Brewed with oyster mushrooms, black walnuts, and tart cherries
What makes a beer Midwestern? First, it’s important to acknowledge that, for more than a century, the majority of beers consumed anywhere in the U.S. were pale lagers from either St. Louis or Milwaukee. So for years, it could be fairly said that American beer was Midwestern, simply because so much of it came from the Midwest.
A beer can be Midwestern in spirit. You can taste the region’s German roots in its lagers, from pilsner to schwarzbier, and the contributions of a more recent wave of immigrants in the product of new Latinx-owned cervecerias in Chicago. AB InBev’s Naturdays, a strawberry-lemonade concoction, is pure Midwestern backlash to perceived coastal snobbery in a pink, flamingo-dotted can.
As the craft beer boom has offered small brewers a platform for self-expression, many have found creative ways to showcase the region’s harvests, making beers that taste like the Midwest. Here are our favorites—not necessarily the best beers in each state, but the beers that best represent their parts of the Midwest.
Scratch is a farmhouse brewery making beers that taste like southern Illinois. That includes everything from a dry-hopped sour wheat brewed with sassafras leaves to an amber lager infused with roasted burdock root and oak heartwood. The award-winning Oyster Weiss is a treasure, brewed with homegrown turmeric and the oyster mushrooms that grow wild on stumps and logs in Little Egypt.
Sweet, orange wild persimmons go into puddings, pies, and jams in southern Indiana. So it’s no surprise that one of the state’s oldest craft breweries decided to drop the fruit into their sour brown ale base. Sweet, tart, a little bit nutty, and intentionally resembling “your grandmother’s persimmon pudding,” the resulting beer is a complex tribute to generations of tradition in the Hoosier State.
Smoke isn’t just for the South. Midwesterners love smoked meats and fire pits. This ruddy ale uses just the right amount of cherrywood-smoked malt, which imparts a smoky flavor that won’t leave you feeling like you just fell into a heap of campfire ash. It’s the ideal pairing to a summer night on one of the nearby Iowa Great Lakes.
Too often, when people think of Kansas beer, they think of Kansas City, Missouri. But there’s plenty of good grain—and malt—in the nation’s breadbasket. This wheat beer, brewed with Kansas-grown soft red winter wheat and Kansas honey, is a clean homage to the bounty of the Sunflower State.
This beer is not uniquely Midwestern. It’s an IPA. Its signature Centennial hops come from the Pacific Northwest. But it’s named for a river in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And more importantly, it’s consistently stellar and available all over the country. For more than a decade, it has announced to the world that we can make more than just light lagers in the Midwest.
This is not a knock on Minnesota’s craft beer scene, which is one of the best in the Midwest. (See, among others, Surly, Bent Paddle, Fair State, and Summit.) Nor is this is an admitted beer snob trying to be ironic, like the hipsters who got Pabst Blue Ribbon tattoos in the 2000s. Even the most discerning drinker has to admit that there are times, like when you’re fishing, canoeing, or just finished mowing the lawn, when nothing will do but a cold, crisp, straw-colored lager. Unlike PBR or Old Style, this one is still owned by a family brewery, the August Schell Brewing Company, which rescued the 110-year-old brand from bankruptcy in 2002.
When I was growing up, a boy could make some cash picking up black walnuts in the fall, piling them in a gallon bucket, loading them into his father’s truck bed, and selling them at a hulling station. The black stains left on your hands would last longer than the money. This dark wheat beer, rich with hand-harvested walnuts, tastes and smells like childhood to me. And I don’t even have to scrub my hands when I’m done.
It’s one thing to build a beer around a single local ingredient. It’s quite another to source every element—from water to malt to hops—from within one zip code. Especially when that patch of plains is Atkinson, Nebraska, population 1,200. This light-bodied ale comes off the tap at a friendly, neighborly 3.8% ABV.
You can’t make beer without barley. The Peace Garden State was once the national leader in barley production, and it’s still in the top three, behind Montana and Idaho. For some of the freshest flavor on tap in the Midwest, try this easy-drinking four-percenter, made with grain that traveled just twelve minutes from Two Track Malting.
For decades, much of America’s malt has come from farms in the Pacific Northwest.But prior to Prohibition, hundreds of thousands of acres of Ohio-grown barley supplied breweries in Cincinnati and Cleveland. In recent years, farmers and brewers have been working together to rebuild the industry. Ohio-grown pilsner malt meets over 100 pounds of house-baked bread in this 3.3% ABV kvass-inspired sour, fermented entirely with a sourdough starter from the nearby Village Bakery.
We’re a resourceful people.If there’s a single heartland brewing maxim, it’s that you can make booze with damn near anything. Tree bark, beets, allegedly even orchid roots. If you’re stranded in the Badlands, you could even make a beer out of the cactus sprouting from the rough terrain—or you could skip the thorns and call an Uber to Hill City. There, you could order a pint of this dry, bitter, and refreshing prickly pear lager, made from fruit picked in the wilds of South Dakota’s Cactus Flats.
New Glarus’s Spotted Cow is the most popular craft beer in the state, but this sweet, ruby-red sibling tastes more like Wisconsin. Brewed with local wheat and a pound of lip-twistingly tart Door County Montmorency cherries per bottle, the Belgian Red can flex from a white-tablecloth dinner to a tailgate at Miller Park. Like all New Glarus beers, it’s only available within the borders of the Badger State.