J. Ryan Stradal may have written himself into a niche, but nobody’s complaining, because nobody does fiction about food better. 2015’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest presented a picture of the way heartland food connects individuals across the senses of taste and smell. In 2019, he does it again with The Lager Queen of Minnesota, a paen to locavore hipsters, craft brewing, and grandmas all at once. Edith Magnussen watches her family sink into poverty after her husband’s death, while her sister Helen marries the heir to a local soft drink empire and begins a brewing empire that comes to represent everything she hates about beer.
In addition to providing a view into several complicated levels of Midwestern life, Edith and Helen shares the tensions created by love – for family and food. Helen’s career in brewing begins with a taste experience when she sneaks a homebrew from the cellar of a local farmer. It’s brewed with “ditch hops” and locally grown barley, and it’s ale. While today ales occupy the shelves of any liquor store and ever-increasing numbers of supermarkets, fifteen years ago, lagers dominated. Comparatively, they still do, dilly dilly, and it’s because of brewers like Helen who mass-produced them in the decades after Prohibition. A lot of beer nerds will shudder at the thought of drinking lagers or, God forbid, light beers, and it’s all because the malty, bready taste that comes from a well-brewed ale like Helen experiences. However, lagers get a bad rap, which Helen acknowledges by selling more of those and fewer ales. The old time farmers who make Helen’s first fan base, all want a cool bitter drink with just a hint of sweetness after a long day of work, and with a low-alcohol contents, so that, yes, you can drink lots.
So, even though Helen exchanges tap sales for the delicate flavors in craft beer, she does so with her father in mind. Trade-offs like these make up all the turning points in her story, and just like the beer history in the background, it echoes across all of Minnesota life. Edith sacrifices life in a small town with her friends and extended family when she has to make the painful choice to move to a small apartment in the Cities to support her dying husband on a minimum wage income. When Edith gets custody of her granddaughter after a tragic car accident, Diana, she basically can’t support two people on two part-time jobs. Diana steals power tools from rich families, and dates classmates so rich they can’t fathom not going to college. Finally, Diana comes into the growing world of craft brewing when her bougie marks hire her to work at a brewery which is a pet project for them, but quickly balloons into a livelihood.
Don’t feel alone if, to you, the cycle of rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches tastes soapier than a cilantro lavender IPA. The world of food and the people who make it dominate this novel’s palate, which brings in poetry and character flaws in the aftertaste. However, I love all that. Stradal works relatively unknown territory in an art form that loves visual imagery and emotional catharsis. That said, there’s little more rewarding than the cultural echoes of Minnesota grannies brewing craft beer. It’s a lovely image that serves up the warm, fuzzy feelings of love and home.
Craft beer aficionados will certainly love The Lager Queen’s brewery setting and biting commentary on chocolate stouts and overly ambitious goses. Midwestern readers looking for a setting a little closer than say, New York or London, will find a taste of home between these pages. Overall, another solid novel from a writer who’s proven to be something of a craftsman himself.
Four out of five stars
Favorite quote: “Edith had never imagined that a tart, cloudy, partially wheat beer with added coriander and salt even existed.”