Until spring of this year, Old Nation Brewery’s cofounders wondered if they hadn’t overbuilt their 18-month-old brewery. Travis Fritts and Nate Rykse had confidently set out on their own after more than a decade at other breweries including Detroit Beer Company and Royal Oak Brewery, but their 23,000-square-foot brewpub began to feel like hubris. The pair was focused on turning out traditional, mostly German-style beers like an altbier, a hefeweizen and a weizenbock, but consumers weren’t responding as well as they’d hoped.
“We brought three multiple Great American Beer Festival- and World Beer Cup-winning beers into this brewery and nobody cared,” Fritts says. “I struggled for the first 18 months, really making these exacting, hard styles that we felt like no one cared about.”
Everything changed in April, when Old Nation begrudgingly brewed a New England-style IPA called M-43. On the popularity of that style alone, the brewery’s production has increased tenfold, and Fritts says he plans to increase that by another 50 to 75 percent by November. The success of M-43 has generated an entire series of juicy IPAs that’s taken over the brewery’s production schedule, elbowing out the original altbiers and hefeweizens. Old Nation cranks out 200-300 barrels of M-43 alone each week.
Fritts didn’t see it coming. When Old Nation began to hear word of these newfangled haze bombs months back, he and Rykse were decidedly not interested in brewing them, period.
“When Nate and I started Old Nation, we were so sick of making IPAs. We said ‘We finally have our own brewery, we never have to make an IPA again if we don’t want to,'” Fritts says. “We came in saying we don’t like disco beer, and disco beer is New England IPA, watermelon-and-cucumber gose and pastry stout.”
But Fritts couldn’t ignore the online chatter about these popular, juicy and cloudy IPAs that dominated the Michigan craft beer enthusiast groups he “lurked in” on Facebook. Every day, he’d check back to see more discussion about them and more speculation about how they’re brewed. As misinformation (“voodoo stuff”) swirled about NEIPA brewing methods, Fritts finally had to chime in.
“I jumped in and said ‘Why don’t you guys come out and we’ll make one of these beers and I’ll show you.”
Now that he was committed to brewing one of these IPAs, at least on a small scale, Fritts had to do his research. He’d graduated from brewing school in Germany; Rykse had graduated from the technical brewing program at U.C. Davis. Both were obsessive about technical brewing, which is why they’d been so skeptical of these hazy IPAs in the first place. They knew that if they were going to attempt one, they needed to know everything about its ingredients and the methods required to brew it as empirically as possible.
They began by learning all they could about biotransformation, or what happens to hop-derived chemical compounds when they come into contact with yeast during fermentation. It’s an emerging area of research, and the Old Nation duo got shoulders-deep in internet digging, microscope-gazing and discussion with other breweries working in this realm.
They discovered that the haze in many of the NEIPAs they’d slapped under their microscopes wasn’t just a result of particulate hop matter or suspended yeast, but a combination of lipids from oats in the grain bill; proteins from the barley and wheat; and hop oils. All that combines and biotransforms to create a haze that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
“Once we reached that conclusion, now that we knew this, we thought, ‘OK, this is going to be fun.’ We’re not just sort of casting about trying to make a hazy beer with a lot of Citra hops in it; we know what we’re doing,” Fritts says. The chemistry nerd in him had finally found a reason to be interested in brewing this style. “For technical brewers like Nate and myself, scaling up this New England IPA and making it consistently was its own fun. We had hated this style so much on principle that we had to find something to love about it.”
So, armed with a plan, Old Nation welcomed the Detroit-area beer enthusiasts from Facebook for a brew day. The second batch of the resulting beer became M-43, and it’s birthed Old Nation’s series of NEIPAs that also includes Boss Tweed, Boxer and Green Stone. Fritts says that M-43 is characterized by a silky and pillowy (but not chewy) mouthfeel owing to soft water mineral additions; citrus, mango and papaya aromas; and malt that’s there for body but is largely absent flavor-wise. He also throws around the term “pilsnerlike” when talking about it, which has to be a first in the history of the super-cloudy style.
“People think I’m crazy when I say that,” he admits. “But the way we conceive of processing it and what it should do in terms of drinkability is not unlike a pilsner. The bitterness shouldn’t prevent you from drinking deep in this beer, just like it does in a pilsner. It’s firmly bitter at 65 IBU, but that doesn’t really come across because of that soft mouthfeel. That 65 behaves a lot more like a 35- or 40-IBU pilsner; it’s really drinkable. Your first sip is like a quarter of a glass.”
But a pilsner it is not. Fritts hasn’t had much time for brewing those, or altbiers, or really much of anything else since M-43 hit draft lines and cans. All of Old Nation’s eggs are firmly in the hazy IPA basket now, but Fritts doesn’t see that as a risk. He sees his IPAs as “approachable, drinkable” beers that, contrary to what others might believe, can appeal to the drinkers way beyond the beer-geek, Facebook-beer-group set.
He also says the brewery’s learned valuable lessons from this 180-degree shift in its thinking: namely, that successful breweries listen to their customers and engage them in the process. The several thousand members of the Michigan craft beer group who originally encouraged Old Nation to make a seven-barrel batch of M-43 now feel a sense of ownership in that beer, and in the brewery’s success.
Fritts hopes that dialogue and education will continue past the success of M-43 and will help him turn Old Nation into what people in Michigan want the brewery to be. He’s not too worried about hazy IPAs being a freak lightning strike of success, either.
“It’s not to negate that this might be a huge fad and people might not be interested next year or next month, but ultimately I’ve been brewing for 16 years, I’ve seen a lot of this come and go. It’s not the only beer I know how to make.”
Fritts wants to keep his finger on the pulse of drinkers’ tastes and preferences while teaching geeks a thing or two about technical brewing in the process. Maybe he’ll even get them to appreciate German lagers?
“We’re going to continue to have the conversation about the validity and importance of traditional styles not just as beers that are great to drink but as context for why people are making the beers they’re making now,” he says. “And we do want to get enough tanks in here to do pilsners and altbiers again.”