrank in the 90s because of the huge expansion of the 'colas of the world' to Russia's [newly capitalist market]," explains Heineken's Anna Markina. "Nowadays the expansion is over and interest in kvass is back. By 2015, it was one of the most rapidly growing non-alcoholic drinks. The consumers interest has also been fuelled by a number of different kvass flavour launches, including red bilberry and cranberry."
The name of one particular kvass brand, Nikola—sounding suspiciously like "not cola" in Russian—is probably no coincidence, given the fact that its makers launched a marketing campaign peddling "anti cola-nisation." But even Coca-Cola is brewing up kvass these days, selling its own brand in both Russia and the US.
But what about the opposite end of the spectrum: the artisan kvass makers, who were the drink's sole vendors not so long ago? Have they been completely trumped by the multinationals?
Antonov seems to think so. He tells me there is now no room for the small-scale producers, saying local companies have little chance of getting into big retail stores. Despite this, some smaller producers have found success with their homemade versions of kvass.
"I don't make it with bread like they did during Soviet times, I use flour instead," says Daniil Kaganovich, who sells the drink at Moscow-based farmer's cooperative Lavka Lavka. "There's nothing hard about making kvass, the problem is that people usually don't like cooking stuff. I think factory made kvass has a strange taste, strange colour, everything is strange. Most of it is shit."
The stats, however, suggest many Russians disagree with this, and the industrially made beverage continues to shoot off the shelves. While it's debatable whether Putin is playing any hand whatsoever in this, kvass may soon trump beer as the second most popular drink in Russia. Perhaps one day it will even beat vodka.