Russian Language Blog

Juices, Waters and Bulgakov Posted by on Jun 4, 2010 in Culture, Russian life

Do you know that most of Russia has «континентальный климат» [a continental climate]? This means very cold winters followed by short, but very warm dry summers with occasional temperatures “characteristic of tropical climates”.

June’s barely begun and «температура» [temperature] is already in the lower 30ies in my native Volgograd. Josefina’s second home, Yekaterinburg, is expected to stay in the mid- to high 20ies through the weekend. (Don’t forget to practice your metric  conversions; the temperatures above are in degrees Celsius)

So what do Russians drink on those hot summer afternoons, when «кажется, и сил не было дышать, когда солнце, раскалив Москву, в сухом тумане валилось куда-то за Садовое кольцо…» […no one, it seemed, had the strength to breath, when the sun had left Moscow scorched to a crisp and was collapsing in a dry haze somewhere behind the Sadovoye Ring…]

By the way, «Вы уже читаете Мастера и Маргариту?» [have you started reading Master and Margarita]. If yes, you’ll be familiar with the quote above. You’d also know that the hapless Berlioz, the editor of a literary magazine, wanted to quench his thirst with «нарзан» while his young companion, poet Ivan Bezdomny, asked for «пиво» [beer].

Neither got what he wanted and both settled for something called «абрикосовая» [apricot-flavored] which was warm and foamy (doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it?).

Curiously, in our little informal Facebook poll on the subject of refreshing summer drinks, neither «нарзан» nor «абрикосовая» were mentioned. Instead, the most popular drink was «квас» [kvas, fermented bread drink].

If you’ve never tried kvas or don’t know much about it, you can check out a Wikipedia entry (English or Russian). But if you don’t care to read either of these, then here are 5 quick facts about kvas:

  1. «Квас» is the summer drink of choice in Russia with sales far outstripping those of  «газировка» [carbonated drinks].
  2. The verb «квасить» has two meanings directly related to «квас». One is to ferment, usually in relations to preserving veggies or making bread, i.e. «квашеная капуста» [fermented or sour cabbage] and «закваска» [starter or leavening]. The other meaning of «квасить» is to get drunk.
  3. But don’t waste time trying to get drunk on «квас». Alcohol content of bread kvas is only about 1% and fruit and berry kvases have no alcohol in them at all. Of course, back in the good old days, 11th century or about, kvas was much stronger and heavier than beer. The trees were also taller and the sky was a brighter shade of blue.
  4. Drinking «квас» improves digestion, balances metabolism, strengthens cardio-vascular system and acts as an energy drink of sorts (as they say in Russia, «поднимает тонус» [lit. elevates one’s tissue tension].
  5. The best «квас» is from «квасная бочка» [a kvas barrel]. Painted bright yellow, they are a common site on Russian streets in the summer. (Although there are always «страшилки» [scary urban legends] about maggots and rats in the barrels, and the scariest of it all, the money-hungry sellers watering down their «квас»,  thus making it absolutely unusable for «окрошка» [cold kvas-based soup].

Shame on me, I haven’t tried making my own kvas yet. But I will shortly since it’s supposed to be a very simple process. Once I test the recipe and the technique, I’ll definitely share with you. For now we are all stuck with bottled kvas sold at Russian stores and online.

If bottled kvas isn’t your thing (can’t blame you), but you still want an authentic Russian experience, let’s move on to «газировка» [carbonated drinks]. I’ll skip obviously Western colas and instead talk about two main types of Russian «газировка»:

«Газировка без сиропа» [carbonated drink without syrup] – that’s just plain water with fizzy bubbles in it. You can make it at home from a glass of tap water and a contraption called «сифон» [soda siphon].

«Газировка с сиропом» [carbonated drink with syrup] is just a bit fancier and still totally DIY-able. Just add a bit of syrup to your glass. Or buy a bottle of gold-colored «Буратино», pear-flavored «Дюшес», lemon-lime flavored clear «Колокольчик», «Тархун» (my favorite for its deep green color and tarragon flavor] or any other sugary concoction.

By the way, «абрикосовая» drank by Berlioz and Bezdomny (you haven’t forgotten about them, have you?), was a type of apricot-flavored «газировка с сиропом».

It is well-understood that «газировка с сиропом» is not a healthy choice. «Соки и воды несут углеводы» [Juices and waters carry carbohydrates]. That’s probably why «осторожный» [prudent] Berlioz first asked for «нарзан» – a fizzy mineral water. Narzan is still widely sold in Russia and, along with other syrup-free weakly- and strongly-carbonated mineral waters, is claimed to have medicinal qualities.

