By Kathy O’Neill
Like the sports events so often connected to beer, brewing itself is a competitive game. And when Chicago restaurant Piece netted a top prize in April at the World Beer Cup for Champion Small Brewpub and gold medals for its Top Heavy Hefeweizen and Worryin’ Ales, it was something of a Cinderella story for this relative unknown among the titans of microbrewing. But it wasn’t a surprise for those following the career of Piece brew-master Jonathan Cutler.
Cutler developed a taste for quality beer long before he was supposed to—about age 16. At a time when most kids are sneaking Old Style, if anything, Cutler was trying to score German beers. In college, he tried home-brewing, “with horrible results,” but he kept at it and went from making five gallons to twenty at a time. After college, it dawned on him that “people were doing this for a living.”
He enrolled in Chicago’s esteemed Siebel Institute, with its intense eight-week training program. After Siebel, he went to work for Leinenkugel on the packaging end, “to get a foot in the door.” Siebel’s Brewer for Hire program landed him a stint at Goose Island and then at Sierra Nevada in Chico, California. In 2001, he ended up back in Chicago, where he hung his brew hat at Piece, which opened that July. Piece pairs New Haven-style thin-crust pizza with microbrews in a transformed roofing-company garage that includes an onsite brewery.
“Piece does not have a holier-than-thou attitude about beer. It’s more about educating people,“ says Cutler. “If someone wants a Miller Lite, we’ll encourage you to try something similar to that style beer. No one is going to look down their nose at you.”
Seasoned bartender Darcy Tanelian agrees. If someone says, “Gimme a beer, I ask what they normally drink. I try and match the style of what we serve with what they like.” Cutler says that customers like Golden Arm, a homage to writer Nelson Algren. Golden Arm is a traditionally brewed Kolsch beer, similar to a lager, but is a light German ale. It remains Piece’s most popular brew.
Piece has recently expanded its brew house, doubled its fermentation pace, and unlike a lot of the brewpubs of the early nineties, is not going anywhere soon. It serves about 4,000 pints per week.
Despite being immersed in suds, Jonathan Cutler still likes beer. “Whatever I’m not doing, we fill in with guest beers,” says Cutler. Piece has ten taps and twelve bottles of guest beers, such as Three Floyds and Bell’s.
Co-owner Bill Jacobs thinks Piece’s simple approach works. “We’re not trying to do everything. We try and stay focused on what we do. Beer is never going to go out of style; pizza is never going to go out of style.”
Says bartender Darcy, “It’s just beer and pizza. It’s not brain surgery.” But, she adds, “It’s good beer and pizza.”