Brewing Beer With Jon Vaast Of Dressing Room

James Gribbon

In 2006 Dressing Room restaurant was created as a collaboration between actor Paul Newman and chef Michael Nischan. Both men could fairly be called food policy activists, and their desire was to create what they called a Homegrown Restaurant, focusing on American heirloom food made from local, organic ingredients. Dressing Room's name stems from its location, adjacent to Newman's Westport Country Playhouse, but one of its staff, chef Jon Vaast, was kind enough to invite CTBites into his home instead to show us how the 21st century gent practices the ancient art of home brewing.  

[A note before we begin: as much as I enjoy beer, I had never before actually made it. I enjoy driving, but if I attempted to build an overhead valve engine there would inevitably be sundry and possibly vital bits left lying on the garage floor when I was done. Luckily, brewing has significantly fewer chances to produce flaming wreckage, but I apologize ahead of time to for anything I may leave out.

On this day, we would be making Jon's take on an imperial IPA and, as with human civilization, it all started with grain. Jon had gathered about 20 quarts of Two Row, Victory and Crystal malts. When brewers say "malt", they mean grain, usually barley, that has been soaked for a short time and allowed to partially germinate. This develops the enzymes needed in the process of converting starch into sugar on which the yeast can feed and deliver onto us our precious booze, without which no one could enjoy sporting events, concerts, or that child in seat 7A who screamed all the way from LaGuardia to Salt Lake City. It is important stuff, indeed.  

Jon crushed the grain using a malt mill powered by an everyday cordless drill. In the old days, one would have had to use stones or a hand cranked mill and would have been unable to enjoy the beer they had made because their arms had fallen off. Advantage: 21st century. 

Is your malt thoroughly milled? Right, then - here's what you do next: first, boil five gallons of water and dump in your grain. If you're one of those thrill seeking types, and the process of flaming natural gas converting a cool liquid into a significantly hotter liquid isn't exciting enough for you, you may play with your host's dog. Said dog's name may not be Mischief, as in this case, but he or she will probably appreciate it none the less. As you and the dog are competing in a test of mandibular strength to see who wants this gnarled Frisbee more, you may notice the person contributing to the brewing in a constructive manner has brought the mixture back up to a steady 150º. This is your process of starch conversion, he will explain, and draw your attention back to the task at hand with a bottle of Widmer Brothers Brrrbon Ale. Mischief will become starved for attention and step on your foot, but this is an ale aged in bourbon barrels, and will require time and contemplation as you sip. Contemplative topics may include how your limited span of attention pretty firmly precludes taking on brewing as a profession, since you would be outside losing at tug of war to Mischief while your brewery burned merrily to the ground behind you and be at dinner before you remembered what you were supposed to be doing that day. 

One trick to tell how far the conversion process has come at this point is to take a scoop of the froth off the top of the boil and place it on a white plate. Drop iodine onto the plate and watch what color it turns. If the iodine turns black, there is still starch in the mix and the boil should go on a little longer. If the iodine turns reddish, your starches have been more thoroughly converted into sugar and you are ready for the next step: drinking more of your host's beer. 

"Sparge" and "sparging" are fun words to say out loud, and valuable in Scrabble, but the process of sparging is slowly pouring fresh water over the boiled malt to wash off any remaining sugars. Jon uses an ingeniously simple setup for this stage involving one of those McDonald's coolers usually reserved for the distribution of watered-down orange drink at elementary school field days. His cooler cum lauter tun has been sterilized and purged of any remaining faux-orange products, and has a metal screen at the bottom to hold in the mash. We poured the entire boil, and allowed the liquid portion called wort to flow out into a small tub, following this with another five gallons of water, poured gently over the mash. The wort was muddy with solids held in suspension at this stage, and would have given the appearance of pond water if not for the distinctly sweet aroma, redolent of the grain it had once been. The wort was then recirculated back into the mash, which conveniently acts as filter. The wort draining into the tub this time was much more clear, and had begun to take on the appearance of beer. This clarified wort was brought back up to 170º and held there for a further ten minutes for the purposes of oh look, here's the dog again. 

The wort was boiled again and hops were added at different times to achieve different results. Warrior and Magnum hops were added with 90 minutes left in the boil, because the alpha acids which give hops their hoppiness will be be mostly broken down by the end of the boil, so the only remaining profile from this stage will be their bitterness, which is the point. Jon also added a small amount of cane sugar at this step, just to give the final alcohol content a slight boost. Brewers must make excellent philosophers, because they have a tremendous amount of time to sit and think. Jon and I poured a few glasses from his home kegerator and expounded on such topics as food, the relative ghostliness of various characters on American Horror Story, and zombie home defense, but your mileage may vary. 

With fifteen minutes left in the boil, it was time to add Crystal and Columbus hops for flavor, and a teaspoon of Irish moss, which makes the some of the solids precipitate out of solution, aiding in clarity. Sense of smell is hardwired in the limbic system to feeling and memory, which must be why I found the addition of aromatic Centennial and Simcoe hops so pleasing with one minute left in the boil. 

The finished wort was then removed from the heat and transferred in situ to a cooler filled with ice water until it hit about 70º before the yeast could be pitched. This is done for the same reason a party's host mixes a bowl of punch instead of simply leaving jugs of uncut moonshine in the kitchen: you want your guests partying, not dead. Yeasts, like most living organisms, show a strong dislike to being boiled alive. 

At this point Jon took a reading of the original gravity of the wort using a hydrometer. [] A hydrometer shows you the amount of dissolved solids in an aqueous solution. Pure water will read 1.00 on the gauge and, as you can see, this wort weighed in at a hefty 1.11 because it was an imperial and thus contained a banquet of delicious sugar in which the yeasts would be having their orgy.  

Jon had to use a strain of super high gravity yeast in order to tolerate the levels of alcohol at which this beer would end up, and they were bubbling happily away by the billions in their little vial before being poured with the cooled wort into a large, sterilized fermentation bucket. Pure yeast in this form smells almost like very sour bread, and the wort, pre yeast, tasted like the oddest candy known to humankind. It was cloyingly sweet, but brought somewhat back onto the level by the essence from the hops, which had by that point been strained out. 

The yeast was added, and the fermenter was capped with only a small airlock puncturing the seal. The airlock acts as a one way valve, allowing carbon dioxide produced by the yeast as part of the fermentation process to escape, but keeping outside air from seeping in and possibly spoiling the beer with outside contaminants. Now we were to play the cruelest waiting game of all, as the yeast worked its magic and turned the wort into beer over the next month. I barely have the attention span to finish a meal I've started, and I had imposed my presence on Jon and his wife for long enough that day, so they were spared an additional roommate during this time, but I badly wanted to hit the fast forward button on life and get to the point where we actually drank the fruits of (I can't say "our") Jon's labor. Time then to head out again to a place where I might hoist a pint, knowing it again, and for the first time. 

* This Roman word also gives us the name of one of the most widely studied organisms on planet Earth: Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, or one of the most commonly used yeasts in brewing and baking for thousands of years.