“Like a lot of guys in the industry right now, I was a longtime homebrewer who probably got told incorrectly that his beers were so good he should sell them to people. It was a terrible way to go about opening a brewery without having any commercial experience before,” says Triple Cossing’s Cofounder and Head Brewer Jeremy Wirtes.
His path to professional brewer aside, Wirtes is a humble yet ambitious brewer who, alongside partners Adam Worcester and Scott Jones, launched the small but potent brewery back in 2014.
It was the advent of Virginia bill SB604 that paved the way for them, allowing them to operate a taproom without operating a food-service business as well. For Wirtes, the opportunity was “now or never.”
“It seemed if we were going to do something, that would be an incubator way to start doing it,” he says.
Wirtes and his partners saw a unique opportunity in the Richmond market to focus on hops-forward beers that were not necessarily in vogue with the city’s drinkers at the time.
“The brewers in town at the time weren’t focusing on hoppy beer—the scene as it is now was in its infancy at the time—and I thought that was something we could do on a small scale, do it right, and not package beer to start with because that was something that really made me nervous and still does to this day,” says Wirtes.
Figuring It Out
While they started with a very conventional beer plan, “an overall yeast change to our entire profile happened early on,” says Wirtes. “We’d started making hoppy beers, and some of the earlier iterations of Union Jack from Firestone Walker were a big influence on our IPA side. A lot of New England IPA, despite the clarity issue—English ale strain, tail-end dry hopping, you name it—that beer’s almost an archetype for how a lot of those newer beers are made today.”
Their attempts at a new-school British-inspired IPA were hampered by fermentation issues as a result of their Fullers-type yeast strain. Instead of tweaking, they tried wholesale change, switching things up to California ale yeast. But Wirtes still wasn’t happy.
“They just weren’t what I wanted. I thought we had gotten something from the ester profile of the British strains, so I went back to the drawing board and trialed them out.”
This was late 2014, however, and “hazy” was still a new and unproven concept. “The beers were turning out hazy, and while I wasn’t necessarily all that freaked out about it, we were biofining early, but it seemed as if we were deadening them in some way. It just didn’t have that same raw ripping character as when they’re fresh and young.”
Ultimately, they ended up with the same solution that inspired New England brewers such as Trillium and Tree House—a hazy yeast strain that left the beer cloudy, but intensely flavorful.
Doing More with Less
Relative to other hops-forward brewers, however, Triple Crossing didn’t have the luxury of riding on the backs of the hops alone.
“We had to make hoppy beers with the hops we could get. Citra and Mosaic didn’t come along for us until about a year or so in.”
Necessity being the mother of invention, Wirtes took stock of where they were in hops contracts and their ability to procure new varietals. Rather than going all-in on a strategy of new and hot, he instead refocused on some lesser-known varietals that would let them stake a claim on taste and nuance. The bold strategy worked, and Triple Crossing was on the map. Still, there was no resting on laurels.
“All of these beers are constantly evolving,” says Wirtes. “I think that’s a common thing with most of us who are making a couple thousand barrels of beer per year.”
The way homebrewers use hops is significantly different from the way that commercial brewers view them. While homebrewers can tear open 6-ounce bags at near abandon, the 11-, 22-, and 44-pound bags (5-, 10-, and 20-kg) that professional brewers use are significantly more restrictive while being similarly expensive.
“We’ll open bags of hops we spent a lot of money on, and they are not that great,” says Wirtes. “Those will go into the whirlpool if they need to. Or if we’re not super-pumped about the Galaxy we’ve gotten, and that’s happened, then Vic Secret is not a bad way to go to blend in and get that Southern Hemisphere pineapple. You can’t just do it one for one, but it’s nice to be a little more flexible.”
Variety Is the Spice of Life
As professional brewers who spend significant amounts of money on their raw materials, the brewing crew at Triple Crossing has to be both efficient and nimble. Things don’t always work out as planned, and they’ve developed a brewhouse-wide strategy for coping with unexpected results.
“With Mosaic, if you open a bag and get a bunch of diesel and some of that big hit of evergreen, in a mid-fermentation dry-hop, that gets driven off. Or you get more of that deeper blueberry and grapefruit resin rather than just straight pine and diesel,” says Wirtes.
Dry Hop Early
Wirtes and team are firm believers in the power of an early dry hop.
“With mid-fermentation dry hop, a lot of hops seem to get a little bit rounder. You might lose some of the punch,” says Wirtes. “I’ve had Citra beers from us and other brewers, and they can be wildly different despite using similar processes and yeast strains. It begs the question ‘Why?’ Are they getting a different crop than we are? Are they dry hopping at a different temperature? When does that all come into play?”
Their dry-hopping strategy is early, but not necessarily as extreme as some other brewers. They typically start at 1° Plato (.004 SG) from finishing gravity, and the method is one they describe as “all the kids in the pool”—straight in from the top of the tank, no recirculation or pumping.
They load in from the top of the tank, don’t worry about oxygen at that point (since the beer is still fermenting), and let that go for 3–4 days at 68–72° F (20–22°C). Then they drop the hops and any latent yeast out of the tank and dry hop again with the same varietal mix.
Their program does vary a bit based on hops varietal. They get such intensity out of Mosaic, for example, that they don’t have to double up on those as much as with some other varietals. Nonetheless, Triple Crossing is devoted to a process of continual iteration and testing and have been “tweaking all algorithms on the fly.”
Getting Comfortable With Gravity
It was a challenge for Wirtes to be cool with the concept of IPAs that finished with relatively high gravities. On paper, the beers seemed like caricatures. In the glass, the beers tasted delicious.
“We fought this for a long time. In my head, I couldn’t stand it,” says Wirtes. “It drove me nuts. But then I would taste them, and I was happy with them. They sound sweet on paper, but then you have one, and they just don’t feel that way. They feel plush; they feel full, delicate. No matter what the final gravity and hydrometer are saying, our palates and minds are telling us that this is what we want them to be. So we’ve let that be what it is.”
Still Wirtes is relieved that their vision for beer resonates with their local market, and that there are customers for the beer they want to make. Their goal is not to make “straight juice,” but to express the flavors of the hops themselves. Yeast character is important, but it shouldn’t be over-the-top or overshadow the flavors in the individual hops they utilize. Each beer should be a different expression of the flavors within the hops used.
“We got lucky—what we want to make on the hoppy beer side is what’s selling really well. If people don’t like hoppy beer tomorrow, we’ll be in hot water.