My Big Russian Mistake

Voronezh, Russia

Hours of driving leave our throats as parched as the fields we’ve passed. We pull into a dilapidated town whose main street is lined with tents selling cheap underwear.

We do not need new boxer shorts, but we could use a drink.

“Are they selling keg beer on the street?” Mims asks. It would appear so, as there’s a stand with two beer pumps and, around it, people drinking dark liquid out of little plastic cups. I walk up to a middle-aged man with a comb-over and point at his cup. Using my Siskel and Ebert move, I flash a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down.

He answers with a thumbs-up. Good enough. A menu lists different sizes, from .2 liters all the way up to 2 liters. I select the smallest size, and a gold-toothed lady working the stand fills me up. I smile. It’s the last time I smile for the next hour.

“This tastes like a dentist’s antiseptic,” I say. The caramel-colored drink is mildly minty, with an aftertaste that clings like peanut butter to the roof of my mouth. It’s the anti-thirst-quencher; I need water just to wash away the lingering flavor. Then I realize with horror: I’m drinking kvass.

“Don’t drink it,” my friend Alex had warned before we left Moscow. “It tastes like Coca-Cola run through a radiator.” It’s a low-alcohol beverage made from fermented rye bread.

“How is it?” Mims asks.

I hand him the cup, and he sips.

“It tastes like someone combined every half-empty, flat beer at a bar and added food coloring,” he says. “It’s concentrated frat party.”