Malt & Murder: A Beer Centric Mystery Novel
Once in a while, you get to combine a couple of favorite pastimes. Thomas J. Miller let me do just that with a murder mystery novel set during Oktoberfest.
Before the recent pandemic gave him the opportunity to focus on his creative writing, Thomas wrote for several brewing publications. As a homebrewer, you might recognize his name from columns that he penned for “Brew Your Own” and “Winemaker” magazines.
Thomas published his first novel last fall, and was kind enough to submit to interrogation. Questioning. Well, I didn’t grill him under a spotlight, but he did answer some questions.
Image courtesy Thomas J. Miller
Hop: Can you give a little background on yourself?
Thomas: I started homebrewing in 1990 and quickly realized I wanted to get more involved in the brewing industry. I did some "journeyman" style internships at craft breweries, basically just tagging along with brewers and learning everything they were doing. I studied German in graduate school in St. Louis and had the opportunity to spend a year in Munich in 1993, and used that time to seek employment at breweries in the city. I was fortunate to find a paying job and learned a great deal about the German brewing traditions.
When I returned to the States I found employment as an assistant brewer at Snake River Brewing in Jackson, Wyoming and, later, as the salesman for Otto Brothers Brewing Company. At the same time, I began writing for industry publications such as "BrewPub" magazine. My writing career blossomed as I became a columnist for "Brew Your Own" Magazine and its sister magazine, "WineMaker." I also did extensive freelance writing for other beer related publications such as Great Lakes Brewing News and various online publications.
Hop: You’ve written non-fiction for several publications, what drew you to writing fiction now?
Thomas: I "retired" from non-fiction freelance writing for the beer industry about ten years ago. I had to focus energy on my career, family, and kids. As part of this hiatus, I continued to explore the world of beer via extensive travel and hands-on experiences. During this exploration, the idea struck me that beer as a story "hook" would make for an interesting way to fictionalize many of my experiences, and to share that with other beer enthusiasts. I worked on developing the story over the last several years. COVID created a good environment to push this first novel to publication.
Hop: Beer and mystery. Seems like a great combination for a book. What should we know going into the story?
Thomas: Bethany R. Judge is the main character in this book and the series. She retires as a police officer to study beer. She discovers she has extraordinary talent for this work and rather quickly achieves the coveted title of Master Cicerone. To celebrate her new career as a beer expert, she travels to Munich to experience Bavarian beer first-hand. She overindulges at the Oktoberfest and wakes later on a train, only to discover that the person beside her was brutally murdered. Bethany is a suspect and must work to clear her name, discovering along the way that she is entwined in a web that threatens Germany and perhaps the entire world.
Hop: Do you need to be a beer geek to appreciate the book?
Thomas: Not at all! While beer and Bethany's enthusiasm for beer set the stage, "An Oktoberfest Death" explores aspects of German history, German culture, and the Oktoberfest. This first novel in the series draws on the experiences and perspectives of Americans abroad, and sets the stage for subsequent books in the series that will connect more closely to America's craft beer renaissance, American culture, and American history.
Hop: Tell us about your lead character, Bethany Judge. Where did she spring from?
Thomas: For five of my years as a non-fiction beer writer, I lived in Buffalo, New York. I wanted my main character to come from the area because the longer story arc - to be revealed in subsequent books in the series - will connect back to the Buffalo/Niagara region in ways that are not yet evident in the first book. I spent quite some time debating between a main character that was either female or male, and decided on the former because the voice of a female character resonated best for the broader story line and the supporting characters with which she comes in contact. Once I made that decision, the name of Bethany R. Judge just popped into my brain one day. I realized quickly I could have some fun by spinning it into the nickname she receives from the German antagonist she meets in "An Oktoberfest Death".
Hop: Other than providing the reason for Bethany to be in Germany at the time of the crime, does beer factor into the solution?
Thomas: Beer lights each step of Bethany's ongoing journey. It provides the platform to resolve the central mystery of "An Oktoberfest Death" and sets the stage for the next book in the series.
Hop: I’ve just finished the first couple chapters of An Oktoberfest Death, does Bethany pick up homebrewing to compliment her newly minted Master Cicerone credentials? Maybe in a future book?
Thomas: There is no homebrewing in this novel. It could be a consideration for future novels if it fits into the story line.
