Beer: Brewer tosses rye bread in mix to make a Russian 'kvass'

They say beer is liquid bread. But in the case of a new local brew, it's partly bread liquid.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Rye bread is broken and dropped into hot water during the making of a Russian-style kvass, or bread beer, at East End Brewing Co.
Click photo for larger image.

Earlier this month, East End Brewing Co.'s Scott Smith hosted a real heavyweight from the craft brewing world: Tom Baker, who until this summer ran Heavyweight Brewing Co.

Started in 1999 by Mr. Baker and his wife, Peggy Zwerver, the Ocean Township, N.J., brewery made a big name for itself by brewing "big beers in small batches," with names such as Perkuno's Hammer and Lunacy.

Fans, and there are many in Pittsburgh, could take heart that Mr. Baker hadn't lost his penchant for making "beers nobody else is making" when he announced that he plans to open a brewpub/beer bar at some point.

Mr. Smith paid homage by visiting Heavyweight during its last open house in July and invited Mr. Baker out to do a guest brew in Homewood.

Mr. Baker's answer: "Can we do something weird?"

The two of them cooked up the idea of brewing a kvass, which derives from the word for "leaven" in Russian and Ukrainian, the languages spoken where the beverage has been popular for centuries.

The brew can be made by soaking bread in water, perhaps with added sugar, and fermenting the liquid, which is sometimes flavored with raisins or other fruit or herbs, even birch sap.

The drink is light and low in alcohol and is consumed in myriad home-brew and commercial versions in Eastern Europe, where fans miss the stuff that was sold on the street in the Communist days. It's rarely made in the United States.

As beer authority Michael Jackson theorizes on, "It is well known that, before the technique of malting was devised, grains were baked into bread to make them soluble for the brewer, and that this method was used in Mesopotamia, now a part of Iraq. It has always seemed to me that this bready way of brewing must have spread through Armenia into Russia, giving rise to kvass."

Whatever the case, the weirder the better, thought Mr. Smith. So he signed up another baker, Bill Bartelme of Wilkinsburg's Wood Street Bread Co., to bake a special run of rye bread during the last week of September -- so it would have enough time to go stale.

Mr. Smith picked up the bread on Oct. 3, and that evening, he and home brewer/helper Keith Kost broke the 30 loaves and dropped the pieces into two big pots of 170-plus-degree water to soak overnight.

That night Mr. Smith picked up Tom Baker at Pittsburgh's Amtrak station, and around 8 the next morning, they and some other volunteers got to work.

Rather than just let the bread liquid ferment and slightly sour, they'd decided to supplement it with malted rye and barley, including some brown malt imported from England, which Mr. Baker described as having a "cereal, Grape-Nuts kind of burnt-toast flavor. I think it has a lot of the flavors that bread has, which makes it a good choice for this beer."

He'd only made one five-gallon batch of kvass at home. But he did use bread yeast, rather than beer yeast, to brew his last three Heavyweight beers. Around 9:30 a.m. he opened a bottle of one, made with malt and various grains, for the gang to try. Its name: Slice of Bread.

They listened to polka music and munched some of the caraway-seeded rye while stirring the glop in the pots and draining off the liquid. The bread they tossed into the mash tun with the grain as it was being rinsed, or sparged. All the liquid they poured into the brew kettle, where they boiled it, but only briefly, to retain some starchy character.

Then they pumped the brew into a fermenter. Because of the added malt, it'll have a little more kick -- about 3 percent alcohol by volume -- and body than true kvass, but it should still be "murky," Mr. Smith predicted, adding the caveat: "I'm making a beer I've never tasted."

(Any trepidation eased after an early sip, which he pronounced "very nice" and "more drinkable" than expected.)

Area adventurers can get their first taste of kvass when it debuts, probably at the end of this month.

Mr. Baker may come back to taste the kvass and do another guest brew. For updates, visit or call 412-537-2337.

It's pumpkin brew time

Speaking of unusual brews, it's the time o' year for pumpkin brews, which lots of people love. They starting calling John Harvard's Brew House in Wilkins back in May, says brewer Andrew Maxwell. "It's the craziest thing."

But he makes his famed Pumpkin Spice only with real pumpkins from a Murrysville farmer -- 300 pounds of "the ugliest, most unsalable pumpkins he can come up with" -- so it's only in fall. The chefs clean, spice, bake and puree them, and Mr. Maxwell brews them into a cream ale made extra creamy by being tapped with nitrogen -- into glasses rimmed with cinnamon and sugar.

He says it'll be ready on Wednesday.

Just a hop away

A few readers have asked when that Victory Brewing fresh-hopped Harvest Pilsner will make it to Pittsburgh, and the answer is, around Oct. 23, though where it'll be on tap isn't yet set.

The Brewerie, the new brew pub and restaurant in the former Union Station in Erie, finally is open after waiting all summer for its state liquor license. The hours are 11 a.m. to midnight Mon. to Thurs.; 11 to 2 a.m. Fri., and noon to 2 a.m. Sat. Co-owner Chris Sirianni says they're starting with a blond and brown ale made by Erie Brewing Co., but they hope by the year's end to be serving a six of their own regular brews and two rotating seasonals. Meanwhile, they're also serving bottles of Pennsylvania craft brews and wines (1-814-454-2200).

Another roadtrip: From 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, the Greater Columbus Convention Center holds AleFest, featuring 200 craft beers. Part of admission -- $35 or $30 in advance, and $15 for designated driver -- benefits the Arthritis Foundation (

Send beer news and ideas to Bob Batz Jr. at or 412-263-1930.


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