Transient Artisan Ales makes slow beer that sells out quick

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Transient founder Chris Betts with some of the barrels in which his beers acquire their special qualities
  • Transient founder Chris Betts with some of the barrels in which his beers acquire their special qualities

As much as it must suck to make beer that nobody cares about, making beer that rivets the attention of bottle-trading nerds comes with its own aggravations. Count yourself lucky if you've never seen a full-grown man whining like a spoiled child in an attempt to guilt a brewer or shop manager into parting with a small-batch bottle that's reserved for someone else.

The expensive and interminable rigamarole of the Dark Lord Day bottle line is one way for a brewer to cope with demand that far outstrips supply. But most craft-beer producers don't have the staff or the infrastructure to take that route, even if they want to. Chris Betts of Transient Artisan Ales runs a subscription service instead, in part to help ensure that his most loyal customers get their fair share.

I first encountered Transient at Goose Island's Belgian Fest in September 2013, three months before Betts finished his first batch for commercial sale. The Transient Facebook page had only existed for a few days, and the fest was the first time any of the brewery's beers had been tapped in Chicago. "Insofar as you give a shit about anything I say on the topic of beer," I wrote, "I hereby implore you to try everything you can find from Transient."

Transients corner of the Aquanaut brewing floor, with motorcycle for scale
  • Transient's corner of the Aquanaut brewing floor, with motorcycle for scale

At that point Betts also brewed at One Trick Pony in Lansing, just over the Indiana-Illinois border from Three Floyds' home in Munster, and Transient sublet that facility. He's since quit that job (One Trick Pony is making do with one brewer instead of two), and now shares the Aquanaut space in Bowmanville, just a few blocks from the huge new Half Acre complex. He still has beer, barrels, and other equipment at One Trick, but he's doing no further production there. In January he made his first batch on the Aquanaut brew house, where he pays a portion of the rent as well as a per-brew fee.

Betts specializes in what he calls "modern farmhouse ales," which get much of their character—usually a little sour and funky, to use the most generic possible terms—from the traditional but almost extinct practice of barrel fermentation. That is, he ferments his beers in used wooden barrels rather than stainless-steel vessels, and because he can't sterilize the wood, the unique colony of wild microscopic beasties inhabiting each barrel contributes a distinctive flavor. (Barrel aging, like what Goose Island does to its Bourbon County stouts, happens after fermentation.) If you've had anything from Side Project in Saint Louis or Jester King outside Austin, you probably already know (in a broad sense) what barrel-fermented beer tastes like.

Of course, Transient keeps a few things in a back room too.
  • Of course, Transient keeps a few things in a back room too.

This is a risky and time-consuming process, not least because a barrel's motley crew of yeast and bacteria can get unruly—unlike with deliberately cultured brewer's yeast, you can't be exactly sure what you've got or what it'll do. Betts says his consistency from batch to batch has been pretty good, but his beers spend a minimum of four months in the wood—whereas a typical pale ale brewed in stainless can go from brew house to keg in less than three weeks.

Once fermentation has progressed to his liking, Betts generally needs another month or two for bottle conditioning—adding a bit of yeast and sometimes sugar to a packaged beer, so that the ensuing brief burst of fermentation will carbonate it. That activity also consumes excess oxygen, which helps his bottles age well. Betts launched the Transient subscription service in June 2014 mostly because he needed up-front money from his dedicated fans to mitigate the financial pressures on his brewery during this protracted process.

A note about bottle-conditioned beers: Rough handling can mix the yeast sediment at the bottom of the bottle into the liquid, and those tiny particles provide abundant nucleation sites for dissolved gas to emerge as bubbles. If for instance you shop for beer by bike, like I do, I recommend you let that yeast settle back out for a day before opening your bottle. Unless you want the beer to froth up and pour itself all over your arm as soon as you pop the cap.

I reminded myself of this by prematurely opening an unlabeled bottle of Transient's gose, Salarium, last weekend. At least I was on a friend's back porch, where nobody cared much about the mess. It's one of the brewery's handful of beers fermented in steel, but it's definitely bottle conditioned.

How classy is Beer and Metal? I photographed Transients Salarium gose on a forklift pallet.
  • How classy is Beer and Metal? I photographed Transient's Salarium gose on a forklift pallet.

