Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Legend of the Russian Beer

I guess it's time to write this story and be done with it.

But I'll never be done with it--not really.  Some shit haunts you.  It's like a skidmark that never washes out in our lives and it's just there.  It says we've lived.  We've done something and we were able to make it back and tell others about the journey.

So yeah, it's time to tell this story.  It's not a pretty one.  Most of my stories aren't pretty anyways.  My life has never been pretty.  I've had moments.  Beautiful moments where people have come into my world and brightened it beyond anything I could achieve on my own.  Those are the moments I cherish and keep safely stored in my head.  I re-visit them only on special days so somehow the memory never changes or is corrupted by time.

But this story isn't one of those memories.

Sadly, it's one of those stories that is so ugly, it left that aforementioned skidmark on my brain and maybe even down to my soul.

That day didn't start off like that.  They never do, though, right?

My friend Nickus and I were on an adventure in Madison.  Our adventures always included restaurants we'd never been to, cuisine we'd never experienced, stores we'd never shopped in, and anything else we'd never done before.  Back then, the people at the Asian markets would follow us around the store and wonder just what in the hell these two freaks were doing.

Now, when we show up, the old Asian ladies look up at us and mutter, "Oh, it's these two assholes again."  And then they wait for the durian products to be placed on their checkout counter.  But that's a different story for a different day.

We weren't there for the spectacle of it all.  We didn't go isle to isle and make fun of the food we found.  The cans of freshwater dace, the bags of star anise, the dried mushrooms.  No, we showed respect and a certain degree of knowledge.

We ate that stuff when we could get it, and on some level, knew what we were doing.  Nick had been overseas, too.  He wasn't a stranger to new things and foreign cuisine.  And we were always looking for something new.

Part of our adventures included eating at a restaurant we'd never heard of or seen before.  And the more obscure, the better.  Our last trip included a stop at a dirty hole in the wall I'd never take anybody else to because it was so grimy.  The food was damned good, though.  He and I might visit again, but that was for us, and not somebody afraid of adventures.

This is probably how we got our asses in trouble in the first place--seeking adventure.

Finding world-class booze isn't easy in the Midwest.  You have to go to Chicago for the good stuff.  But we couldn't afford that and didn't have the time, so were in Madison at Woodman's grocery.   That was the closest we had to finding foreign beers, ales, and liquors.  Sure, we could go to some snooty wine boutique but that's not our style.  We listen to Amon Amarth and we don't wear skinny jeans.

Woodman's is decent.  It's employee-owned and the one in Madison carried all kinds of European beers.  Madison is a college town full of enlightened (read:  yuppy/trendy/hipster) people who enjoy variety or were well-traveled and wanted what they found in their journeys.

Nick had spent time in Europe and knew the Europeans beers very well.  I usually relied on his advice because he knows I hate IPAs.  Seriously, beer shouldn't taste like fucking dirt or smell like my grandmother's perfume.  What the fuck is wrong with these hipsters?  How could anybody drink something like that, much less call it "artisanal" or "crafted?"  Crap is crap.

On that trip, I was able to capture some Chimay Blue, a Belgian trappist ale that was super-expensive but well worth the price.  I found it to be heavenly and to this day is my favorite ale of all-time.

The conversations we always had were asking each other back and forth if the other had tried this or that.  Nick's tried a much larger variety of beers than I have so I'm usually asking him about various labels.  And it was in that beer section where we found our poison--the Russian beer.

Woodman's was running a special.  Plastic 40-oz bottles of Russian beer were stacked in the center of the isle.  It was hard not to bump into the two islands of beer and knock over bottles.  There were a couple of varieties, but they were all in Russian, and Nick and I can't read Russian.

But giant bottles Russian beer for $1.99 a bottle?   According the rules of our adventuring, that fits every criteria of being a Great Find.  We struck gold.

So obviously we loaded up and were happy to do so.  Neither of us had tried Russian beer before, nor have we even heard of Russian beer.  Obviously we knew they made the shit, but we'd never found it anywhere, and we were so very curious.

By the way, if you've ever spent time reading horror or watching horror movies, you'll notice a long list of tropes.  Blissfully ignorant indulgence, lack of logical thought, absence of critical thinking.

Nick and I had become the two college girls who took their shirts off in the dark forest for no apparent fuckng reason.  And we were going to pay for it.  You know that's coming, right?  Just wait.

True to any horror trope, there was a final opportunity for us to turn back.  Of all the luck, our checkout girl was Russian.  She was pretty, too.  Blonde hair, blue eyes.  I liked her right off the bat.  She even had a thick accent.  She was so Russian she seemed completely uncomfortable just being alive.

And of course, we asked her about what we were buying because we didn't have a clue.  She even pronounced the names for us even though they were too difficult to remember.  And that's when she said, "This's not so good, I think."  She shook her head slightly as she bagged our bottles.

But did we listen?  No, of course not.  Why would we?  We were having a great day.  We hit the Asian grocery stores and had these massive burritos at a Mexican hole in the wall called La Bamba's. We were away from work, and we were having an adventure.

Oh, what cruel mechanisms our universe has in place for such arrogance!

We got home with our goodies.  Chinese noodles, Korean kimchi, some frozen Indian food from an Indian grocery store that had just opened up.  And our beer.

I dropped Nickus off at his place and went back to mine.  I put the beer in the fridge to cool and a few hours later, I opened up my first bottle.

