Transient Artisan Ales: Crafting Michigan Wild Ales Alongside Hazy IPA
On a warm Saturday afternoon in May 2017, a line snaked out the door of Transient Artisan Ales and down the main drag of sleepy downtown Bridgman, Mich., a city of about 2,000 residents located in the southwest corner of the Mitten State. The crowd waited for hours to purchase Kentuckley Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout and a couple of other limited releases.
The turnout was a testament to the popularity of the small brewery that set up shop in town just a year before in April 2016. It was also a sure sign that owner and head brewer Chris Betts, who honed his skills as a gypsy brewer for three years in Chicago, had finally found a home.
To Betts, opening a small taproom in the Michigan town, less than two hours from Chicago—when traffic cooperates—made perfect sense. The area includes an abundance of wineries and breweries (Tapistry Brewing across the street was already a popular spot) and in the summer a sizable hoard of vacationers from Indiana and Illinois invades the idyllic region for its scenery and its beaches.
“It’s really beautiful out here,” says Betts. “We’re right on the lake. Because it was near all of this fresh, local fruit, we thought it would be a better location for our main focus, which is spontaneous beer. There’s nothing really that we make a lot of, but the thing I’m most interested in is the spontaneous beer, what we call a Michigan wild ale. We have a coolship right behind our building and [during] late fall [and] early spring we do as many batches as we can.”
Bringing oak-aged Saisons and wild ales to small-town Michigan was far from a sure thing. Only two of the many breweries in the area—Arclight in Watervliet and The Livery in Benton Harbor—were making similar beers when Transient opened. The response has been positive, though, and Betts hasn’t shied away from pursuing the styles and making them well. A production room stacked to the ceiling with dozens of oak barrels and several large oak foeders signals that there’s plenty more wood-aged beer to come.
“Truthfully, I don’t think we knew what to expect,” says Rachel Weisner, Betts’ girlfriend and the face of the taproom. “We were hopeful that people would be open to the style of beer that Chris set out to do. I think [the reaction] has been above and beyond what we thought was going to happen. When we first opened, the menu was mostly sour beers. The response, and how open people are to trying everything, has been great.”
Betts’ aptitude for brewing wild ales was recognized at the 2016 Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago. Transient claimed a gold medal in the Wild Beer/Brett category with Agnitio, a collaboration with Chicago’s Hailstorm Brewing, and it also took third place in the Wild Beer Sours with Fruit category for Foeder 2: Electric Boogaloo with Apricot.
Windy City History
Popular, standard styles aren’t what Betts is about, and they aren’t what got him noticed. A handful of funky Saisons earned early acclaim for the young brewer who burst onto the Midwestern scene at the 2013 Goose Island Belgian Fest with a creative lineup of farmhouse-style ales including Obelus Galaxy, an oak-aged Brett Saison dry hopped with Galaxy. Chris Quinn, a Siebel Institute Master of Beer Styles and Evaluation who owns The Beer Temple in Chicago, recalls the early buzz around the boundary-pushing brewer.
“That’s when Chris Betts became a known entity to anyone I knew in the beer world,” says Quinn. “Betts just blew everybody out of the water. I thought it was really cool how he was doing rustic Saisons, sour Saisons—those were really hard styles to pull off, [and] I was surprised time and again when he was making these nice, subtle, nuanced mixed-fermentation beers. I made sure to keep an eye on what was going on with him.”
Betts officially started the cleverly named Transient in August 2013, moving his brewing operations around Chicago. He sold his brews through a membership program and had a few accounts at bars in the Windy City.
“I brewed out of three different locations,” says Betts. “It was frustrating. One of them had four other breweries operating there, so we were all using the same equipment at different times, and you’re on everyone else’s schedule. We always wanted a taproom. That was always a goal. The gypsy brewing was just a way to get to that.”
The Obligatory Pale Ale
While it was well-crafted Saisons and wild ales that earned Transient early recognition, Pale Ales have changed the course of the brewery. Soon after opening, Betts released the aptly named Obligatory IPA. Hazy and juicy, this Pale Ale—and a few others that followed it—have brought comparisons to New England heavyweights like Trillium and Tree House.
