Chris Betts quietly goes where the wind blows. Transient Artisan Ales’ founder/owner is soft-spoken and unassuming, which is respectable considering the stirring buzz his beers conjure.
He has kind, yet seasoned eyes, his hair is a little messy, and his beard is longer than his girlfriend would prefer. His clothes are relaxed and mismatched—a cross between Sunday-lounging on the couch, and a neighborhood pickup basketball game. However, I’m not sure he has much time for either. Trying to keep up with Transient’s demand since opening his Bridgman, MI brewery and taproom just over one year ago as a one-man show seems like enough to provoke perpetual exhaustion. His rubber, waterproof boots, however, are a dead giveaway that here is where he’s comfortable, and belongs.
Betts brewed his first batch of beer at 19, as a sophomore at Truman State University, in Kirksville, MO. “You weren’t old enough to legally drink, but for whatever reason there was some loophole [in the law] where you could actually buy the ingredients to make beer at 18. And, we made some really terrible beer.” After graduating in 2008, and a handful of failed attempts to get his foot in the industry, Betts moved to Costa Rica to teach math. He lived there a year-and-a-half before deciding he’d wanted to give [brewing] another shot.
Originally from McHenry, IL, Betts found his way back home, and caught a break. He spent the next couple years moving up the ranks. After serving and bartending at Two Brothers Artisan Brewing, then commuting from the Chicagoland area to brew at Witch’s Hat Brewing Company and Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, he finally reestablished his roots in IL. As a precursor to the Transient we know today, Betts started gaining traction and a following for the beers he brewed under a licensing agreement as a tenant brewer at One Trick Pony, Aquanaut Brewing, and Hailstorm Brewing Co. For the OGs who’ve followed him the longest, Betts still has beer aging in barrels from over a year ago at Hailstorm. You’ll taste it, eventually. Although unsure of to what degree he’ll be able to continue to guest brew at his old stomping grounds, “I still enjoy doing it for the people who supported me from the very beginning,” he says. However, if he’s being realistic about continuing to supply his fans in IL with new Transient releases, he’s fairly certain that he’ll have to eventually succumb to a distributor.
In order to fully execute on his long-term vision for Transient, Betts chose Berrien County for his brewery’s permanent home for a very specific geographical reason: yeast and bacteria. His proximity to vineyards and their adjacent fruit farms, which lace the air with these naturally-occurring, evolutionary diverse microorganisms “was a perfect fit for what I wanted to do.” Betts’ focus has always been on fruited sours, barrel-aged saisons, and spontaneously-inoculated beer, despite the unexpected popularity of two of his most popular beers. Buckley, Transient’s’ 14% imperial breakfast stout, gnawed its teeth into DRAFT Magazine’s Top 25 Beers of 2015, and The Juice Is Loose, a hazy 8% Double IPA, had traders gushing for it across beer forums.
Modeled after Lambic pioneers in Belgium, Betts has a coolship outside behind the brewhouse where he tries to capture Mother Nature floating through the air, working her unpredictable magic. “We try to do it as traditional as possible,” he says, while not shy about experimenting when nature or resources allow. Betts just packaged a portion of the first 10 batches (i.e. 40 barrels) yielded from his coolship, brewed in 2016. The first bottles will be plain, unfruited, unblended. That doesn’t mean they’ll be average. This summer, he intends to transfer a couple barrels onto cherries, raspberries, and maybe blueberries. The remaining barrels, he expects, will age for two to three more years before he blends them into a Gueuze.
Shortly after opening in April 2016, Betts knew he needed reinforcements. He employed his girlfriend to manage the 49-person capacity taproom, and recently hired Brendan Williamson as assistant brewer. “He’s definitely on the same wavelength with what we do. He’s really talented,” Betts says of Williamson. Having only just passed their one-year anniversary, Betts isn’t blind to what it’s going to take to maintain Transient’s early momentum with stouts and IPAs, which now account for about half of his annual production, due largely in part to Buckley and Juice’s unexpected popularity. Initially, he thought, “Shit, now what? Now we have to brew a lot of it.” He could release Buckley once a month, “but it wouldn’t be as special.” He’s embraced the reputation, but affirms, “You can’t change everything you do based on demand. At least, we don’t want to.” His first love, his wild ale program, demands equal, if not more attention. So, he’s expanding operations to better accommodate both.
With the goal of being operational by this summer, Betts will be moving all of his clean beer production to a new facility directly behind Transient’s current brewhouse, which will remain exclusively for sours and saisons. The expansion will also allow for better quality control, helping prevent cross-contamination between the two methods, and make way for more storage of bottles conditioning. And, if Betts is lucky, enough space to navigate his forklift a full 360° without risk of toppling any of the hundreds of barrels aging patiently in their oak room.
Over the past year, Betts has crafted an impressive, ever-rotating lineup of eight beers on draft in the taproom. The catch is that they don’t last very long, so don’t assume what’s posted on Transient’s website is accurate. This spring, Betts will be adding three new options to the taproom lineup: a coffee on nitro, a homemade soda, and a revolving test batch of beer. Proudly, Betts doesn’t subscribe to mainstays. Rather, he’d prefer to offer a variety of styles. “We don’t ever plan to have that beer that we always have on. That’s not what I like about brewing. It’s a little boring. This keeps people on their toes.” Betts acknowledges, “Our menu changes really fast. It’s a constant that nothing is, that we’re always putting on something new. That’s the best part for me. I don’t want to be a shift brewer who comes in and has to brew an IPA for eight hours.” Betts did hint though, that he may have a dozen or so IPAs envisioned on his docket that could drop at any time.
If you you’re looking for their bottles and cans on store shelves, don’t hold your breath either. You’ll burn a tank of gas chasing them. Their current retail distribution footprint includes only six accounts in the Lower Peninsula: HopCat Grand Rapids, The S∅vengård, Craft Draft 2 Go, Cultivate, 8 Degrees Plato, and for those disappointing hours when Transient is closed, Sawyer Garden Center as a relatively close second chance. There’s also a single location in the U.P., Jack’s Fresh Market, in Menominee, as a nod to Williamson’s hometown, delivered by him personally whenever he makes the trek up north.
For any old school loyalists or recent admirers, don’t get too comfortable. Betts is flipping the script on his Reserve society to further reinforce more value for walking through his door regularly rather than visiting once a year to collect an entitled bottled allotment. Expect the program to evolve, soon. Even though Transient is expanding their brewhouse operations with a second on-site facility, that won’t necessarily translate into more beer. He started the subscription membership program long before the current taproom was open. At that time, he was only able to release one barrel of beer at a time, which meant there was an easily calculable, yet exclusive finite yield. That made capping the number who had access to it a shortlist of only 250 people. “We wanted those dedicated fans to have the opportunity to get it without having to wait in line, have to trade for it, or buy it online. I’m not a fan of people reselling beer.” The last time he checked, Betts says there’s “close to 1,000” on the waiting list to join. Dear, those people: You could be waiting a while.
Moral of the story: Visit the taproom.
Photography: Steph Harding