BRIDGMAN — Chris Betts is responsible for the most well-attended dog birthday party each year.
There’s a mural that dominates the back wall of Transient Artisan Ales that defines what the Bridgman brewery and Betts – the owner and head brewer – have become known for.
The mural, which was finished in time for the release of “Canuckley,” depicts a wild-eyed dog spewing vines of hops from its mouth. The dog’s name is Buckley. Betts, and his now fiancé, rescued the real life Buckley and have celebrated the dog’s birthday each year with a new beer.
“We originally made a beer named after my dog four years ago,” Betts said. “Since then, we release another version of it for his birthday.”
After brewing the original “Buckley” – which is an imperial breakfast stout with hints of maple and coffee – Betts created “Bark Lord” (similar to the original, only it contains cinnamon). Soon after that came different iterations such as “Kentuckley” and “Canuckley” – all aged in different barrels.
The releases for these beers have attracted sizable crowds leading to lines that extend around the block of Lake Street in the heart of downtown Bridgman.
The first time Betts released the beer, he donated a portion of the earnings to Hopeful Tails Animal Sanctuary – the shelter where he found Buckley.
“It went really well,” he said. “It was our most well-received beer. We were picked as a Top 25 Beer of the Year by some big beer publication. Now we make a big event of it on his birthday.”
These birthday parties bring out animal and beer lovers alike.
After that first year, Transient began donating proceeds from Buckley’s birthday parties to the Humane Society of Southwestern Michigan.
Betts in the beginning
Before opening his operation in Bridgman, Betts was more of a gypsy brewer who specialized in saisons and farmhouse ales.
He got into homebrewing in college with some friends while attending school in Missouri.
“In Missouri, you can buy homebrewing equipment when you’re 18,” said Betts, who is now 32. “It was kind of a loophole for us to drink and make really terrible beer.”
While his friends got bored with the craft, Betts – who grew up in Lansing, Ill. – chose to refine his newfound talent. He began bartending at a South Lyon, Mich., brewery and worked his way toward the brewing side of the operation.
With some commercial brewing experience under his belt, Betts worked for another brewery in Lansing, Ill. After one year, the brewery’s owners allowed Betts to use their facility to brew beer that would become the staple of Transient. When Transient began, Betts said they would only make saisons and oak-aged sour beers.
“It was mostly this membership program that we did. We were pouring at all these events. People liked the beer, but we made so little of it that we couldn’t sell it to all liquor stores,” Betts said.
Brewing in Bridgman
Betts would visit his girlfriend once or twice a week, which meant passing through Southwest Michigan on his way to and from Illinois. Those frequent trips were where he often passed by Bridgman.
The Southwest Michigan region proved to be fruitful for Betts’ endeavors. The first barrels he used to produce his beer came from Tabor Hill Winery.
Betts kept coming back to Bridgman in search of wine barrels every couple months. This pushed him to look for property in the area.
“It was kind of natural to look in this area,” Betts said. “It was a big draw for us because our focus is sour beers.”
Betts said a unique method they do involves using a fermentation vessel known as a coolship. The unfermented beer is brought out hot, poured into the vat where it cools down over night. During that period of time, whatever is living in the air – yeast or bacteria – falls in and innoculates the beer. This process is known as spontaneous fermentation.
Transient beer gets a large following on weekends for this reason.
“You get something that’s completely unique to whatever area you’re in,” Betts said. “These beers are best when you have the healthiest yeast colonies where there is a lot of fruit production.”
As part of the fruit belt, Bridgman was a big pull for Betts. The assimilation came easy for Betts, who has been a Bridgman resident for the last three years. Betts is originally from a small town and said he feels right at home in Bridgman.
“We were a little worried at first because of the stigma that comes with beer,” Betts said, “I think it helped that we were actively investing in the area and were interested in being here.”
Big on dogs
Not a lot of people know that Buckley was named after musician Jeff Buckley.
When he was young, Buckley (the dog) was considered to be a handful, Betts said. That’s why the dog’s mural depicts him barking with hops protruding from his jaws.
Betts and his fiance´ recently adopted a second dog, named Juniper. Betts said Juniper will be getting a beer of her own as well. Since they got her in August, they may hold the release then.
Because Juniper likes to howl, Betts said they might introduce a second mural of their newest addition to the family – only she’ll be howling instead of barking.
Transient allows dogs in its taproom, which was something Betts had in mind when they opened. To do so meant no kitchen for the business.
“Our idea from the bat was to be dog-friendly,” Betts said. “I worked in a lot of restaurants that later failed and that’s just not an industry I wanted to be involved with.”
What might have been
Betts went to school for marketing and management, but strayed from those vocations because of the timing of his college graduation.
His original plan was to work for his parents and take over their cabinetry business. But the housing market crash and recession meant no job prospects for Betts in 2008.
He would eventually spend a year and a half in Costa Rica, where he taught English and math to area natives.
“After I realized I wasn’t going to take over my parents’ business, I realized this is what I wanted to do,” Betts said in relation to brewing.
Having taught in a foreign country, Betts now finds himself out of the country five to six times a year as a guest at beer festivals. These trips can last up to 10 days. His most recent trip included back-to-back festivals in Norway and Denmark. He’s also been to Sweden and Iceland this year.
“It seems like every one we do gets us invited to another one,” Betts said. “There’s a lot of interesting beer in Europe. I never expected we would be invited outside the U.S. to do festivals.”
With the brewery’s expansion at the rear of the building completed, Betts said he plans to enjoy what he and his staff have accomplished in Bridgman.
“We like the size that we are at,” he said. “We don’t have any intentions of brewing a ton more and distributing a lot. I don’t like the idea of our beer being distributed across the country, let alone the state. We like our taproom and having people come here to experience the beer.”
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