Salarium is 4 percent alcohol and uses a nontraditional saison yeast along with lactobacillus, the customary souring agent. Betts also left out the usual coriander, though he kept the salt (otherwise it wouldn't feel like a gose). The grain bill is mostly wheat and barley, with a bit of oats and aromatic malt; a small dose of clean noble hops provides balance without announcing itself. Transient released the only previous batch of Salarium late last summer, but this one is better timed for warm weather. When it hits the market again in mid- to late June, it'll go for seven or eight bucks for a 500-milliliter bottle.

Salarium's delicate aroma is earthy, floral, and briny—I smell seawater, dry clover, sun-warmed terra cotta, and maybe touch of sour yogurt. Betts loves the Westbrook gose out of South Carolina, and like that beer, Salarium has a relatively aggressive sourness and saltiness on the palate. It's prickly, zingy, and tart, with lemon, peach, and a whisper of sour cream atop mild, biscuity grain. Its acidity makes it simultaneously astringent and mouthwatering.

I also tried Transient's first imperial stout, Buckley, which is a hefty 12.7 percent alcohol and sells for about $8 per 375-milliliter bottle. It's made with vanilla, maple syrup, and Dark Matter's Unicorn Blood coffee (just as Dark Lord has been for the past two years). Betts drops the beans into the fermenter whole, not ground, because he finds the alcohol in the beer an effective enough solvent for extracting their flavor. Still, he says, "It made a huge mess."

The bottle is plain old Buckley, but my glass is full of Bark Lord from an unfinished keg.
  • The bottle is plain old Buckley, but my glass is full of Bark Lord from an unfinished keg.

A variant called "Bark Lord"—Betts's dog is named Buckley—adds cinnamon too. The sample I had from a keg at the brewery was technically Bark Lord, but the cinnamon had been steeping for only a couple hours, not the days it needed. Buckley is also fermented in steel, as is Transient's porter, Henry; right now they're the only two beers Betts doesn't bottle condition.

Bark Lord has a beautiful, roasty-sweet coffee-vanilla aroma so intense it'll make you dizzy. Its body is hugely silky, and residual sugar masks the beer's booziness—though I do pick up a tickle of cinnamon heat. I can taste coffee, chocolate, and pecan praline, but my favorite thing is probably the powerful note of buttery black walnut. Betts says the middle-colored malts he includes in the recipe contribute flavors of bread, nut, and caramel, but you'll notice only the last two.

Any similarity to the artwork in Where the Wild Things Are is entirely intentional.
  • Any similarity to the artwork in Where the Wild Things Are is entirely intentional.

I didn't want to write about Transient without reviewing a barrel-fermented beer, so I asked Betts for a bottle of Brutus, a sour spelt saison brewed in collaboration with Fountainhead chef Cleetus Friedman. (It's available in 500-milliliter bottles for $13.99 at Fountainhead's new market.) Despite its burly name, Brutus is a perfectly reasonable 6.4 percent alcohol; it smells of apricot, white wine, vanilla, caramel, wet hay, and leather. After that mellow aroma, though, it hits your tongue startlingly tart, with a juicy acidity like underripe peach and pineapple.

Brutus is sour enough that I have a pretty tough time drawing a bead on the other flavors—it's not overbearing, at least to my palate, but it's not a beer for somebody new to wild ales. With a little patience I can pick out almond, milky oatmeal, and the barest hint of toffeelike sweetness. Thankfully the sourness has its own complexity—it develops an aftertaste of strawberry vinaigrette and rosé wine as the beer warms. Would Brutus have mellowed into newbie-friendliness with more time in the barrel? And would that have improved it? I don't know nearly enough to say. But I realize that Betts has to balance the need to let each beer rest on wood for as many months or years as it wants against the need to sell something to stay in business. Though the bottle I got was brewed on June 19, 2014, Brutus has only been on shelves for a couple weeks.

I reviewed Brutus at home, so as not to take up Bettss entire afternoon.
  • I reviewed Brutus at home, so as not to take up Betts's entire afternoon.

On the subject of selling things: Transient subscriptions last six months and cost $185. Betts says he has 220 members now, and those folks get first crack at signing up for the period that starts next week. Around 180 people are on the waiting list already. You can join them whenever you like by filling out the form under "Transient Reserve" on the brewery's website.

