Part homage to the culinary arts, part family drama, J. Ryan Stradal’s novels are a treat to read. They would pair well with locally sourced heirloom tomatoes or a sample pack of craft IPA. They are that satisfying.
In his bestselling debut, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” Stradal’s main character was an orphan with a perceptive palate who rose to culinary mythdom. In his latest novel, “The Lager Queen of Minnesota,” another misfit teen overcomes hardscrabble circumstances to prove that the best craft brewers are not always bearded dudes.
Told from the point of view of three women, the novel begins in 1959 on a farm in New Stockholm, Minn., where sisters Edith and Helen grow up. Edith is unassuming and obedient, bakes award-winning pies, marries early, stays in town. Helen is a rebel, steals her first beer at age 15, studies chemistry in college, marries the son of a beer magnate.
Years pass. The sisters do their things. Edith works in a nursing home, raises a family, tries not to be prideful when her strawberry-rhubarb pie wins third-best in Minnesota. Helen, meanwhile, rises to the helm of one of the country’s largest breweries.
When the dutiful sister’s husband is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, forcing a move to the city, she asks her beer-brewing sister to move back to the farm to care for their widowed father. It’s 1976 and the brewery is faltering, so Helen agrees. With Edith away, Helen persuades their dying father to sign away both portions of the inheritance to her in order to finance a product called light beer, a beer that “looked like a healthy person’s urine sample.” The betrayal ices the sisters’ relationship for half a century.
During that half-century, Edith suffers loss and hardship. She takes in her granddaughter, Diana, a burgeoning delinquent with a perfect PSAT score and a penchant for stealing tools from the garages of rich people.
When Diana is caught stealing from a man who owns a brewery, the craft beer guru decides to teach this urchin a lesson by hiring her as his janitor. The janitor gig leads to an apprenticeship, which leads to Diana’s realization that beer doesn’t have to be “the anchor of a lifetime’s most haunting regrets, a signifier of an ignorant tastelessness,” but can be “like a Miles Davis trumpet solo. Consistent, yet surprising. A career is born. And with it a culinary journey to reunite grandmother and great-aunt.
The ending is surprising and understated, which is how we do things in Minnesota. Everything about this book satisfies — from how the characters grow to how beer-making is described to Stradal’s hilarious assessment of lagers vs. IPAs. You may never drink a beer in ignorance again.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota
By: J. Ryan Stradal.
Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking, 353 pages, $26.
Events: 7 p.m. July 23, Lake Monster Brewery, 550 Vandalia St., St. Paul; 7 p.m. Sept. 18, Cream and Amber Bookstore, 1605 Mainstreet, Hopkins.