8 Beer and Book Pairings
J. Ryan Stradal thinks it’s time to move book clubs out of living rooms and into brewpubs
It’s a cliché among authors that we write the books we wish existed, but two of the many reasons I set out to write The Lager Queen of Minnesota was because I wanted to read literary fiction set in a brewery, and frankly, I also wanted a reason to bum around the country researching contemporary beer. Like any American in the last fifteen years, I’ve noticed the incredible expansion of craft breweries, and in recent years I’ve also been pleased to see the emergence of bookstores paired with beer lists and even taprooms. Growing up in a world where the intoxicant of choice for readers was often wine or whiskey, I want to continue to fight for the assertion that books and beer are a natural pair.
To that end, I’ve compiled a short list of books that, in my opinion, share affinities with a particular beer or beer style. I felt it made little sense to pair beer with, say, The Great Gatsby in a world where countless worthy books haven’t yet received the attention they deserve, so with two notable exceptions, I’ve mostly paired beer with books that have received (as of the time of this writing) less than twenty reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. In many cases, depending on where you live, the books may be easier to find than the beer—order from your local indie if you have one—but if you’re fortunate enough to also have a local brewery, try their version of the relevant style. It’s beyond time to move book clubs out of living rooms and into brewpubs. I hope that this list gets you started.
To drink with Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You by Alice Munro: Farm Girl Saison by LiftBridge Brewery
The stories of Alice Munro was perhaps my biggest influence while writing my first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Her masterfully observed, kind, but unsparing portraits of rural Canadians were strikingly familiar to me as a native Minnesotan. If you haven’t read her work since college, or at all, start here with her second collection, which contains my favorite story of hers, “How I Met My Husband.” Read it with a cool, rustic Midwestern ale, like LiftBridge Brewery’s Farm Girl Saison.
To drink with The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Utopias by Samuel Adams
Man, I wish I could write like this. There have been many books I’ve admired over the last five years, but none gave me such delirious pleasure and envy as this novel. An ambitious, provocative story told with great verve and seamless craft, it’s earned a rarified realm in my mind, and therefore can only be paired with a rarified beer. There are a lot out there, but I’ll choose Samuel Adams Utopias, “the craft beer community’s most renowned and sought-after extreme barrel-aged beer,” according to the brewer. Seek out and savor them both.
To drink with Dog Years by Melissa Yancy: Stout by Central Waters Brewing
Melissa Yancy’s award-winning, masterful collection of thematically-linked stories, Dog Years, is another book that’s never left my mind. Inspired by her career as a fundraiser for medical causes, these stories all tackle different elements of modern medicine, from kidney transplants to facial reconstruction, and the recipients, caregivers, loved ones, and strangers who participate in a person’s trauma and recovery. Maybe because I read it over a rainy winter weekend, I imagine it as an inclement or cold weather book, and in this case, I’d pair it with a toasty stout. If I had to choose one brewery, I’d pick any of the stouts brewed by Central Waters Brewing Co. out of Amherst, Wisconsin.
To drink with The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal: Winter Garde by Sante Adairius Rustic Ales
I loved this novel. Due to its brevity (it’s a mere 100 pages) I’d go back and re-read sections, linger over especially gorgeous descriptions of food, and leave bookmarks scattered in places I wanted to revisit when finished. This lovely tale of the rise and maturation of a French cook was right in my personal wheelhouse. If it’s not too on the nose, you should pour a French Bière de Garde or two while you read it yourself. Unfortunately, I don’t yet know French beer well enough to make an educated, specific pairing, but Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, near Santa Cruz, has a Winter Garde that, while being different in character, will be an equal in complexity and satisfaction.
To drink with Learning by Andrew Choate: Or Xata by The Bruery
Every city should be fortunate enough to have a citizen like Andrew Choate. A curator and producer of avant-garde music and performance, Choate has been directly responsible for bringing some of the world’s most groundbreaking artists to whatever city he’s living in at the time. He’s also the writer of dazzlingly inventive works of poetry and prose, the latest of which is Learning. An autobiographical account in which he explores the circumstances of a brutal attack on his father, intermeshed with inquiries of ecstatically varying concurrent stimuli, Learning is a free-jazz poem of true crime, self-help, mystery, and personal exegesis. I’ll pair it with something from innovative California brewers The Bruery, perhaps their cinnamon and vanilla-infused blonde ale, Or Xata.
To drink with Portrait of Sebastian Khan by Aatif Rashid: 90-Minute IPA by Dogfish Head
Sebastian Khan is not often a likeable protagonist. Like the privileged, impulsive youth out of a 1980s brat pack novel, he seems plenty smart but extremely unwise as he navigates the sex, politics, and sexual politics at a Model U.N. convention. You may be amused by his solipsism and depravity; I read actively wishing for his opprobrium, but Aatif Rashid’s debut novel is a pleasure either way. For the amount of time Sebastian spends drinking and drunk, there’s no reason you shouldn’t play along at home with an imperial IPA. One of the best widely-distributed brews of this variety is Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute IPA. At 9% alcohol, it pairs sufficiently with college kids behaving badly.
To drink with Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee by Rachel Lee Rubin: Hell Lager by Surly Brewing
This powder keg of a book, from the 33 1/3 series, was perhaps my favorite read in 2018. Recommended by a neighborhood bookseller at Skylight Books, I instantly started reading it upon arriving home, and never needed a bookmark. Unpacking both the history and legend surrounding Merle Haggard and the recording of this album, Rubin tells a story of class, authenticity, and success fit for a book three times as long. You sincerely need no prior knowledge of Haggard or this album to enjoy this volume, and you will certainly see its themes echoing in our present political climate. That said, I’m tempted to pair a book on Merle’s divisive album with something else that’s been both unfairly denigrated and ignorantly celebrated—lager. A favorite of mine is Surly Hell from my home state of Minnesota, but your local favorite should go just fine with this book. Just pour one out for Merle.
To drink with In the Not Quite Dark by Dana Johnson: Pliny the Elder by Russian River
Dana Johnson is, in my opinion, the most underrated chronicler of California life in contemporary fiction. The unerringly powerful stories in her collection In The Not Quite Dark are the kind that stick to your brain for weeks, beg for debate among book clubs, and, most importantly, reveal the lives of the people around us. For this book, I’m choosing a fellow Californian that isn’t remotely underrated but is equally mighty: Russian River’s Pliny The Elder.