"This was evidently what Diana was meant to do, because it brought her such strength and purpose. Edith may not have always loved the idea of her granddaughter making beer, but she loved how its discipline had transformed the quiet, sad girl into this bullheaded and remarkable young woman, who now, somehow, had opened her own brewery. No one, immortal or otherwise, ought to stop that joy and passion from existing in the world."
I was born and raised in southeastern Minnesota, in a small town named Austin where I grew up on a five acre farm nestled between hog and bean farmers. We had a run-down barn that housed stray, abandoned cats we fed Purina cat chow to and where I once found a dead, rotting fox and screamed playing hide-and-seek. My parents rented out the land to farmers storing bales of hay and they planted tomatoes and watermelons and refused to get air conditioning until all three kids moved out after complaining for over two decades. I rode the bus to school with the other country kids who made a fuss about driving down the quarter-mile dead-end road to my house until my mother cussed out the superintendent for forcing six year-olds to walk down a road at seven a.m. in -10 degree weather and blizzards.
Speaking of blizzards, Dairy Queen was a staple in the summertime and my best friend Miranda (and half her siblings) worked at the DQ, and we roller-bladed to it often during summer vacation. When my mom was feeling lazy and didn't want to make spaghetti or meatloaf or pork chops, we'd splurge on Arby's and get Beef ‘n Cheddar sandwiches with curly fries. I spent a summer at Macalester College for biology camp. Lizzo who kickstarted her musical career in Minneapolis is my favorite artist and I've seen her live countless times—one of my biggest regrets is winning tickets to see her live in Minneapolis on New Years Eve and skipping it under pressure from my college friends to go to an attic beer pong tournament in below-freezing weather with extremely limited warmth from space heaters (surrounded by insulation and alcohol, an absolute fire hazard). I snuck Bud Light Limes from my friend Grace's mom's fridge until I matured into a true beer drinker and switched to Grainbelt Premium American Lagers. I continued to drink Grainbelt’s through college at The University of Minnesota and stirred up trouble around Dinkytown for four of the best years of my life. ‘Ope’ is common verbiage in my daily vocabulary no matter how often I try to stop letting it slip out of my mouth as I try to sneak past a stranger in a crowded place. And while I don't have a grandmother any more (though my Grandma Barb did get me a Kohl's or JCPenney gift cards every year for Christmas until she passed), I do have a Midwestern mother who would agree with Grandma Edith and say that an IPA tastes like "how I'd imagine dirt would taste if someone burned it on a grill." Minnesota farms. Dairy Queen. Arbys. Macalester. Lizzo. Grainbelt. Dinkytown. Ope. Kohl's. J. Ryan Stradal slipped in all these details in The Lager Queen of Minnesota, and it made reading this book feel like home. It's like the pages were giving me a hug. I didn't want to say goodbye to these characters. I wanted to stand in a doorway with them forever, neither of us ever wanting to be the first one to try to leave, in true ‘Minnesota Nice’ fashion.
Two sisters, Edith and Helen, become estranged when their father dies and leaves the inheritance completely to Helen. Helen takes the money and creates one of the countries most successful breweries while Edith can barely pay her bills. The story follows the perspective of Helen, Edith, and Edith’s granddaughter Diana who by trouble & chance, learns the business of brewing IPAs and changes the fortune & fate of their families forever.
While I was born and raised in Minnesota, I lived in the South for over two years, where people looked at me as though I were an oddity. I am 25 years old and not a single book comes to mind that I had read before this that takes place in Minnesota. According to Goodreads, there are 302 total books set in Minnesota. None of them I've ever heard of, which may be a fault of my own. But in my worldview, representation of Minnesotans in media have been stereotypical, if not always satirical, and never in alignment with how I grew up. We are often seen as a monolith, made fun of, or called crazy for enduring winters that cause 18-inch driveway drifts and polar vortex warnings from mass media. When I lived in Georgia or Alabama, people had an idea about me before they even knew me as soon as "I'm from Minnesota," came out of my mouth. Or any word that contains an “O,”—a dead giveaway.
This book made me feel seen as a Minnesotan woman. The loyal, stubborn, persevering, hardworking, and warm heart of what it truly means to be a Midwesterner. It is a love letter to Minnesota and the women who were raised there.
The novel is character-driven. There aren't insane plot twists or moments that make you throw your book across the room. There is no murder mystery or court room drama. But, it is a story of growth and forgiveness and you will fall in love with these characters as you follow them over entire decades of their full, beautiful lives. Stradal did an impeccable job giving strong, brilliant voices to three women as they struggle and flourish in the brewing industry, with an ending so perfect you will close your book and immediately want to snuggle something and call your sister.
The dialogue is perfect—it is not over the top or performative like most Minnesotan representation is. It is real and crafted whimsically. The brewing insights and knowledge snippets were SO enjoyable and so well-researched from brewing professionals across the Midwest—including one of my favorite breweries out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, The Brewing Projekt. Having just earned my Certified Beer Server Certification, this was an incredibly fun read to dive into. I often have my beer-loving followers ask how I read so much and I always say "Bring a book with you wherever you go and read about what interests you." So, this would be a perfect starter book for any beer lover who wants to expand their palate into reading. The humor is witty and will give you a chuckle, the story will keep you delighted, and the growth the characters achieve will warm your heart faster than too many cocktails at happy hour. So, crack your favorite lager, stick your nose in it, and get lost in Minnesotan marvel.
I miss Edith already—she might be one of the most wholesome and kind characters I have ever had the honor of meeting. Thank you Stradal for gifting us Edith, Diane, Betsy, Linda, Agatha, and yes....even Helen. Highlighting women brewers (and GRANDMA brewers nonetheless—no ageism here) in a time where it is STILL hard to enter the craft beer industry is phenomenal and it does not go unnoticed. Last week, I mustered up the courage and went to a homebrewing store in Alpharetta, Georgia to finally purchase my first homebrew kit. I was incredibly excited and walked into the store confidently, and I assured myself that this was a monumental day that I would always remember—the day I took initiative as a woman to start brewing beer. What a let down it was when the cashier assumed I was buying the kit for my boyfriend or my father for Christmas. While it may seem dismal to some, it instilled in me the assumption that brewing beer is something I couldn’t do. Because I am a woman. For J. Ryan Stradal to write an entire 362-page book where women brewing beer is the focus, it does not go unnoticed. Thank you Stradal for giving me back my confidence.
Now—pick up this book as I go pick up Stradal's first book Kitchens of the Great Midwest! While I am always on the search for books written by women about women, Stradal (who is a man) did exemplary research regarding Minnesotan women and women within the brewing industry. He visited about three dozen breweries and interviewed the women behind the bar, the women holding the brewing paddles, and women at the forefront of the craft beer community. This was one of the first books I read that involved brewing as part of the fictional narrative, combining both my love for books and my love for beer. It was highly marketed by Viking Books which caused it to catch my eye. Now, that I’ve had my first taste of brewing fiction, I’m excited to add Trouble Brewing by Suzanna Baltsar and Death on Tap, A Pint of No Return, and Beyond a Reasonable Stout by Ellie Alexander to my TBR. These are brewing-focused fictional reads written by women about women. Drop by the comments and tell me what beer-focused fiction reads I should add to my reading list!
The Lager Queen of Minnesota
J. Ryan Stradal
362 pages. 2019.
Buy it here.