Beer Odyssey revisited

Last month’s “Beer Odyssey” was serious fun, and I was especially satisfied that we had covered every single one of Washtenaw County’s brewpubs – until someone innocently mentioned, at the end of our second and last night, and just before deadline – that the Blue Tractor brews beer on site as well.

Three visits and an interview with brewmaster Tim Schmidt later, I’m a huge fan. Tim is cranking out some seriously well-crafted beverages out of a tiny space in BT’s basement. It’s perhaps understandable to miss the brewpub aspect, given BT’s primary emphasis as a BBQ joint, with a bar/restaurant feel to it much like its commonly owned partner, Grizzly Peak. But there, above the bar, are the familiar chalkboards—featuring six beers at a time, three regular and three rotating.

Tim has been brewing for about ten years, starting as most did with homemade concoctions, and then actually attending a “Brew School,” the Seibel Institute in Chicago, where he earned an Associates’ certification. He was subsequently offered the head brewmaster job at BT, where he’s been ever since.

Like many brewers, Tim has a laid-back personality, and doesn’t mind that his work is mostly done in isolation. He enjoys the process from the “smells to the final product,” as well as the “sense of accomplishment” when he’s perfected a brew. He is a self-described “beer geek” who personally loves his IPA, stouts, and Belgian ales, while producing his lagers mostly for the casual drinkers.

Having said that, Tim recently labored many months perfecting a lager he named after his baby daughter Olivia, called Liv’s Lager, with both the color and scent of oranges, and sweet Belgian candy sugar mellowed by the high alcohol content (9%). I felt an instant kinship, thinking of my own daughter Olivia, as I savored its long, delicious finish.

I also loved the Hopicidal Maniac IPA, and must reluctantly confess that I’m acquiring a taste for aggressively hopped beer. It’s made with just one hop varietal (Citra), but what a varietal. Tim describes it as having the characteristics of many citrus and tropical fruits, but to me the grapefruit flavor stood out. It’s clean, balanced, not too bitter, and with a smooth finish.

Perhaps my favorite was a flavored beer, the Schakolad Weizen, a 70 percent wheat beer with 10 percent chocolate malt, courtesy of the 25 lbs. of handmade European style dark chocolate from BT’s neighbors at Schakolad Chocolates. Despite the dark color, this beer is surprisingly light bodied, exceptionally fragrant from the chocolate. Its taste is clean, crisp, and not too sweet, with a luscious mouth feel and a satisfying hop tingle at the finish. This beer won a silver medal through the Beverage Tasting Institute.

A gold medal winner, the powerful Sudworth Bock, paired beautifully with the BT’s spicy BBQ dishes. The emphasis on hearty and differently styled BBQ dishes makes the Blue Tractor a unique standout in the brewpub world, and not to be overlooked in the local craft beer scene. Now I know why the two beer geeks from Ohio, who were sitting next to me on one visit, made a special trip to the Blue Tractor as they toured several brewpubs throughout the state of Michigan.

Beer Odyssey postscript

A comment to the online Beer Odyssey got me thinking. It was a criticism that the article was not serious, and that our panel was not sufficiently credentialed as beer geeks. I thought, geez! I have 15 years professional restaurant, wine, and bartending experience. A professional chef was on my panel; someone else who teaches beer and wine classes; three home brewers. And the others had well-rounded experience and discerning taste. But not all of us were beer “experts.”

Beer tasting is not a secret. It’s mainly paying attention to what you’re seeing, smelling, and tasting. A little education goes a long way to help people articulate those sensory perceptions. The brewmasters and owners we met on the Odyssey helped us immensely in this regard.

Right now the best part about the beer world is those very people. I don’t want the two-tiered snobbery of the wine world. What I love about beer is that serious drinkers mix with casual ones, enjoy the same products and have fun. I don’t want that to change.

I asked Tim how he struck a balance. He acknowledged it was challenging, with “more beer geeks than not in our community,” but believes he is able to “keep the beer geeks entertained” while also providing well-made session beers for the casual BBQ crowd.

Like Tim, my article tried to balance both worlds. I think we did that pretty well – with something for both serious and casual beer drinkers. Everyone is welcome at brew pubs. Let’s keep it that way.

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