“[Pale Ales] certainly expanded our audience,” says Betts. “Initially, we just wanted a single tap and single tank dedicated to Pales, IPAs and Double IPAs.” But after consumer demand for the hoppy styles skyrocketed, Betts decided to begin packaging the beers to free up the bar staff. “Then, when cans started running out in a weekend, we knew we needed to add more tanks or we would never have anything hoppy on,” he recalls. “The demand just kind of got out of control for our expectations, though we always had planned to offer something in that area because I love light hoppy beers, but also because we didn’t want to alienate a majority of craft beer drinkers.”
Despite the style’s popularity with customers, Betts manages to keep a diverse lineup on tap at Transient’s tasting room. On a weekend in late January, for instance, its seven taps were pouring two IPAs, two barrel-aged Saisons, two Imperial Stouts, and a Pilsner.
Success Leads to Growth
Transient’s quick success in Bridgman led to the construction of an 1,800-square-foot building behind the taproom in late 2017, bringing its total square footage to 6,500, with roughly 1,000 of that devoted to an often-bustling taproom that holds around 75 beer drinkers. “The expansion, I hope, allows me to bring my focus back to the beers I am most passionate about, like Saisons and sours, while giving the clean fermentors their own area that they need,” Betts explains.
In early 2018, Transient continued its creative use of ingredients by brewing Power Nap!, a chamomile and coffee Imperial Oatmeal Stout. But it’s the long-awaited release of spontaneous beers that should drum up excitement. Earlier batches of the temperamental and time-consuming brews, which take anywhere between one and three years to develop, should be ready for blending.
“We are entering our third year of spontaneous production, so this year and next we will finally have the option to blend between different batches and different years,” Betts explains with excitement. Expect to see some of these wild ales released in the spring, and don’t be surprised if they’re highly sought after.
Distribution is another piece of the growth puzzle. Late in 2017, the Transient delivery Prius was still making the trip to eastern Michigan to drop off beer at a few accounts in the state. Late last year the brewery signed a distribution agreement with independent Chicago-based distributor Heartland Beverage, and began making limited shipments to Illinois. Judging from the sizable amount of Cubs hats in the crowd at the Kentuckley release last May, there are more than a few beer drinkers ready for Transient to return to its roots.
“I think Chicago is a big fan of Transient and Chris Betts,” agrees Quinn of The Beer Temple. “They’d certainly love to have more of it. Plus, I think a lot of people consider him a Chicago brewer. When he was doing his gypsy stuff it was all here. I think if he were to expand anywhere in a more broad sense, certainly with some of his Pales, I would only see his acclaim growing. I think once people have his beers they really dig them.”
2 20-barrel conical fermentors
1 30-barrel conical fermentor
3 10-barrel stainless totes
1 10-barrel oak open-top fermentor
3 7-barrel fruiting tanks
5 4-barrel fruiting tanks
3 30-barrel oak foeders
4 10-barrel oak foeders
160+ oak wine barrels
80+ bourbon barrels
Obligatory IPA: A hazy, juicy IPA with a hint of bitterness from Citra and Columbus hops. 6.7% ABV
The Juice is Loose Imperial IPA: This New England-style Imperial IPA offers a bright burst of passionfruit and citrus hop flavor with no bitterness. 8.0% ABV
Buckley Imperial Stout: A big, rich Stout brewed with vanilla, coffee, and maple syrup. 13.5% ABV
Maigre Berliner Weiss: Highly effervescent and acidic with flavors of lemon and green apple, variants of this beer are aged on fruits like Michigan cherries, raspberries, and cranberries. 3.0% ABV
Foeder 2 Wild Ale: A moderately tart and decidedly drinkable oak-aged wild ale made with Michigan fruit. 5.5% ABV
Ardent Saison: A slightly funky barrel-fermented farmhouse ale with a hint of tartness. 6.0% ABV ■