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The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Review

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

I grew up in Minnesota, and my parents still live there. One of the most pleasurable aspects about return visits to the Land of 10,000 Lakes these days is the opportunity to sample the wares of the many craft breweries operating in the state. I was certainly pleased to immerse myself in the world of Midwestern craft brewing in J. Ryan Stradal’s second novel, THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA, and to see one of my favorite gastropubs, the Happy Gnome in St. Paul, even getting a (slightly veiled) shout-out.

Stradal’s follow-up to his beloved debut, KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST, undoubtedly speaks to my interests, but even if you didn’t grow up in Minnesota, even if you dislike beer --- or pie, another recurring comestible here --- this book has plenty to recommend it.

"[T]he book makes a compelling argument for the power of forgiveness and the importance of redemption --- no matter how much time has past."

The novel covers a time span of several decades, essentially the full adult lifespan of sisters Edith and Helen, who grew up with very different aspirations in a small Minnesota town. Edith, the older one, had her baking talents nurtured by her mother --- in large part because her mother feared that baking pies might be the only thing at which Edith could excel. Helen, on the other hand, was a bundle of ambitions, hoping to be the first person in her family to attend college and, once she was there, setting her sights on attracting the interest of Orval Blotz, heir to the Blotz beer empire. She majored in chemistry with an eye toward brewing beer someday, and viewed Orval as her ticket to possibly running a brewery. But to her surprise, the Blotz brand was in trouble, and in order to save the company (not to mention preserve her own ambition), Helen wound up making choices that effectively ended her relationship with Edith.

Fast forward several decades, and Edith is barely making ends meet, living in a quaint suburb of the Twin Cities after her husband’s death. She has had a small measure of fame as a renowned pie baker (for a nursing home, no less!), but these days, her main responsibility is caring for her orphaned granddaughter, Diana. Diana is by all accounts kind, creative and smart (she achieved a perfect score on the PSATs), but Edith’s precarious financial situation --- thanks in no small part to Helen --- means that Diana is focused more on making ends meet than getting into college.

An awkward encounter with a forgiving brewery owner might be exactly what Diana needs to change the course of her life. Soon, she’s learning everything she can about brewing IPAs and perfecting the brewmaster’s craft. When, years later, she has the bittersweet opportunity to start her own brewery, she needs Edith more than ever --- and she may have left the door open to reenter Edith’s life.

Among (many) other things, Stradal’s novel effectively traces the evolution of beer and brewing culture in the United States between the 1970s and today, examining the struggles of family-owned breweries and the rise (and eventual corporate buyouts) of modern-day craft brewers. Stradal thanks more than a dozen brewers in his acknowledgments, and the research he’s done --- not to mention his fondness for brewers and the brewing process --- shines through every page.

THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA is also a testament to women-owned businesses, to a collaborative, creative, decentralized kind of entrepreneurship that eventually (after more than a few growing pains) seems to work for Diana’s Artemis Brewing. More than anything, though, the book makes a compelling argument for the power of forgiveness and the importance of redemption --- no matter how much time has past.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 26, 2019

The Lager Queen of Minnesota
by J. Ryan Stradal

  • Publication Date: July 23, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399563059
  • ISBN-13: 9780399563058