A home brewer’s journey from Cali to Vermont at Morena Brewing | Lifestyle

At the Southern Vermont HomeBrew Festival held in Bennington in May, Rutland residents Randall and Beth Contreras brought a few unique beers including a Triple IPA called “Triple Threat” and Golden Stout called “It’s Golden” that wowed many attendees.

Visiting them at their home base, Randall’s love of beer and the path that brought them to the local brewing community of Southern Vermont has given them both poise, contentment and a love for the process.

Randall reminisces that he grew up with Budweiser in the late 80s in Southern California because that was what his friends were drinking. From there he started drinking more of the Mexican beer in Pacifico, Modelo and Tecate. In the late 90s, he moved up to Northern California outside San Francisco. He remembers heading into a pizza place where he asked the waitress what they had on tap. She recommended a Gordon Biersch which Randall had never heard of before.

“I had no idea what it was,” Randall explains. “First glass I drank, I didn’t like it. I was like ‘Oh, man!’ But then as the beer started warming up, I started to eat the pizza and drink the beer with the pizza. And the flavors started changing. And I go ‘How the heck did it do that?!'”

Randall says, maybe a year later, he saw a newspaper article with someone writing about beer. It was talking about a beer class in Fremont, California. For 20 bucks, he says, they would show people how to brew beer. “I took that class and that’s when I caught the bug,” he laughs.

But home brewing comes down to the equipment. Randall mentions buying a burner, a turkey fryer, a stockpot, the buckets, even car boys (glass jugs used as fermentation vessels)…”just the basic stuff to get it going.” He says within six to eight months from that point, he had already started brewing his own beer. But in the first batches that he made, he thought he had done something wrong. He had made a honey wheat ale. He went to Brewmaster in the Bay Area which was the supply ingredient place at the time. Randall asked the person there, Randy Griggs, who is now the head of sales at Delta Pacific Beverage in Stockton, if he could taste his beer so he could figure out where he had erred in his process. Griggs invited him into the back where a local homebrew club happened to be meeting. There was a group of people around two tables.

Randall was introduced around. “And they go, ‘Well, what are you trying to do?’ ‘I don’t know. I think I did something wrong. Can you guys taste it?'” Randall says his beer went around the table. “And they go, ‘What is this?’ I go ‘It’s a honey wheat ale.’ ‘And what do you think you did wrong?’ ‘I don’t know. I just feel that it’s not doesn’t taste right.’ And then they said, ‘This is a great beer! What are you talking about?'”

Randall says what he was missing at the time was what good beer was supposed to taste like.

“The sensories,” he explains. “What you should be looking for in a beer when it is tasted…I just didn’t know.” He said the homebrew club asked him if he wanted to join for 20 bucks a year. They had meetings once a month. “I joined them. And I was with them for 18 years out in California.”

Making beer though for Randall was always just a hobby. But what the homebrew club taught him was how to compete and understand the styles, That way, he says, “you could dial in your beer…and then, pretty soon, you [could] decide what beer you really liked.” Randall was into IPAs and Double IPAs. For those not aware, an IPA is an India Pale Ale, usually heavy in hops. However there are many different styles within the IPA bucket.

Randall says a lot of the clubs in Northern California sponsored other competitions. There was the California State Fair. There was competitions in Santa Cruz, Modesto, even Santa Rosa. Anchor Steam, the famous brewery in San Francisco, also had a California state competition. Randall says he was privileged to be involved there. He did not do any judging but he did do some stewarding. Stewards are responsible for assisting judges during the competition process, and communicating with competition staff to preserve the anonymity of the different beers being judged.

“Sometimes it’s more fun to steward than to judge [at those competitions],” Randall explains. As a steward, “you get to taste [the beers as well] to see what they’re tasting.” Randall says he got to be pretty good at picking up oxidation, which usually contributes to the buttery, creamy flavors in brewing.

Randall says that what made him able to brew beer perhaps came from the fact that he had a highly mechanical aptitude. He was in the automotive industry for a long time in California. In the Bay Area, he worked in hydraulic sales. He says the chemistry in brewing was never his strong suit but he knew the equipment. “I could do the research and try to figure out what I needed. But the chemistry, [it is about] trying to hit your target efficiently. ” Randall says with the paperwork (or actual formulas), that is out the window for him. “I just know if I use this, this, and put this in there, I know what I’m gonna get.”

Beth, Randall’s wife, partner and cohort, watches him in their Rutland basement as he makes a batch of double IPA. “Randall’s kind of a stickler for style. He really wants to stick to the style of the beer.”

The Contreras moved to Vermont in 2021 during the height of the pandemic. Beth, who was originally from Springfield, Mass, wanted to be closer to her parents who were experiencing health problems. With their youngest son just finishing high school at the time in California, it seemed like the right move. Randall was also open to the idea. Even though he had lived most of his life in California, he always dreamed of living in Alaska. In certain ways, Vermont had some similarities. They bought their house sight unseen (except for FaceTime). The Contreras knew they wanted six acres. The bonus is that it had a basement where Randall could brew his beer.

After they moved East, Randall got back to work, making beer. “My first couple of beers here,” Randall explains, “I tossed them out. I thought ‘There’s something wrong here. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.'” He said he went over and over in his mind about what he could have done wrong. Why was the beer tasting this like this? “And then it finally hit me. it was the water.” Randall didn’t want to go through all the PH testing but Vermont water was distinctly different from California water. “We had the best water in California because in San Francisco coming off the Hetch Hetchy…that water was super good,” he explains. He made adjustments and continued making beer in Vermont.

One of the breweries that Randall had heard about in terms of Vermont when he was out in California was The Alchemist in Stowe where they made Heady Topper,. “So I knew of Vermont and their beers. Plus I knew they had a lot of breweries per capita in the state.”

