READERS GUIDEAN INTRODUCTION TO THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA
The Lager Queen of Minnesota is about two generations in a Midwestern family—starting on a farm, with two sisters who have no desire to be farmers. Helen, the younger, go-getter sister, wants more than anything else in the world to make beer. She finagles her way into taking over her husband’s family’s failing soda business and builds it into a thriving beer company by single-handedly inventing light beer. Her older sister, Edith, shares none of this grand ambition, even as her pies are named third-best in the state of Minnesota. Unfortunately, being a champion pie baker does not earn her a fortune, or even a good living. Enter Diana, Edith’s beloved granddaughter, who grows up trying to help Edith make ends meet—and in the most roundabout way possible, becomes obsessed with making a series of the best IPAs the Midwest has ever seen. But just as she is about to open her own brewpub, the fates converge and she is forced to turn to the unlikeliest cadre of amateur brewmasters imaginable—Edith’s cohort of grandmother friends—to save her brewery before it’s DOA.
J. Ryan Stradal has tapped into the zeitgeist and created a story that’s easy to love—in this case, doing for beer what his debut, Kitchens of the Midwest, did for food—about how a Midwestern family saves itself by making (and sometimes losing) a fortune in beer. Here, he gives us three female characters who are quirky, funny, and impossible to forget.
Most of all, he taps into the themes of American life today, as his people, like many other Americans in real life, make their way in a world that’s often stacked against them.
A CONVERSATION WITH J. RYAN STRADAL
1. How did the idea for The Lager Queen of Minnesota come to you? After the success of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, did you plan to continue to get inspiration from the food/drink world?
Before I was finished writing Kitchens of the Great Midwest, I’d become intrigued by the blossoming evolution of beer culture. No other food- or drink-related business industry I can think of has changed more in this century. While on my last book tour, I also kept noticing more and more independent breweries in the towns where I did events. One thing that struck me about most of these places was that, in spite of serving alcohol, they were true community gathering places, like the beer halls of Europe. More often than not, they were kid-friendly, pet-friendly, and/or venues for local musicians. In small towns, I’d also see young people, both at and behind the bar. At first, new breweries don’t usually sustain more than a handful of living-wage jobs, but it’s nice to see an industry of any size help retain and support young workers in a town that may otherwise lose them.
Also, unlike a lot of other food-related enterprises that emphasize the “local” and “craft” aspects of the foodie movement, beer is patently inclusive and affordable, and always has been. My characters are always cosmonauts of inquiry, and this time around, I was again compelled to create people who could help me learn more about something, and this time it had to be beer.
2. What kind of research did you do for your novel? Did anything surprising come up during your research?
I interviewed around three dozen brewers, brewery employees, beverage industry professionals, academics, and beer enthusiasts over the course of about three years, and visited countless breweries, sometimes querying the staff, sometimes silently taking it in. What surprised me the most wasn’t just the sheer number of new breweries and beer pubs, but their success rate. Smaller cities and towns seem willing and able to support local breweries, even if the beer being sold isn’t often similar to the lager the local customers grew up drinking. They’re all making something that you can’t exactly find anywhere else, and locals from all walks of life are helping sustain them. I love this.
3. What is it about the Midwest that continues to inspire your writing?
So much. It’s a complex place that defies easy categorization. My childhood and teenage years alone were so full of questions, contradictions, peculiar difficulties, and startling circumstances, I could write about the people that shaped me for the rest of my life and not cover a tenth of what inspires me about them.
Also, it’s not that some people on the coasts who write about Midwesterners get them wrong, per se, it’s just that they’re often reduced to stereotypes. I know how complex my family and friends in the Midwest are, and I try really hard to give my characters the sorts of problems that reveal a similar depth. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. I love my characters, and it breaks my heart to impose hardships on them.
4. What made you want to write about the business of beer from the female perspective? Was writing across multiple generations of women difficult?
One of the things I noticed while touring breweries was how often the staff, particularly the owners and brewmasters, looked like me—I met a ton of bearded white guys. This to me seemed like an incredibly boring story to tell. One of the imperatives of fiction, I believe, is to write the story you want to manifest, so I wrote about the kinds of brewers I’d like to have met more often.
Also, this story, like Kitchens of the Great Midwest, was written with one reader in mind—my mom. Although she passed away fifteen years ago and will never hold a book of mine in her hands, whenever I sit down to write, I do my best to evoke her and honor her. This often means female characters. Edith in particular has a heaping portion of my mom in her, and writing about her and for her keeps her alive in my heart.