Hop: In your website bio, you mention that you wrote your first story in German, why?
Thomas: I was in graduate school for German Languages and Literatures. I had the idea to do research about beer in German literature and received support to do research while in Munich. In Germany there are lots of organizations that celebrate beer culture, so I started reading Oktoberfest literature. I discovered an interesting trend in the way the word "Durst" (Thirst) changed in meaning over the years. In the early years of the Oktoberfest, it was literal in its meaning - people got thirsty traveling by foot or wagon to the Oktoberfest. But, in more modern times whereby you could take a train or car to Munich, "Durst" took on a not-so-subtle meaning of intoxication. I prepared that idea for a class I was taking - this was at the University in Munich, by the way, and everything was in German. Students in Germany typically give long presentations on their subject matter and, when I presented it to the class, the professor stopped me about midway through and said, "if you write that down, I'm going to publish it." After that, I worked with his assistant to get everything written correctly in German so that it could be published.
Hop: You’ve been homebrewing for 30 years- what keeps drawing you back?
Thomas: I am absolutely fascinated by the process. I still feel anxiety about making some stupid mistake that could ruin a batch, and I think it is that unpredictability that makes the hobby so much fun. Nothing is guaranteed, even after 30 years. There is also endless room for experimentation and improvisation, so you can continually search out that perfect palate pleaser for yourself. Homebrewing frees a beer lover from the confines of packaged beer, whether you are talking craft beer or mass-produced beer.
Hop: Favorite style to brew?
Thomas: This might read as though I am contradicting my previous answer, but I'm not. I am a traditionalist, preferring to brew Bavarian style beers. In one sense, the reason is simple: they are my favorite beer styles. I have lots of personal connection with them. But on a more practical level, I believe that I can find most any other styles that I might want from a good craft brewery - IPAs, Pale Ales, Porters, etc. But it is really hard to find good Bavarian lagers and Hefeweizens. Why? Because craft breweries operate with real cash flow constraints and simply can't afford the time needed to make really good lagers and really good Hefeweizens. Yes - a Hefeweizen is an ale but the benefits of maturing a Hefeweizen are enormous. With my set up, I can double batch and then ferment and age, where the only time constraint is my impatience about trying my latest beer. The good news is that once you get your brewing/fermenting/lagering/packaging/consuming/brewing cycle down, you discover you can be quite patient.
Hop: I know you make wine as well, so I have to ask: have you made an Oenobeer? If so how was it and would you brew it again?
Thomas: I have not but will look into this one. Thanks for the tip. I'll probably do some small batch experiments to get a pulse on how to be successful.
Hop: I understand you grow your own hops. Do you make a fresh hop beer or dry them for later use?
Thomas: I grow Hallertau hops. I have used them both as fresh hop additions, and dried them for later use. I primarily use my homegrown hops as late addition hops for styles where a bit of hop aroma or flavor is appropriate - a Bavarian Helles is a typical example. I have also used them in Kolsch styles, since some of the Kolsch styles I have had in the Cologne, Germany area have a hop-heavy aroma or flavor. I don't entirely trust my homegrown hops as bittering hops because I can't accurately measure the AAUs, and Halleratau can vary enough to throw me out of style if I guess wrong.
Hop: Any advice for the homebrewer looking to grow their own hops?
Thomas: Do some research about what hop varietals grow best in your region. My Hallertau hops had several successful years, but the summer of 2020 saw a few of the vines struggle. I'll take some steps this spring to hopefully rectify the issue, but I have done some research and worry that it could an issue with the climate where I live and the potential for Hallertau not to thrive.
Hop: Anything else we should know?
Thomas: Reader reviews for "An Oktoberfest Death" have been extremely positive. The current Amazon rating is 4.6/5.0 Stars.
Follow me on Instagram and Facebook @thomasjmillerauthor
My Twitter handle is @TJMillerAuthor
Hop: Where can people find out more about you and get your book?
Thomas: For a signed copy of my novel and to learn more about me, please visit my website: www.thomasjmillerauthor.com
"An Oktoberfest Death" is also available on:
And at my publisher's website, iUniverse: https://www.iuniverse.com/en/bookstore/bookdetails/802215-an-oktoberfest-death