A subscription works a little like a CSA membership: you assume some of the risk of an unpredictable yield, and your sign-up fee gets you one bottle of every beer Transient finishes during that span (a minimum of six liters but in practice usually eight to ten large bottles). Betts also throws in a T-shirt, a bottle opener, a couple of glasses, a handmade bottle carrier, a 750-milliliter growler and one free fill, admission to two bottle-allotment releases (really more like large private parties), and the first chance to buy extra bottles of "reserve" beer at retail. This is pricey stuff, no two ways about it, but if you have a craft-beer problem, ask yourself—do you already spend $15 or more on a big bottle of something boutiquey every two or three weeks? Because discounting the perks, that's basically what a Transient subscription amounts to.

(I can't drop that kind of money on the regular, which is the only reason I don't have a subscription myself—Lord knows I love Transient's beers. This also seems like the place to mention that Betts didn't charge me for anything I reviewed, bless his heart.)

Labels for Cherry Pentameter and Apricot Ardent
  • Labels for Cherry Pentameter and Apricot Ardent

Transient plans to increase the size of its subscription membership in six months or so, when some of the bigger batches enabled by the move to Aquanaut are finally ready to drink. Betts thinks he can probably double production in the new space. Right now he has 12 four-barrel puncheons (in this case a "barrel" is about 31 gallons), four bourbon barrels filled with Buckley, and 26 mixed barrels (whiskey, wine, or apple brandy) for sours and farmhouse ales. The whiskey and apple-brandy barrels are 53 gallons, while the wine are 60. Many have yet to leave One Trick Pony.

That might sound like a fair amount of capacity, but remember how long the beer has to stay in them. Transient managed a total output of about 250 barrels its first year (where "barrel" equals 31 gallons again), and it might hit 400 to 500 this year. Betts wants to double that, but he'll need a lot more wood than he has now.

When you bottle from an open-topped wine tank, you need a really big napkin to keep bugs from falling into your beer.
  • When you bottle from an open-topped wine tank, you need a really big napkin to keep bugs from falling into your beer.

Transient's other gear includes three 190-gallon steel tanks, which can be fermenters but currently serve as fruiting tanks (the fruit's sugars, plus any useful microorganisms on its skin, kick off a secondary fermentation). Betts also has a 160-gallon open-top wine tank at Aquanaut, which was his original vessel at One Trick Pony (two more are still there); it's covered with a large piece of fine netting that his sister-in-law's grandmother made, which allows air to circulate but keeps out bugs and debris. Betts likes to package his beer from these tanks, since bottle conditioning means he doesn't usually have to worry about force carbonation.

At this weekend's bottle-release party (at Betts's request, I'm not saying anything too specific about when and where), members will get a variety of goodies, among them the lambic-inspired Cherry Pentameter, the sour brown ale Betise, and the wild saison Sporadic No. 3. Buckley won't appear in the subscription boxes; some of it's already been sold at retail during Craft Beer Week, and a few more bottles will be available to the general public through the Beer Temple on Sunday, though you'll have to get in line behind any interested Transient members. (No Bark Lord yet, alas.)

Coming soon: Four bottled versions of Maigre, including blackberry
  • Coming soon: Four bottled versions of Maigre, including blackberry.

Salarium will be the next big batch to hit stores (on my visit, Betts was aging a version with mango and guajillo chiles), followed by several versions of the Berliner weisse Maigre: plain, blackberry, cranberry, and blueberry-apricot. Only about 20 percent of Transient's total production gets set aside for subscribers, so it's worth keeping an eye out.

I realize I'm making these beers sound prohibitively difficult to buy, but Transient does have several regular retail accounts, including not just the Beer Temple but also Capones, Moreno's Liquors, the Beer Cellar in Glen Ellyn, and the Armanetti's at Grand and Western (where the beer buyer is a member). You can also drink Transient beers on draft pretty reliably at the Bad Apple, the Green Lady, the Village Tap, and Links Taproom.

In April, French band Chaos Echoes released their debut full-length on Nuclear War Now!—a bizarre album of loose, churning, almost static death-doom called Transient. This made it pretty easy to choose some metal to sign off with.

I think Aquanauts speakers are made from dead mens chests. Yo ho ho, et cetera.
  • I think Aquanaut's speakers are made from dead men's chests. Yo ho ho, et cetera.

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