The honeyed kvas, braga, and pivo beers according to the DomostroïArticle 5 of 6 The Domostroï and the beer history in Russia

Chapters 42 & 63 : brewing dregs and fermentations according to the Domostroï.


Some additional information about the brewery can be gleaned from the Domostroï.

Open-air market with beer kegs, barrels, carts and animals (16th)
Open-air market with beer kegs, barrels, carts and animals (16th)

Chapter 42 deals with meat and livestock breeding. Here we learn that spent grain from the brewing of barley beers is available in winter and summer. These brewing residues are still rich enough in protein and cellulose to feed cows, pigs or poultry. "In a well-ordered home you can find feed in either summer or winter : dregs of beer, vinegar, kvass, and sour cabbage soup ; husks of oats, rye, wheat, and barley ; leftovers from making groat and oat flour."  (Chap. 42, op. cit. 149).

This implies that barley beers are brewed all year round, without any particular problems related to fermentation or conservation in summer, which is not the case at that time in western and southern European countries. The Domostroï advocates the use of ice storages and "iceboxes" for this purpose. The text again brings together beer (braga?) - kwas - vinegar - and sour cabbage, all partaking an acidic fermentation supplementing the alcoholic fermentation. This Rus core of beverages and foods is based on a combination of acid (acetic/lactic) and alcoholic fermentations. This historical dietary coupling has been studied by A. Maurizio for the whole of Central Europe[1].

Regarding the recycling of wet or dried spent grain for feeding livestock, it goes back to the time of the Sumerians and Babylonians. The Domostroi does not tell us much more. It only confirms that these dregs/spent grains can only come from the brewing of malt-based beer. Braga or kwas do not produce dregs, for an obvious technical reason. These two kinds of beer are brewed with raw flours (rye, oats, buckwheat), or crumbled dry bread, a raw material devoid of hulls and sprouts. Maceration in an acid medium leaves no grain waste. However, some recipes for brewing the braga mention the use of barley malt and hops.

In fact, the technical boundaries between mead, fermented soups or porridges, kwas, braga and malt beer (pivo) are sometimes thin in Russia, especially in the 15-16th centuries. The peasants' diet is based on grains, vegetables (cabbage, radish, turnip), dairy products (milk, butter, cheese), supplemented with berries, herbs and honey. It is the ideal food complex for the action of the three fundamental fermentations: lactic, acetic and alcoholic (not to mention the butyric one). In summer and winter, the Russian peasant juggles with them. In this context, the difference between solid foods and beverages is a matter of degree or maturation. For example, to make kwas: "one puts a pailful [bucket] of water into an earthen vessel, into which one shakes two pounds of barley meal [or rye], half pound of salt, and some honey, more or less according to the wealth of the family. This is place in the evening in the oven with a moderate fire and stirred. In the morning, it is left for a time to settle; the clear liquid is poured off and it is ready to drink in a few days." (Kennard 1908, 80)

This kwas is half beer, half hydromel, half acidic and alcoholic soup. Note the heavy proportion of salt whose taste must have strongly affected this kwas. Here, we navigate between brewing and cooking. With less water, the same recipe provides either a sour porridge (kasha) or a dough for leavened cakes (bliny, pirogi). Rye bread (khleb) is only the most solid form of this food/drink range. It ferments with leaven taken from the kwas.

The chapter 63 of the Domostroï sheds light on this technical universe of food fermentations (Instruction for a Steward, on the Way of Storing Preserves in the Cellar: Food in Tubs, Boxes, Measures, Vats, and Buckets; Meat, Fish, Cabbage, Cucumbers, Plums, Lemons, Caviar, and Mushrooms.). Besides drying (meat, fish), we are talking about everything that ferments and is preserved in brines or vinegars. For beverages: "Treat all drinks the same way (mead, beer, fruit juice, cherries in syrup, apples and pears in syrup and in kwass, cranberry juice). Keep the jars full and buried in ice. When you drink some from one, refill it and return it to ice. If you suspect that a jar has spoiled, soured, or become moldy, bore a hole in it with a small utensil to find out." (Chap. 63, op. cit. 176).

Sour kwas is also used to preserve the fruits in winter, in summer with the help of stored ice. The addition of berries and fruits to kwas has over the centuries become a way of varying the taste of this beer. These berries (buckthorn, cranberry, gooseberry, raspberry, wild cowberries, blueberry, lingonberry, ...) and fruits are also acidifying elements that create the acidic medium in which the raw (unmalted) starch will saccharify more quickly.  This method of saccharification is one of the 6 universal brewing methods.

Another indication refers to women's brewing skills, provided that the value and sociological significance of the Domostroï is taken for granted.

« The wife should know how to cook every dish, meat and fish, for feast and fast, and should teach these technique to her servants. Similarly, she should know how they make beer, mead, vodka, weak beer, kvass, vinegar, and sour cabbage – every liquid normally used in cooking and breadmaking." (Chap. 29, op. cit. 125-126). The specialisation of women in brewing beer in a domestic context is familiar but often wrong picture in the history of brewing up to the industrial era. Here we are in a highly hierarchical society bordering on segregation: the mistress of the household supervises the brewing of the beer, but the actual work is in the hands of the female servants and servile staff. The same goes for the master of the household: he controls, calculates, supervises, records, but does not work himself.

