Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
Read by Judith Ivey*
Published July 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
Two sisters, one farm. A family is split when their father leaves their shared inheritance entirely to Helen, his younger daughter. Despite baking award-winning pies at the local nursing home, her older sister, Edith, struggles to make what most people would call a living. So she can't help wondering what her life would have been like with even a portion of the farm money her sister kept for herself. 

With the proceeds from the farm, Helen builds one of the most successful light breweries in the country, and makes their company motto ubiquitous: "Drink lots. It's Blotz." Where Edith has a heart as big as Minnesota, Helen's is as rigid as a steel keg. Yet one day, Helen will find she needs some help herself, and she could find a potential savior close to home. . . if it's not too late.

Meanwhile, Edith's granddaughter, Diana, grows up knowing that the real world requires a tougher constitution than her grandmother possesses. She earns a shot at learning the IPA business from the ground up—will that change their fortunes forever, and perhaps reunite her splintered family?

Here we meet a cast of lovable, funny, quintessentially American characters eager to make their mark in a world that's often stacked against them.

My Thoughts:
Returning to the format that made his debut, Kitchens of the Great Midwest so popular, Stradal again gives us a generational story of a family torn apart and the way that rift impacts each of them. That book used one central character with the story moved forward from the point of view of many people who came into her life. It was a really interesting way to tell the story and you never entirely lost sight of the central character. Here Stradal utilizes a more traditional form, telling his story from just the points of view of his three central characters.

Because of the nature of the story, this meant that one or more of the characters kept disappearing from the story, sometimes for long periods. The truth of the matter was that not much of importance to the story was happening to those characters during that time period so it’s fine that we didn’t get that; but when the story more or less switched from being Edith’s and Helen’s story to being Diana’s story, it took some getting used to the change. Eventually, though, it all circles back, as you know it will from the beginning; and I found the way Stradal handled that very satisfying.

As he did with food in Kitchens, Stradal goes into detail about the ingredients and flavors and even smells of beer as well as the exploding craft brewing industry and the way that turned traditional brewing on its ear. And, as he did with foodies in Kitchens, Stradal is quick to mock those who take it all too seriously. I’m a big fan of craft beers but I have no idea of the specific ingredients that go into making my favorite porter. My son, on the other hand, is very knowledgeable about beer and has very definite opinions about craft beers in particular. He will happily chat up a brewer, which might make some of the characters here happy, but certainly makes him a target of Stradal’s mirth.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota does require some suspension of disbelief. Diana is forced to make her first beer 22 times before the brewery owner finally decides she’s made something worth selling; but, later, the grandmas that start working for her are allowed to put their first efforts out into the world. These are ladies with no experience in beer making who didn’t hesitate to believe they could create a beer. Putting them through their paces just wouldn’t have fit the time line, so we have to be ok with that. We also have to be ok with the idea that anyone would buy a pie flavored beer. I only know of one person who wouldn’t hesitate to try it (and you know who you are….Dad!). But these ladies need to be allowed to make beers they would drink and we have to believe that there are other people out there who would feel the same way. For the sake of the story, I was willing to do that.

The publisher calls the cast of this book “lovable, funny, quintessentially American characters.” I disagree. This cast is at quintessentially Midwestern, certainly quintessentially Minnesotan. Which is just fine; Stradal knows these people and clearly has great fondness for them. I was impressed with how well Stradal wrote female characters in Kitchens and he hasn’t lost a step here. This book is absolutely about women stepping up and stepping into traditional male roles and about women finding ways to make their lives work, no matter what it takes.

Lager Queen lacks the gut punches and certain element of darkness that Kitchens sometimes had so it lacked some of that depth. But there are characters here to like, characters you won’t care much for, successes, sadness, and hard times. But it’s an uplifting book that you will probably race through. And, in the end, when you hear something on tv about Citra and Simcoe hops (as I did just after I finished this book), you’ll feel mighty darn smart because you already know what those do to a beer!

*Judith Ivey does a commendable job reading this book (although she is stronger with the older
women’s voices than some of the others). I’d definitely pick up other books she’s read.


  1. Excellent review, thanks. Can't wait to read it myself!

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

    I wish to comment on one thing, though, because I put a lot of thought and work into this -- Diana's brewmaster training is extremely unusual, and according to the brewers I know, unnecessarily brutal. It should not be used as an example for how it's done IRL, let alone judged against the grandmothers, all of whom had the supervision of both Mo Akbar and Diana (and later, Agatha -- which was crucial, per the scene with Gus Jimenez). Only one grandmother made a passable beer on her first attempt (Betsy) and even then, it was a perversion of the Gose method that was deemed an unacceptable example of the style by the book's beer experts. No one besides Betsy and Edith put their first efforts into the world -- and Betsy's, while enjoyed by some, was essentially a failure.

    The acceleration of brewing capability increased once Diana was there everyday to supervise and progressed even further when Agatha joined to do QA/QC. Virtually any flock could succeed with those shepherds overseeing every step. They would not have done so otherwise -- recall Linda's failed stout, or Lucy's multiple failed attempts at a light beer -- even *with* Mo's sometime assistance. By the time Edith made hers, she had these expert brewers on site overseeing every step. Unlike Frank, they didn't want Edith to find her way to brilliance through heuristics. They had a vested interest in helping Edith get it in one, and knew how to do it.

    All this said -- I imagine I could've done more to emphasize these failures and pedagogical anomalies in the text. If a careful, experienced reader like yourself glossed over them, I could've pushed these points harder, clearly.

    Please don't regard this note as ungrateful for your time or your review. You're doing kind, thoughtful work in a world that needs more book reviewers, in my opinion -- and I appreciate you taking the time to read and review Lager Queen.

    Thank you again,

    J. Ryan

    1. Very much appreciate your thoughts! I always have a greater appreciation for a book once I get the author's thoughts!

  3. I still want to read Kitchens of the Great Midwest, and this new one sounds good, too! Thanks for the review -


    Book By Book

  4. It's on my list and I believe I actually have it on my Kindle right now. It's hard to follow such a successful first book, I think. Kitchens surprised me in so many ways.