Fermented or carbonated, salty or sour, drinks from eastern Europe and Central Asia are heading for the aisles of your local supermarket. Like the fruit and vegetable concoctions before them, these drinks are full of nutritious goodness, even if some of the flavours — tarragon soda, anyone? — leave much to be desired. It’s time to put down your juices, pack away your blenders and try our selection of the best beverages from the new east.
That drink your annoying health-obsessed friend keeps raving about? Eastern Europe is streets ahead. Although originating in the Far East, kombucha has been popular in Russia and eastern Europe for centuries. Known also as tea mushroom, kombucha is made by fermenting tea and sugar with a “SCOBY”. This seemingly cute name sounds somewhat less adorable when you find out that it stands for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast”, and even less so when you see its rubber pancake-like appearance. But it is this bacteria and yeast culture that turns sweet tea into tangy and mildly fizzy kombucha and packs the drink with healthy organic acids.
Boza is a fermented malt drink made in a number of local varieties across eastern Europe. From a base of maize and wheat in Albania, and wheat or millet in Bulgaria and Romania, there is a boza out there for you. With a thick consistency and sweet acidic flavour Boza generally has around 1% alcohol content. Let the good times roll!
The emerald of the beverage world, tarhun is a tarragon-flavoured soft drink that hails from Georgia. Fizzy and normally dyed green, tarhun has a taste reminiscent of liquorice and is also popular across the wider region. The drink was invented by Georgian pharmacist Mitrofan Lagidze in 1887, but didn't appear on sale until 1981, when it became popular in the former Soviet Union. Some regard tarhun as curative, due to tarragon’s long use as a treatment for digestive problems, so there’s no need to feel guilty when reaching for your second bottle.
This Georgian mineral water has got a truly iconic status: it’s believed to be the world’s most amazing hangover cure and remains a symbol of the troubled relationship between Russia and Georgia. Borjomi comes from an eponymous resort town in the mountains, whose famous mineral springs were discovered by the Imperial Russian army in the early 19th century. The springs are fed by water that filters from glaciers covering the peaks of the Bakuriani mountains at altitudes of up to 2,300 m. The water is naturally carbonated and has a distinctive salty taste.
Following the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 over separatism in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, the importing of Borjomi to Russia (alongside Georgian wine) was stopped. To the joy of all those suffering Sunday morning post-party headaches, it has recently been reintroduced.
You may have noticed that fermentation is a theme here. Kefir is a fermented milk drink originating in the mountains of the North Caucasus and is now popular across eastern and northern Europe. Kefir “grains” (a yeast/bacterial fermentation starter that looks somewhat like cauliflower) are added to milk to ferment the liquid, giving it a distinctively tart flavour. Traditionally made with cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk, kefir is often adapted to meet modern tastes, with soy milk, rice milk and coconut water now acting as popular bases for the drink. A fresh spin on your iced latte.
Kumis is a traditional Central Asian drink made from fermented mare’s milk. However wrong it may sound, it carries the wisdom of nomadic herds dating back a few thousands years. Kumis is similar to kefir, but is produced from liquid culture as opposed to kefir grains, has a more salty and sour taste, and, due to sugars in mare’s milk, a higher alcoholic content. Kumis is supposed to have a positive impact on health: kumis therapy was mentioned by Tolstoy and Chekhov and used in sanatoriums across the USSR. Unfortunately its popularity has waned since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Poppy milk is one of the 12 traditional dishes served at a Lithuanian Christmas feast. The milk is made from soaked and crushed poppy seeds, water and honey and traditionally consumed together with Kūčiukai, small sweet pastries flavoured with (yet again) more poppy seeds. A good, non-alcoholic alternative to mulled wine? Let’s hope it’s not addictive!
Bread you can drink? With a history stretching back to 989 AD, kvas is a Slavic drink made from fermented black or rye bread. It is especially popular in Russia and Ukraine but is well known throughout other former Soviet states. Kvas is sometimes flavoured with fruits or herbs and has a beer-like but distinctly “bready” taste. Very mildly alcoholic, kvas is primarily a summer drink and is best consumed at street stalls on a warm day with friends. This leads to an inexorable conclusion: why have a sandwich when you could enjoy some kvas?
Tea mushroom has a strong rival for the title of the next big thing in the world of health drinks: birch sap, the coconut water of the new east. The sap is collected at the start of spring by drilling a hole into the trunk of a birch tree and drawing the liquid into a container through a tube. You can drink the sap directly from a tree through a straw but probably it’s best not to try this on the urban trees in your street. The goodness of birch sap is endless: low in calories, high quantities of vitamin C, hydrating potassium, immune system-boosting zinc and copper. Another reason to look forward to spring!
If you find yourself in Armenia on a hot summer’s day, you won’t be reaching for soda, but for a refreshing glass of tahn. Similar to Turkish ayran and Iranian doogh, tahn is made by mixing yoghurt and water and adding salt to taste. Mix with muddled mint leaves (think mojito) and ice and voila… you have yourself a delicious and refreshing taste of Armenia.