As the American writer Willa Cather wrote in “My Antonia,” “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.” The same could be said about a Budweiser: The only thing very noticeable is that it is still, all day long, a Budweiser.
Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Style: These beers hail from the Midwest, a region characterized by its infinite horizons, idyllic farms, and red brick factories. Beer brands like these are America’s bread and butter, known for their economy and approachable flavor profiles. But they and others like them — Schlitz, Miller Lite, and so on — are more than crowd-friendly thirst-quenchers for the football tailgate. These mass-produced lagers reflect much of the country’s perception of the Midwest itself: constant, reliable, and unremarkable.
Now, amidst MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch, and Pabst Brewing Company, younger, smaller breweries are embracing their regional history while expanding and experimenting in new directions. In a region that resists definition, these small breweries capture the spirit of what makes the Midwest so unique: They are paying tribute to their regional heritage while creating some of the most creative, flavorful brews in the country.
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Guardian Brewing Company strikes this balance between regional pride and new directions. Operating out of a historic farmhouse in Saugatuck, Mich., the brand is not what one might expect of a Midwestern microbrewery: It has a gluten-free and vegan-friendly food menu, a management roster of mostly women, and a range of boisterous, eclectic beers.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Kim Collins, Guardian’s co-founder and head brewer, says. “But this place just screams Midwest to me,” she continues. The draft menu is diverse, ranging from “Nessie,” a gin and tonic-inspired imperial double dry-hopped IPA with Mosaic hops and blue juniper berries, to the “MiCo Medio,” a cream ale brewed with hatch chiles that set fire to the otherwise soft palate.
This type of creativity exists in many small breweries in the region. Jaipur Brewing Company of Omaha, Neb., is an Indian restaurant that brews its own Jalapeño Ale, a local favorite and the most requested on the brewery’s menu, according to the company website.
Worth Brewing Company of Northwood, Iowa opened brewing 10-gallon batches (only around twice as much as the average homebrewer makes), but it packs bold flavors into its “Snug” English Stout, which is served on cask nitro and has notes of stone fruit and chocolate.
At Minneapolis’s Sisyphus Brewing, “The Banana Boss,” a hefeweizen that tastes like banana and tapioca, invokes a crisp, wheat taste so inviting that the brewery claims, “once you have one, you’ll want bunches.”
Despite America’s perception of the Midwest as a featureless paragon of normalcy, craft breweries show that variety is central to the Midwestern experience. At the same time, the juxtaposition of these flavorful, experimental ales with the conservatively flavored light lagers of yore is representative of a bigger picture: This region is complicated.
And although the Midwest is often stereotyped for its whiteness — and indeed, racial segregation was built into Chicago’s infrastructure — Midwestern cities are some of the most diverse in the nation. In 2017, immigrants comprised a greater share of the Great Lakes Region’s working-age population than their U.S.-born peers. The people who live in the Midwest aren’t identical and neither are the beers they enjoy. And while craft breweries enjoy the fans and communities their creative beers have cultivated, they are not trying to push the Budweiser drinkers away. In fact, they embrace them.
“[In the Midwest,] I think there’s a resistance to the imposition of any sort of value judgement that one thing is better than another,” says Lyz Lenz, a columnist at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and author of “God Land,” a book about faith in America and Midwestern culture. “A lot of the things made for mass consumption are actually really enjoyable. A nice bottle of Miller High Life, when you’re standing on a porch all day, is great.” Small-batch Midwestern breweries know this, and they’re not afraid to flaunt it.
In the spirit of Midwestern inclusivity, nano- and microbreweries almost always have something slightly familiar on the menu. At Lion Bridge Brewing in Cedar Rapids, this type of accessibility is at the forefront. “Bridge Beer,” a light golden ale, is meant to be a “bridge” between craft and domestic ale and lager. “We’ll have [wedding] rehearsal dinners here where the couple that is hosting is really into beer, but their grandparents might not be,” Ana McClain, the brewery’s co-owner and business manager, says. “Those are the people who get the Bridge Beer.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Lion Bridge’s beers are both unconventional and accessible, providing crowd-pleasing options for the community while encouraging exploration for those willing to expand their palates. The same is true for Guardian, Jaipur Brewing, Worth Brewing, and Sisyphus: All offer some variation of a sessionable golden ale or lager, a throwback to the beers that made the Midwest famous. There will always be an interesting set of drafts, but you can always find an option that sticks closer to the region’s nostalgic roots.
There’s a lot of economy in drinking these mass-produced brews, an important factor for a region whose median household income is nearly $2,500 less than the national average. But beyond frugality, there’s also a shared nostalgia that remains central to the Midwestern experience.
In paying tribute to these mass-produced beers while continuing to experiment, small breweries strike at the heart of what it means to be Midwestern: They’re community-oriented and inviting, but they also push the boundaries of taste and flavor. Importantly, they make their beers accessible to everyone who visits the taproom, regardless of personal preference.
By resisting ill-spirited competition, Midwestern breweries focus on accessibility, openness, and creativity. “There’s nothing that makes Midwesterners coalesce more than a reason to rise up and prove everybody wrong by doubling down on something,” says Lenz. “The only way to unite people in the Midwest is to tell them to change.”