Brewer Chat: Brewpub-ing with Piece's Jonathan Cutler

If you're familiar with Chicago's Wicker Park, then you're probably aware that Piece Brewery & Pizzeria is a neighborhood institution. In fact, you could argue Piece is spreading it's influence plenty outside the North Side. It's built a bit of a reputation. Not just as one of the best pizza joints in the country (proof here), but as home to some of the highest-regarded brews in the nation (we're not kidding). They've got the fanfare, and hardware, to prove it. What you might not know is exactly how brewer, Jonathan Cutler, came to find his home at the brewpub over a decade ago. Nor how incredibly affable and humble this guy is. We sat down to share a few pints with Cutler and discuss the globetrotting that got him here.

 

Can you give us a little background on the space here and how you came to join the Piece team?

Well the space itself used to be an old roofing company's garage. So it was pretty much just a concrete slab. A blank canvas. As for my story, I worked at Goose Island for about 3 years then went on to Sierra Nevada. Matt Brynildson, who was the Head Brewer while I was at Goose, and I stayed in touch while I was out in California. He and I became good friends. And don't get me wrong, Sierra Nevada is just an unbelievable company to work for. They treat their employees incredibly well; and it's one of the most beautiful breweries in the world. But you know, living in Chico, California – it was kind of like my years at SIU – it was sort of a college town. I just kept thinking of how much I missed Chicago. So, talking to Matt, he was like Well, there are some guys here looking to open this pizza place, and it's gonna be a brewpub too. Are you interested? I was like, YES! I'm coming back! And, as far as big cities go, I think Chicago is about as cool as it gets.

So, I talked to the owner here, Bill, on the phone for about an hour one day and don't think I ever even handed him a resume. Matt and I had brewed together so he knew what I was capable of and vouched for me, of course. So I left Sierra and came back. And I've been here for over 12 years.

 

What was your role while you were at Goose Island?

Well, when I was there there were 3 Cellarmen, 3 Brewers, a Microbiologist and the Head Brewer (Matt Brynildson). So, we kind of all did a bit of everything. I predominantly worked in the cellar with yeast handling, dry hopping, fermentation, filtration and stuff like that. Then, when I went to Sierra Nevada I did kind of the same thing. Filter tech out there at that time was really cool. They had just put in a new filtration facility with the double centrifuge. So I got to see some kinda high tech filtration equipment. And we did all of the bottle-conditioning as well. It was a really cool position out there.

But back while I was at Goose, I was working a lot of the 9pm-10am shifts. And at the end of that, it almost drove me batshit crazy. It just screws with ya – your sleep schedule, everything. That part was not fun, to say the least. But I have to say, working at Goose & Sierra on a production brewing level – it really made me a better brewer.

 

It seems like Goose Island often acts as a springboard for brewers. Do you keep in touch with any of the guys who'd worked there?

Yea, Josh Deth over at Revolution was at Goose. Jim Cibak, Revolution's Head Brewer was too. Gary Nichols was in the cellar at Goose while I was there, and he is now Quality Control up at Bell's. John J. (Hall) was there forever, he's down at 5 Rabbit now. And even Phin (DeMink) who is the owner out at Southern Tier in New York.

I was at Goose Island back in '98. And that was back when it was all still on Clybourn. It was a little restricting, not like it is now.

I worked in the cellar for a while, then was talked into managing the packaging line; because there was some shifting within Goose Island. I really didn't want to go to packaging, but it was a step up as a job role, running and managing the line. But, it was a really difficult eleven months, because it was a lot of mechanical stuff. It's one of the most difficult parts of brewing. People who manage packaging generally do it really really well, and are mechanics by trade. I didn't have much experience going into it. But I was like 'I'm gonna try and do it.' And after running that for a bit, the opportunity at Sierra had come up and I jumped at that because I was itching to get back into a brewing role. Making beer.

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Where did your interest in brewing begin?

I'd say it all started back in college, while I was at Southern Illinois. There was a friend of mine who was that kind of the guy who was always just good at everything. So, he'd started brewing, but was adding all this honey and sugar into his beer. It was like drinking cough syrup. So I said I know I can make a better beer than that. It was also around the time that I was starting to get into craft beer anyway. A couple buddies and I would search out different beers, and that was the time when stuff like Sam Adams and Pete's Wicked Ale was on the shelves. But for the most part, craft beers just weren't available in college. So we just thought 'let's start homebrewing stuff.'

 

What was your first homebrew batch?

It was a Rye Pale Ale. And it actually worked out really well. And that was probably the first and last time I remember bottling our beers. I just remember thinking 'this is just awful, this part.' So I saved up for about a year and bought a fridge that we turned into a makeshift kegerator. Some of us ended up brewing so much that we ended up just having a bunch of parties just to empty our kegs – just so we could make room for the next batch.

 

When you were out in California, were you keeping tabs on what was happening back in the Chicago beer scene?

