In 1959, Helen Calder stole four bottles of beer from her uncle and disappeared behind a shed with the son of a dairy farmer. The eruption of teenage rebellion that evening would create a rift that reverberated across her family for the next six decades.
Calder and her sister Edith alternate playing protagonist and antagonist in author J. Ryan Stradal’s new novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. Taking place in the fictional town of New Stockholm, the book bridges three generations of Minnesota women who, through a very Midwestern version of fate, find themselves embroiled with the state’s robust brewing history.
Stradal’s first book, 2015’s New York Times best-selling charmer Kitchens of the Great Midwest, used foodie culture as narrative backdrop. While touring for that book, Stradal noticed a new phenomenon taking root in the rural Midwest: craft breweries. Even his hometown of Hastings was building its own taproom by the time he began writing Lager Queen.
“Being a bit of a foodie, I was really interested in the ethos that goes into creating a regional or local brewery,” Stradal says. “I would go to a town, and they would say, ‘Have you been to our brewery?’ I became really interested in who was opening these breweries and the history of brewing in the northern Midwest.”
Stradal dedicates Lager Queen to Doris and Esther, “grandmothers that could, and did.” Helen and Edith are obvious amalgams of Stradal’s grandmothers, both exhibiting unmistakable traits of women cast in a similar lot. This familiarity emanates throughout the novel. You won’t have to look hard to find the Calder sisters reflected in your own family matriarchs.
“They inspired the story, both specifically and generally,” the author says. “Like a lot of people who grew up on farms, they learned to tolerate, at a young age, the vicissitudes of their profession. That creates a personality that can withstand just about anything, that doesn’t celebrate victories too heartily or wallow in failures too severely. It created, in both sides of my family, a sense of stoicism, tolerance, and work ethic.”
Where Helen and Edith vary from the archetypal narrative is in their connection to the beer industry. From the age of 15, Helen shares an innate love of beer with the pair’s father. Eventually, she convinces him to bequeath the family farm to her so she and her husband can restart the failing Blotz Beer brand. As essentially a stand-in for once-prominent Minnesota lager company Stroh’s, Blotz gets huge off bingeable light beer and an encouraging tagline: “Drink lots, it’s Blotz.”
Edith remains in New Stockholm, caring for her orphaned granddaughter Diana. Through a twist of fate and an unlikely act of mercy, Diana begins working for a regional brewer, learning to regard Blotz as factory-made swill. In one passage, she calls her estranged grand-aunt’s beer “a bitter trial for drinkers of little experience or cash,” championing the predominant mindset of today’s craft drinkers. By the time Blotz is going out of business, Diana has opened her own microbrewery named Artemis Brewing.
Washington Post called Lager Queen “a savvy account of changing tastes in a changing culture,” and those words are not idle praise. Stradal admits he barely knew the difference between ale and lager before writing Lager Queen, but he is able to connect Helen, Edith, and Diana through time and beer by being an eager student of the culture. The trio’s journey would be absolutely plausible were it not for the near-fantastical final chapters.
Stradal thanks Schell’s president and fifth-generation brewer, Ted Marti, for helping him construct Blotz’s arc, and it was Spiral Brewing in his hometown that gave him the perspective he needed to create Diana’s journey from brewery janitor to startup brewmaster. The Brewing Projekt (Wisconsin), Lazy Monk Brewing (Wisconsin), and Bad Habit Brewing (St. Joseph, Minnesota) are named among the other seven breweries Stradal consulted to fill in his knowledge gaps.
“This brewery landscape isn’t so dissimilar from what it was in 1880,” Stradal says. “The selection of beer is much more diverse, but the saturation is very similar, and the appeal, the genesis, the brewery as a place of gathering, was really, really interesting. I really wanted to write about that revolution as part of telling this family story.”
You don’t need to know what “IPA” stands for to understand the drama Stradal’s characters face. The author wields his newfound beer jargon sparingly. On two occasions, he drops the term “beta-amylase,” but he’s careful to only do so when it services the plot.
“I didn’t want to write Moby-Dick,” he says. “The knowledge became an adjunct of what was required for the narrative.”
Stradal’s goal, above all, was to make these characters collide, and the dynamic of craft vs. macro provided a rich context for that. Helen’s romp behind the shed that night in the ’50s could’ve been resolved with a heart-to-heart the next morning. Instead, Edith carries her resentment into the framework of local business. As any true-blue Midwesterner can tell you, you don’t mix business and family, and the Calders learn that lesson over the course of a painfully Minnesotan 59-year dosey-doe.
By novel’s end, beer does what it does best: It gives family a reason to butt heads before ultimately working things out.
“I try to put these characters in a position where their actions force them to evolve,” Stradal says. “Growing up in Minnesota in a very conflict-averse household, I also wanted to put my characters in conflict. Nothing brings me more delight than Midwestereners in conflict.”