Edd Merritt

I get no kick from champagne
The alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all
So tell me why shouldn’t it be true?
I get a kick out of brew
~ MF DOOM, One Beer

Once again, a book has done me in – that is, it has revved up my memory, which at my age can tend to fire on only a half a cylinder sometimes and last for little more than 10 seconds or until I try to recall what I just said. Well, this book, though, brings my early life into perspective, not only because it’s set in the area in which I grew up but because it focuses on a product of that area that overshadowed the tracts of cow pasture and soybeans. That product was beer.

How could I help but being of a heritage that saw beer as central to family life? My grandfather Edvard Herter grew up in New Ulm, Minnesota, a town about the size of Charlotte when he was young that was home to seven breweries, one of which remains. I went to college in Wisconsin where a trip to Madison for music and beer was a must. The irony of it, however, was the friend I would visit there was the daughter of the general manager of Heileman’s Old Style Lager. She was allergic to hops, and one sip brought out a rash.

So when I picked up J. Ryan Stradal’s recent book The Lager Queen of Minnesota (Pamela Dorman Books – Viking) I found myself not only into the title product but into the places where the title character found it. (Some of these places had names close enough to being real that they jiggled my memory. They were places I remembered from my youth, mostly close to the Twin Cities).

In addition, my German heritage was not alone in its focus. My grandfather married an Irish woman, and my father’s side of the family was Scottish. Who, with that background, could decry alcohol of some variety?

The Lager Queen is also a family story. Two sisters, a daughter and granddaughter decide that opening a brewery is a way to pull themselves from the lack of prosperity their current lives offer. The oldest sister, Edith, has a cooking background. Her cherry-rhubarb pies were voted third best in Minnesota. Tops was a bakery in a real town, one my family used to drive through on the way up the north shore of Lake Superior. I remember a bakery there where a sweet Scandinavian woman made pasties.

As a side note, my mother probably never touched a beer in her life. She did, however, devour enough pasties to give her voice a Marge Gunderson lilt from the movie Fargo, “Ya, you bet.”

By the time Edith began to question her current occupation (She had been a dietary aide in the St. Anthony-Waterside Nursing Home for 37 years), she fell into brew thoughts when she discovered her underage granddaughter had snuck home with several cans of “Blotz,” a local brew. Once the beer had been confiscated and poured down the drain, Grandma thought, “Hmm, maybe brewing beer is not such a bad idea,” and Blotz became “three-old-ladies beer.” Edith’s pies turned into brew with a batch of Rhubard-Pie-in-a Bottle Ale, which, by the way, sold out completely at the Minnesota State Fair. The book is a story of America and a specific place in it as well as being a celebration of beer. It gives us a sense of our country through the eyes of a small group who live it.

Edith’s story and mine merge, probably because we are natives of a similar culture. We also share a common letter of contact: my local Minnesota brewery also produced “B” beer. Rather than Blotz, it’s was Bubs. It’s history goes back to fall of 1856 when Jacob Weisbrod opened a brewing plant in the Mississippi River town of Winona. Those of us who lived in a dry end of the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes were jealous of Winona, which perched on the bluffs overlooking “The River.” Not long after Weisbrod opened his plant, the German transplants in the area demanded more than the fledgling brewery could deliver, and a larger one was built in 1862 in the Sugar Loaf area. Sugar Loaf was the closest thing to a mountain one could find in Southern Minnesota, and the beer’s moniker became “Drink Bubs – Brewed in the Shadow of Sugar Loaf.”

The brewery per se closed in 1969 but remains a beer outlet, a bar that still produces its own brews. These have changed as craft brewing has become a major industry, progressing to Black Forest Ale, Bubs Amber Red and Bubs Golden. The Bubs name sticks, though, and its pronunciation is used to indicate whether the drinker is a local or not. Outsiders order Bubs. Locals know it is really pronounced Boobs.

Since Winona is not far south of Wabasha, my hunch is that the “Grumpy Old Men” of the Jack Lemmon, Walter Mathau movie hid Bubs in their ice-fishing shacks or tried to lure Ann Margaret through its trendy history.

When you’re around Southern Minnesota, try Bubs, or bring your own Fiddlehead if you must. By the way, that’s “Fiddlehead, brewed in the shadow of Mt. Philo.”