It didn't smell so good.  It had the faint aroma of battery acid and metallic flakes.   But that's okay, I said to myself.  Let's give it a try.  I'm adventurous, right?  I love new things, right?  This is the backdoor to Hell nobody ever talks about.  In fact, I'm sure right now, at this moment, there is some asshole burning in hell who is pleading with a demon, "But I just wanted to try the Russian beer so I could tell my trendy asshole friends I was more hipster than them!"

It tasted like shit.

I mean, it didn't really taste like beer.  No, I would say it tasted more like the fizzy version of the fluid they use to clean the gunk off of parts in a machine shop.  Somebody carbonated it for better effect, and eventually bottled it, and some jokester asshole thought it would be funny to call it beer.

But I kept drinking.  I got half a glass choked down and something happened--my stomach began to protest.

Let me review really quick here--I'm an adventerous eater, I like spicy food, I've eaten all kinds of weird crap, and this Russian beer was causing a problem.  Not the Korean food.  Not the large burrito.  No, those were all good.  But this Russian beer?  This was kicking my ass.

But I didn't care.  I was adventurous.  And I'm not a sinner who throws away alcohol.  So I kept choking it down.

By the time half a glass was gone, I was sweating.  My stomach was making so much noise I could hear it over the heavy metal music I was listening to.  And it wasn't the "I'm gonna puke" noises or the "Hey, this doesn't match" sounds.  No, it wasn't even the "let's just get through this, shall we?" noises some of the hotter foods I've eaten will cause.

The noises my stomach was making seemed to be saying, "Holy shit on a stick!  What the fuck did this asshole just do to me?  This isn't even food!  Goddammit!  And wait..what's that smell?  Can you smell that?  What the fuck makes a smell like that?  What am I supposed to do with this?  He can't expect me to actually digest this shit, can he?"

I curled into a ball on my bed for a moment but the pain was so excruciating I had to get right back up.  And that's when I realized I needed to warn Nickus.  He couldn't drink this beer--somebody had to stop him.

I dialed his number and a very unhappy Nick picked up the other end.

"Are okay?"

"No, man.  I think this Russian beer doesn't like me."

"That's because it's not Russian beer, Nick--it's wastewater from Chernobyl."

"That makes sense.  I've only had a glass of it and I don't think I can handle any more."

"Me, either.  We're gonna have to share this stuff with our friends."

It's at this time I feel I need to make a note in our defense because Nick and I generally aren't the murderous sort and we certainly don't feel our friends deserve to be executed by Russian beer.  But this Russian beer produced a reaction from our bodies that could never be believed and we needed to share this wonderful sensation with the people we care about most.

Sharing is caring.

Our next trip to Woodman's was to find the Russian clerk.  We weren't mad at her, but we had forgotten how Russians are a group of hardcore motherfuckers who understate terrible things.

This beautiful woman might have said, "This beer, I's not so good."   But what she really meant was, "Holy shit, this is poison from a crashed Soviet nuclear submarine and because NATO has been up our asses over every little thing we do, we had the great idea of putting this toxic brew in plastic bottles, calling it beer, and sending it off to a college town with a cheap sticker price in order to get rid of it while poisoning some of the best and brightest of an entire generation."

But we had forgotten that important bit of international diplomacy.

The shake of her head could best be translated into, "I hope you fuckers don't plan on having children because if by some miracle you survive ingesting this, your genetics will be permanently fucked up and the best you can hope for would be a six-legged, three-headed monstrosity with the strength of a silverback gorilla on a twenty-day meth binge and the intelligence of a four year-old child."

But she wasn't around any longer.  Our best guess was she was only there for a few days as part of her KBG assignment to ensure deployment of this terrible NBC weapon from the diabolical minds of the darkest Soviet laboratories.

What we also noticed was how all of the grass around Woodman's was dead.  Obviously, a bottle must have broken outside somehow and that was the end result.  We figured one bottle took care of at least the three-acre parking lot and with the amount leftover, that was used by the City of Madison on their eyesore homes before being demolished.

But we had to share this with our friends.  We just had to.

Nick's birthday is April 20th.  At his birthday party, we made sure we had a bottle of this toxic brew to share with everybody.  I kept the bottle in my trunk because I didn't want to risk it breaking open in the driver's area or getting on any of my passengers.  I figured if the accident was bad enough to open the trunk and then that bottle, a swift death would be merciful.

Nick had small cups passed out to everybody and all were given just a bit.  About twenty people each had in their hands a small cup of this Russian "beer" and the countdown started.  Then, everybody drank this "beer" in unison while a picture was taken of their reactions.

Nick and I had a great laugh about the whole thing.  And while that day was a few years ago, we all remember it well.  A few of the people present have begun to talk to us again once their ability to speak had come back.  The human body is an amazing thing and it truly is incredible what we can endure.

In retrospect, I'm not angry.  I'm proud.  I feel like I survived something very few people have attempted and lived to talk about.  I'm still looking for that Russian woman who worked at the checkout counter at Woodman's.  If you do happen to see her, approach with caution, as she is far more dangerous than Chuck Norris.  But when you do finally get close enough to speak to her, please tell her I miss her, and would do anything to see her again.  


  1. i don't like that battery acid comment, sir.

  2. I especially liked the part about the battery acid.

    Plus, IPAs flat out suck. Couldn't agree more.