Another word for «газировка» is «шипучка» [fizzy drink] – a great example of onomatopoeia. Another word, the one you might come across in Russian literature (particularly, in children’s books), but that’s outdated is «ситро» [lit: citron, lemonade].

Other Russian summer drinks include various «соки» [juices], «морс» [watered-down and sugared juice], and «компот» [a cold drink made by boiled fruits and berries with some sugar].

Is plain water popular? Well, even though the signs at the juice- and soda-counters in Russia read «Соки и воды» [Juices and waters], the later refers to «газированные воды» [carbonated water] of all kinds, not to the good old water.

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  1. John:

    Thanks for describing these drinks.
    Re: tap water, it’s reported that it must be boiled before consuming in St. Pete (or buy bottled water) due to its source. Is that the case in other cities/towns? Seems a laborious process to get potable water in such cases.


  2. Yelena:

    John, we always boiled tap water to get rid of chlorine. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that we lived in a very old apartment building with rusty water pipes (we had to let water run for up to a minute to get rid of the reddish tint). Or maybe it was because there were so many factories, including chemical and heavy machinery ones, dumping pollutants into Volga.

    Aparently, things haven’t changed all that much in 10 years and tap water is still not safe to drink in Volgograd and Volgograd region. It’s bad enough that district authorities thought it was necessary to conduct a criminal investigation of the quality of drinking water.

  3. trudy ringer:

    Do they still have the автоматы по продаже газировки on the streets? I hadn’t seen any the last time I was in Moscow or St. Petes. Are they in the smaller towns? The glasses were always broken but they certainly were part of the street scene for a long time.

    • yelena:

      @trudy ringer seems like it. Автоматы по продаже газировки might not be as visible nowadays since there are all the other places to buy drinks – киоски, ларьки, магазины. On the bright side, they are now bright and don’t look depressing. No unwashed or cracked glasses either. –

  4. Minority:

    In Barnaul we have several автоматы по продаже газировки, but new ones, with plastic cups.

    What can I say about kvas? I do not think it’s realy true about “the best kvas is in barrels”. The best one is home-made. You never know what did they put in their barrels, but at home you can totally control this process, put as much sugar as you need and so on. Ferments for kvas is quite cheap. =)

    + We have one more meaning of “квасить” – “драться” (to fight). Such as “он расквасил мне нос” – “he gave me a bloody nose”, “he smashed my nose”

  5. Brt:

    In Poland, apart from Квас, we used to have saturators which were something like handcarts pushed by men who sold lemoniada (Лимонад). Novadays Квас is back on market (I think it is made by Оболонь)

  6. Throbert McGee:

    When I was living as an ESL teacher in Moscow, 1993-94, I can’t recall ever seeing a Russian drink a glass of water directly from the tap — instead, it’d be boiled for чай. Sometimes, just for a change of pace, they’d drink carbonated soda (“Herschi-Cola” and “USA Cola” were popular brands back then), or fruit juice, or kefir, or компот (which also involved boiling) — not to mention пиво, вино, и водка.

    And about a week after I first arrived in Moscow, I got terrible cramping and diarrhea that lasted 4-5 days. I think it was from chewing and swallowing ice cubes in my cola at a local restaurant — the water used to make the ice wasn’t boiled, you see.

    Which is not to say that Moscow water was “dangerous” in the sense that it would give you cholera, but there were apparently some sort of microorganisms in it, at levels above Western standards.

  7. Valerie Stivers-Isakova:

    In my translation of Master & Margarita, Abrikosavaya is rendered as “Lemonade” !

  8. Yelena:

    Valerie, in my English copy it says “apricot juice”. Neither lemonade nor apricot juice is really what абрикосовая is, but that’s the problem with translations – essentially, even a great translation is a series of compromises.

  9. Valerie Stivers-Isakova:


    In the Mirra Ginsburg translation, it says “apricot soda” which is probably the best that can be done, right? I would be tempted to translate it “apricot seltzer” or “apricot fizz” but then I think there’s a fizzing up in the next sentence. I once did a chart on English translations, and if I recall, the Mirra Ginsburg was the best for Master. Unfortunately, I threw the “lemonade” translation away in outrage. Also curious what language-level your readers are. I read enough Russian for Tolstoy, not for Doestoevsky…..

  10. Arkadiy Birger:

    ah Kvas – or as my good friend’s american wife calls it “soy sauce juice” due to its (bottled version in the US) deep dark color. Growing up I remember the main problem with “bochkovoi kvas” was that it lacked sugar content, since the sugar was all stolen by the workers, but nowdays, it is too sugary and a lot of times it is not even beets’ sugar but corn syrup…what a shame!!!

  11. Sandra – If it comes in pink:

    I like the second pic:)