June 17 2015 12:00 AM
Historians may look back on Metro Lansing’s teen years as its Craft Beer Era. Since 2012, no fewer than four craft beer manufacturing facilities — microbreweries, brewpubs and tasting rooms — have opened, with at least three more on the horizon. It’s a rare exception when teens and alcohol are positively associated.

Old Nation Brewing Co. is the latest addition to the bustling scene. Co-owners Travis Fritts and Rick Ghersi opened their new microbrewery in Williamston last week, but the project is no Johnny-brew-lately.

“We would have loved to have done this two years ago, but it took a while to buy the property and get licensed,” Fritts said. “That it opened as others are opening is a coincidence. It’s not important to be the first.”

Any superlative declarations remain implied, but Fritts and Ghersi have the highest pedigree yet of any local beer maker. The duo is part of the team behind the awardwinning Detroit Beer Co., which they helped build starting in 2003. And they’re pros from the old school.

“I’m not coming from another background — I’ve been paid to do this for 15 years,” Fritts said.

Fritts grew up in Dimondale and attended Holt High School. In college, he wound up in Germany, living in Munich on an exchange program. He learned German and studied food science at Berlin Technical University, where he was recruited into the brewing program. It was a risky move to bank on brewing as a career in the States — after the rapid microbrew beer boom and bust in the mid-‘90s, craft beer was far from a formula for success in the new millennium.

“When I came back to Michigan in 2002, the second wave of craft beer was just happening,” Fritts said. “No one was certain if it would bounce back, and that’s what I walked into. It was an open field for brewers to explore and nothing was on the line.”

Detroit Beer Co. was the result of being in the right time at the right place with the right people with the right skills, and the brewery was part of the first round of craft beer success stories. But Fritts missed midMichigan.

“I wanted to raise my kids here,” he said. “This is where I’m from.”

So Fritts nabbed brewmaster Nate Rykse, who was the head brewer at Detroit Beer Co., and headed west with Ghersi, Old Nation’s majority owner. They set up shop in what had been an extended temporary station for the Williamston Police, who finally moved into its permanent headquarters this year. The 22,000-square-foot facility was converted into the microbrewery floor, which will be capable of pumping out 30,000 barrels of beer per year once things get humming. For now, however, production will likely hover around 10,000 barrels.

Fritts said production is already under way for the first batch of Old Nation bottles, which should hit store shelves in Michigan this fall, but you don’t have to wait if you’re thirsty right now. The brewery’s restaurant had its grand opening last week, which features items chosen specifically for the way they complement the featured attraction.

“This is good beer-drinking food,” Fritts said. “We tried to think of eclectic items, bringing things that people wouldn’t think of. Like roasted Brussels sprouts — that’s a (menu staple) for breweries in northern Europe.”

There are seven beers on tap for now, with a goal of 10. The Rykshaw IPA and the Grand Pale Rye each use 100 percent Michigan hops. The Two Crow Stout features two types of Michigan sugar, which has been heavily caramelized to give the beer a not-so-subtle molasses note. Detroit Beer Co.’s signature brew, the Red Dwarf, was also brought in.

“It’s done in the old brewer’s style — the alt style,” Fritts said. “I picked alt beer as my apprenticeship (specialization) when I was in Germany. I like the old style.”

That forward-thinking, backward-leaning mentality also played into the microbrewery’s name. He said he’s talked with his partners about eventually adding a distillery for liquor production — the latest trend in craft spirits, for those paying attention — but for now it’s just a matter of settling in.

“The point is, we’ve been (brewing craft beer) since before it was cool,” Fritts said. “We’re not interested in bandwagons.”

Old Nation Brewing Co. 1500 W. Grand River Ave., Williamston 11 a.m.-midnight daily (517) 655-1301, oldnationbrewing.com

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