The Domostroi provides a final general indication about fermented beverages. Receptions, collective celebrations, and feasts are attended by an apparently unlimited consumption of alcohol, at least for free people and men. The text is full of instructions for supervising guests, counting the volume of beverages, avoiding theft, fights, and containing excesses of any kind. The influence of the Church does not seem to be very strong in this domain. Mead is omnipresent in wedding rituals, exchanges and meals between two families.


In short, the Muscovy portrayed by Domostroy is at a turning point in the general history of brewing. The old fermented beverages (braga, kwas) of the peasant communities are still used in the everyday life of wealthy city families. Oat and rye beers are still brewed by the urban households. Mead, the symbolic beverage of warriors in archaic societies, still carries strong values: sacred drunkenness, fertility drink, etc. This old world of village and warrior brewery (or that of the peasant-soldier) now rubs shoulders with that of another emerging brewery, that of beers made from barley malt and hops, a matter for specialised craftsmen and long-distance trade. The obsession with cleanliness in the kitchen, in the cellars and especially in the brewery echoes this slow technical and social transformation of the 16th century. Gone are the days of brewing in unrinsed jars in the middle of the fields with a mixture of grains and random additions of wild plants (a somewhat caricatural picture)! The barley beer recipes of Domostroï are not yet those of the learned European brewery of the late 18th century. But they do indicate a concern to control the beer, its strength, its taste, its healthiness, to master the brewing process and not to throw away whole barrels of putrid beer. A concern for domestic economy, in short.

But also a social strategy. Hopped barley beer is not for the majority of the population who will continue to drink their "farmhouse beers" for a long time.[2]. The Domostroi shows no contempt for the braga or the kwas. We are still in a pivotal period.

Czar's banquet in the 17th century and the profusion of fermented beverages.
Czar's banquet in the 17th century and the profusion of fermented beverages.

By the end of the 17th century, this was no longer the case. Under the reigns of Peter I and Catherine II, there was a total divorce between the fermented beverages of the "elite" (barley beer, imported Western European wines) and those of the vast Russian peasantry. Braga and kwas then became synonymous with misery and serfdom, the popular beverages of the poorest, those who find just enough grain not to starve. This also explains the survival of braga and kwas. Eating a poorly ground and badly baked bread or drinking these rye or oat-based beers had the same effect. From a nutritional point of view, one can even give advantage to beers enriched with vitamins and oligo-elements by the alcoholic and lactic fermentations. Misery for misery, the Russian serf prefers to brew braga or kwas at home rather than grind grain and bake bread. This also explains why kwas, sour soups, rye cake fall into a same food category, half beer half bread half barely fermented soup.

The Domostroi often refers to sour beers (braga and kwas) and soups in the same paragraph, as two sides of the same food practice. In good years, the relative abundance of grain with which to thicken the soup turns it into a lightly fermented beer. In times of famine (which were very frequent in Russia), any wild vegetable reduces the soup to a sour broth. In the absence of cooking, the acid fermentation pre-digests the fibres and cellulose. The braga and kwas can be described as survival beers for a peasant world always on the verge of starvation.

Beggars, popular misery and religious processions
Beggars, popular misery and religious processions

The Novgorod Chronicle describes the dreadful consequences of the famines for the peasants, and in contrast the profitable sales of grain by the nobles, boyars and merchants who grab the granaries and the security stocks of the cities :"(Year 1215) The same autumn much harm was done ; frost killed the corn crops throughout our district ; but at Torzhok all remained whole. The Knyaz [a prince] seized all the corn in Torzhok, and would not let one cart-load into the city; … And in Novgorod it was very bad, they bought 1 kad (105 l) of rye for ten grivnas, one of oats for three grivnas, a load of turnips for two grivnas; people ate pine bark and lime tree leaves and moss. O brothers, then was the trouble; they gave their children into slavery. They dug a public grave and filled it full. O, there was trouble! Corpses in the market place, corpses in the street, corpses in the fields; the dogs could eat up the men! The Vod people all died; the rest were scattered" (Michel & Nevill 1914, 54)[3].


[1] Adam Maurizio, Geschichte der gegorenen Getränke, Paul Parey Verlag, Berlin 1933.

[2] This is why A. Maurizio will still be able to observe and describe them during his fieldwork in Poland and Ukraine in the mid-20th century.

[3] 1 grivna = 20 nogaty = 25 kuny. The grivna in 10th century is the excahnge rate for 1 lb of marten fur, in 12th century for ¼ lb of furs. 1 kad or osminka = 11 pecks = 105 liters, a liquid and grain measure unit.

The honeyed kvas, braga, and pivo beers according to the DomostroïArticle 5 of 6 The Domostroï and the beer history in Russia