The first style Randall brewed in Vermont was a mild brown ale at about 4% ABV. It was malty and not hoppy but it was before he was able to correct his water situation. “Once I figured the water issue out, I just started brewing.” Then he had a request for a graduation. (To be clear, home brewers cannot sell their beer. They can give it away to family and friends.) The request came from the mom of the graduate that liked an American Hefeweizen whit beer. “She liked that style. So I made one that was light and little citrusy and we took it to Maine [for the graduation].”

Randall classifies himself as a West Coast hophead. Double IPAs are his jam. His next step was to find a homebrew club here, perhaps similar to what he had in California. He was researching the homebrew clubs and festival competitions. He finally saw some activity with Kiev Rattee and his Invisible Mountain Brewing in Manchester. Ratee also works for Brew Your Own Beer Magazine. Randall went to the first meeting of the homebrew club in Granville. There he also met the recently passed Seth Brown, late of Farm Road Brewing in Bennington.

“I think I fit right into this group,” Randall explains. “But they did things a little differently.” At his previous homebrew club, Randall says there was no drinking until they took care of business first whether it be finances, competitions, new breweries or even pub crawls. But Randall also had to understand that he was in a new place. “I mean, we’ve heard multiple times when we moved here that the one thing that Vermonters don’t like to hear is how it’s done in other places. Because it’s presumptuous to come in and think that. So we have to be sensitive to that.”

One of the aspects that Randall introduced was “a vertical” where you taste beers aged from different years. “And what you would do is you sit down and drink a little bit of each one to see how it’s evolved [in terms of] its flavors and aromas and whatnot. It opened up a lot of people’s minds.”

Competitions were the next step in integrating into his new homebrew community.

The Southern Vermont HomeBrew Festival in Bennington, held in May, like many competitions, allows for brewers to get real-time feedback, sometimes from judges but also from the general public. It is only at these festivals that most consumers get access to actually try home brewers, because of the legality of what homebrewing is. While Morena Brewing’s Triple IPA was popular, the Golden Stout caught many people by surprise. “It threw people off. They were all like ‘How can you do this? How do you get those flavors'” Randall explains that he used two different types of yeast as well as cocoa nibs, Madagascar vanilla bean and then regular coffee beans. In addition he used dry malt extract in the mix which he says is more concentrated than the liquid version.

As far as reactions to his competition Triple IPA (“Triple Threat”), Randall remembers one man attending who came to try it. He told this person to “be careful” because of its high alcohol content at 10%. “He took a drink and he’s going ‘Wow! This is really smooth!'” And then, Randall explains, the guy gives it to his girlfriend and says, “Here, honey taste this!” She tastes it and goes, ‘Holy sh-t!'” Randall says her palette perhaps only tasted the alcohol “because as soon as you drink it, you feel it.” Randall was also happy some of the other breweries — his peers — kept coming back to try the Triple IPA.

But prepping for a homebrew festival is not easy. It is a personal venture. It takes planning. Beth explains, “I came to the [last] festival saying, ‘Randall, this is the last time we’re doing this. This is too much work. We work several weekends in a row prepping for it…getting all packed up. But when I got to the festival, I said, ‘Oh, we got to do another one of these.'”

Beth will be trying her hand at brewing next but she is going to try making alcoholic cider. The process for making a cider is slightly different because of the fermenting process. Randall will be working with her on a test gallon. While they could use real apples, they will use Brown’s unfiltered apple cider from the local farmer’s market. To create the cider takes four weeks. They also have rhubarb growing in the backyard so that might be her next endeavor. Randall has also started trying to grow hops in their backyard as well.

Randall says that one of the current trends with homebrewers is that they’re always trying to find the next ingredient that’s going to make their beer better. He himself looks for different things, different ingredients. “But I don’t go out of my way,” he explains. “If I have time and I can do it, I will. If not, I won’t.”

He says like every homebrewer, he has thought of becoming a commercial brewer. He once talked to Pyramid Brewing out of Berkeley about being a brewer. But once when heard how much he would be making, his heart dropped to his feet. He didn’t say a word. He just told them he couldn’t. Randall knew he was making way more at his day job. He also noticed with that specific brewery that their beers had some distinguishable and consistent flavors. There was a consistent house formula that went into all of their beers, which he found out from someone who worked there. Randall likes to make different beers.

Randall says he has not made every kind of beer. Most of the ones he hasn’t tried are lagers because they require specific refrigeration and temperature control. “I can do temperature control but that means I got to take the kegs out of my kegerator and I won’t have beer for several months,” he explains. That could be a problem.

Now having spent some time in Vermont, Randall sees a lot of new homebrewers coming up. He knows the idea of being able to brew beer at your house or home is alluring. Randall says, in his opinion, that he is also seeing that commercial brewing has peaked. Many commercial breweries have started to fold. There is also the rise of the alcoholic selzters but that, he says, is a cyclical path. Zima, as a reference point, was popular for a time as well. But getting into the process itself for new homebrewers, he advises, many times just comes down to financial investment in the craft. “You can ferment almost anything now. I could ferment honey, I could ferment cider. We could even do vinegar.”

Some home brewers can go all in with the most advance equipment but others just starting out will get only the basics. The results can vary depending on the combination of instinct, expertise, equipment and, of course, time.

However, in relaying advice from his years of experience, Randall is succinct: “It would be same advice that was given to me when I first started: enter competitions to see what other judges find with your beer. And also join a homebrew club because that’s where you you’re gonna get your best information from other homebrewers.” He also says what has worked for him is to just keep it simple. “Don’t overcomplicate it. First brew a beer that you can start with, and brew it well before you attempt to do something exotic.”

Morena Brewing participated in the Southern Vermont HomeBrew Festival in May in Bennington.