5. How important is it to you to represent working-class families in your work?
One of the things I kept hearing on my book tour for Kitchens of the Great Midwest was how much my readers appreciated reading about working-class people. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it does seem like a lot of contemporary fiction is about rich or financially comfortable characters, and if the characters are poor, they’re often abjectly so. I was born into a struggling young working-class family—at one point when I was three, my parents had only $20 to their name—but they rebounded, each earned college degrees, they became homeowners, and were solidly middle-class by the time I was in high school.
I wanted to tell that story, both in terms of writing about people like my family and also about how, infused with hope and a lot of support, they improved their lives. They sure didn’t do it alone, and I’ve long wanted to write about people facing similar circumstances who ended up better than they started—and remained good people.
6. What do you find most interesting about contemporary “ beer culture”?
Despite the dizzying and recondite terminology that attends any “craft” culture, beer has remained inclusive. I wish it were more diverse (it’s slowly becoming so) but one of the barriers to entry is that starting a successful brewery is still mostly a rich person’s game. Very few breweries I visited were honestly bootstrapped operations; it seems typical (and perhaps necessary in many areas) that at least one of a brewery’s principal founders has substantial capital. Even though it’s ultimately a low-margin business, the start-up costs are often prohibitive, and various blue laws add to this cost and complexity.
That said, unlike with, say, wine or whiskey, an average person in Minnesota can easily afford the highest-rated, best-reviewed beer sold in their market. Beer snobs may crow about the ineluctable characteristics of certain virtually inaccessible beers, but great beer is affordable and accessible for virtually every drinker who’s interested. That’s one of the biggest things I love about it.
7. Do you have any favorite beers or breweries?
I’m a huge fan of Three Weavers, in Inglewood, California—a brewery owned and operated by women. They were tremendously helpful to me in researching this book. I love Spiral Brewery in my hometown of Hastings, Minnesota—they were also incredibly helpful, and three of the five principals there are women, as well. I also love the hard cider from Sweetland Orchard in Webster, Minnesota. The owners, Gretchen and Mike, were also deeply generous and knowledgeable in regard to family-run operations, alcohol distribution, and state alcohol laws.
Among breweries I haven’t yet visited, I’m a fan of the beers from Russian River, Dogfish Head, and Bell’s, but frankly, there’s not much I dislike, besides wheat beers (personal preference, not a judgment call). When visiting a new brewery, I’m likely to try whatever they have that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and if nothing applies, I’ll order a Citra-hopped IPA, amber ale, cream ale, or stout, depending on whether and what I’m eating. Frankly, I’m over the moon at how easy it is to find good beer now, just about anywhere in America. I hope the beer drinkers of future generations sustain this and don’t take it for granted.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The decision made by Helen and Edith’s father to leave the family farm entirely to Helen changes each sister’s life forever. Although she’s the beneficiary of that unfair decision, do you believe that Helen is a sympathetic character?
2. Before Diana was hired full-time at Heartlander Brewery, she was stealing from garages to help make ends meet. Did this criminal behavior affect how you felt about Diana as a character? If not, how was she able to redeem herself, and what contributed to her evolution?
3. Both of Stradal’s novels, The Lager Queen of Minnesota and Kitchens of the Great Midwest, are full of characters who’ve developed special, intimate relationships with food and drink. How would you describe Helen’s lifelong relationship with beer? How is it different from Diana’s? Or Edith’s?
4. The topic of loss appears throughout the book in both significant and subtle ways. The characters are often reckoning with their grief. Were there specific situations you found particularly relatable? Explain.
5. It’s becoming increasingly common in America for people, especially women, to work past retirement age, as Edith and some of her friends are doing. How would you describe Edith’s experience of working into her late seventies, and how does it contrast with that of the people you know who’ve continued to work late in life?
6. Although beer was invented by women, commercial brewing has been dominated by men. What does this book have to say about women in the industry, and the potential of women in the industry?
7. Each character’s attitude toward beer evolves during the course of the novel. Did this book change your own opinion of beer?
8. Edith’s talent for baking pies was a local secret for decades before she was “discovered.” In your opinion, was her wider exposure a positive development in her life? Do you know anyone with a similar skill or talent, and how do you think they’d feel about receiving a similar kind of wider exposure?