The Kvas Company is the brainchild of Englishman Jack Bristow and his Russian wife Sabina Sabirova-Bristow. Kvas has been a Russian staple for thousands of years – it is the country’s favourite soft drink, successfully managing to stave off the influx of multinational beverage corporations, like giants Coca Cola and Pepsi.
‘The kvas market there is as big as all the other nonalcoholic drinks put together,’ explains Jack. While it has been commercialised, with big companies now making kvas from concentrate and bottling it by the litre, it’s still common for families to brew it at home using traditional recipes, as they have done for generations.
In Russia, kvas is made from dark rye bread, common in every household. Any leftovers are kept, and allowed to go stale. It’s dried out in the oven until hard, then put in big jars with water and a little sugar and kept somewhere warm, letting the lactic-acid fermentation process start by itself.
The result is a natural, probiotic, non-alcoholic, refreshingly sour, spritzy drink, reminiscent of a less-sweet ginger beer, but without the ginger or yeasty undertones. Like yoghurt and sauerkraut, kvas contains the same good bacteria (lactobacillus). Recipes are dictated by what grows locally and what is in season, making a drink that reflects true local flavours.
Jack first came across kvas when he was a foreign student studying at the University of Kazan – the capital of Tatarstan, 800 km east of Moscow, and Sabina’s hometown. ‘My host family made this strange drink that was sitting on the table in a three-litre glass jar with some bits of bread floating in it and gave it to me to try. I liked it straight away and it just went from there, really,’ says Jack
After finishing his studies, Jack moved to Moscow where he stayed for 17 years working as a translator, while Sabina pursued a career in marketing. Five years ago they packed up their children and left Russia for family reasons, settling in Christchurch, following in the footsteps of Jack’s parents and sister, who had emigrated to New Zealand some years before.
‘Our first thought [on arriving in New Zealand], was that the soft drinks here were all too sweet,’ says Sabina. Jack had brewed his own kvas in Russia. He started making his own using the traditional recipes and giving it to people to try. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. ‘It confuses people a little bit because it’s a completely new taste for them and they don’t know what to compare it to, but it was obvious that there was more of a mainstream interest here,’ says Jack.
So, in 2016, the pair went out on a limb, launching The Kvas Company. They began small. Jack started adapting the traditional folk recipes, making small batches in the garage and began selling it at the Christchurch Farmers’ Market. Being a completely unknown product, Cantabrians were unduly cautious to begin with, but it soon developed a loyal clientele.
‘To begin with we thought maybe it’s too Russian, and that no one else would want to drink it. The hardest part was getting people to try it, but once they did, they usually liked it. The interest in kombucha definitely helped open doors for us. Kvas is a different kind of fermented drink though, made from bread, not tea. A lot of people don’t like kombucha, but they do like kvas because it has a different taste,’ says Sabina
Sourcing the traditional coriander-flavoured Russian dark rye bread needed to make kvas proved one of their biggest hurdles to overcome. ‘You just can’t go out and buy the rye bread in New Zealand. The bread here is very different. Russian bread is soft, but very dense.’
Jack handmade all their own dark rye bread initially, but with growth, they’ve been able to contract a baker to make it offsite to their specific requirements, allowing him to concentrate on brewing. Sabina, too, now works full-time in the business.
Jack is hands-on through every step of the process, with each batch taking up to a week to produce, depending on the variety. He uses a 1200-litre fermenter custom-built to their requirements, now installed at their premises behind the Wigram Brewing Company, with a second one due to arrive shortly.
‘At the beginning, I thought about what I liked to drink, but then I started thinking about what would be of interest to the locals. I like experimenting. I am not Russian, so I am not worried about it not being traditional,’ he says. ‘Some of them were too seasonal, and some are too unstable and don’t have a long shelf life. They’re fine if you are making them for yourself, but not to make in large quantities. In Russia, they have a lot of flavours. They use a lot of berries, but New Zealand doesn’t really have the berry climate, and there’s some herbs that you don’t find here. It was really hard to predict what people would like. Things that tend to work well in craft beer go well in kvas. I made an orange one which was amazing, but people wouldn’t try it; parsnip was another one that was very nice, but people were very cautious.’
At the start, the farmers’ market was the perfect testing ground, but as they looked to expand into retail stores, they had to settle on a range of kvas to appease all tastes from the kvas purists to those simply looking for a pleasant, lowsugar, non-alcoholic, grown-up soft drink that’s made with natural ingredients.
Brod Kvas now produces a premium range of six glassbottled flavours including Original Rye, Lemon, Rosé (rosebuds and cardamom), Brown (cold-brewed Hummingbird coffee, cinnamon and cloves), Ruby (beetroot, ginger and turmeric), which was recently announced winner of The Fermented Food category for the 2019 Health Guide Awards, and their newest offering, Green (hemp and manuka), New Zealand’s first drink featuring superfood hemp.
While Brod Lemon and Brod Original Rye kvas would be instantly recognisable as the real thing in Russia, Jack says you wouldn’t find his other uniquely crafted non-traditional offerings anywhere else in the world.
Moore Wilson’s in Wellington was one of the first stores to come on board early on in the piece, and remain one of their biggest supporters. At the start of 2018, the couple pulled out of the farmers’ market, focusing all their attention on the retail market. ‘With three small children (13, nine and seven) and a business, it became too hard to do everything,’ says Sabina.
Nowadays, Brod Kvas can be found in refrigerated sections nationwide in Foodstuffs and Fresh Choice supermarkets, online, as well as specialty organic and health food shops. Last year they started shipping its first bottles to Hong Kong and there’s more international news in the pipeline.
Coming from such different backgrounds, growing a small business up from nothing has been a steep learning curve for the couple, but they’re buoyed by the way New Zealanders have embraced their national drink. ‘It’s been interesting. We really didn’t know what to expect as neither of us had any experience in this industry. There is a lot to understand about how business works here, and it’s very different when you are on the other side of the world as well.
‘But we’re really excited about the future. We firmly believe there is still plenty of room to grow in the [fermented foods] market. We are hoping it will get very popular here, and we will get there. Nobody knew about kombucha five years ago, right? I’m sure we have very good potential. My favourite phrase is if 143 million Russians drink it, then why can’t three million Kiwis?’ says Sabina.
For more information, visit thekvascompany.co.nz
WORDS & IMAGES Annie Studholme