There really wasn't much back here at that time. There was Rock Bottom and Goose Island. That was kinda it. And then Piece opened up. Of course there was Flossmoor Station, Mickey Finn's, and Emmett's around too. And I think Two Brothers was opening. But there really weren't any breweries in Chicago. 

Working at Goose & Sierra on a production brewing level – it really made me a better brewer.

That's such a contrast, to think of it being that way, compared to today. I just read that there are around 50 breweries using Chicago addresses. 

Yea, that's just weird and crazy to think. It was us, Rock Bottom and Goose, and that was really it back then. There weren't really even 'beer bars.' There was the Hopleaf & Map Room, that's it. Others were just starting to open at the time. The last two years has just been insanity in Chicago.

 

What do you think of the brewery boom here in Chicago?

I think it's a good thing as long as they're making good beer. It's obviously impossible to try it all though. You want people to go and have their first craft beer experience to be a good one. I'm stoked for everyone out there who is making good beer and educating the public and getting people into 'good beer.' It's good for the industry. But also, it's kind of weird. I keep using the word 'weird' but it's just unbelievable that all of a sudden it's gone from three to fifty breweries. All of a sudden craft beer just got dropped on Chicago.

 

Yea, there is only so much tap space in the city.

I think that will be were things start to get dictated, or level off. There're a ton of people in the city. But a lot of them are still just drinking Old Style and Coors Light.

 

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Speaking of taps, has Piece ever been on any other taps around the city?

No, not right now. We've never done that. Our problem has always just been trying to keep up with what we need here at the brewpub. When the business plan was written, it was estimated that we would make about 500 barrels a year. And we made 570 in the first year. Then 640, 700, 750 and 1,000...it just kept growing. We've finally leveled off a bit lately and feel like we can breathe a little. Because of that too, we've kind of had to jam everything into tight spots in order to grow the brew space. 

And ya know, one of our most popular beers is the Kölsch style, Golden Arm. It goes great with pizza, and it's kind of a starter beer for a lot of people who are coming here. But, Kölsches take time. Our original idea was to brew a lot of wheat ales or hoppy wheat ales that we could sorta turn-and-burn. But me being the idiot that I am, I went to Cologne and fell in love with the Kölsch style. So I had to have it here. We ended up buying several tanks just to keep up with brewing the Golden Arm. We now have six 15-barrel tanks on this newer side of the brewery. And at any given time, 4 of them are filled with Kölsch. It's our top-seller; after that, it's the pale ales and double pales.

 

We were excited to try the Cold & Wet, which was your collaboration with Half Acre. Any other Piece collaborations?

You know, I was part of a collaboration with Short's, Freedom of '78. But it wasn't really like a 'Piece' collaboration necessarily. That was more a Short's & Half Acre thing. I was kind of the T-Pain in that collaboration [laughing]. And sometimes Matt Brynildson, who's now the Brewmaster at Firestone Walker, will come over and we'll brew together. But then we're spending half the day trying to come up with beer names that give nod to Ween songs too [laughs]. 

 

Piece has won a major beer accolade every year since '02, including World Beer Cup Champion Small Brewpub – which is incredibly impressive. Was that ever a goal for the brewery or just something that happened?

Really it was just kinda one of those things, as a new brewpub, to try and get as much feedback on the beer as possible. And that's what you get at a lot of these competitions: panels of people giving you feedback. So if you sent in an Imperial Stout or an IPA or whatever, you would hopefully get some helpful notes back from the judges that could help you tweak the recipe or process. It's even helped land me the chance to be a judge at GABF and some others. 

 

Do you find that people come into Piece as a beer destination, because they've seen or heard of the recognition? Especially given the brewpub's proximity to the Blue Line and O'Hare commuters...

Yes and no, I guess. When we first started out, and for while really, we would get people in here who were like Oh, I didn't even know you guys made your own beer!. We get a lot of people in here who are just here because of the pizza. But, we do get a lot of O'Hare traffic – 'Piece is right there, let's hop off the L.' And we're near the Map Room too, so it's a good stop for beer folk. 

 

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Can you describe your brewing style? I feel like we haven't seen a 'Piece barrel-aged stout' or anything like that...

We actually do one barrel-aged brew each year. It's our Barrel-aged Barleywine. We can literally fit just one barrel in here. It's on a dolly, I'm not kidding you. As far as stylistically though, I like to make beers that I would wanna have more than one of. I don't mean that in a pretentious way. For example, I've never been crazy about spiced beers or anything crazy. No wits really. No fruit beers. And we just don't have space for things like sours and other stuff. Also, customers are realistically only going to drink one of those anyway. We try and stick to some of the standard styles. 

I had a friend actually warn me once not to make a weissbier. He said 'once you make a weiss, you're never going to be able to stop. You're going to have to have it on tap all the time.' And I was just thinking 'ah, alright, I'll just make one.' So I did, and it sold out before I could even get the second batch made. And I thought 'oh, shit.' So then we made a hefeweizen forever. And then I was like 'alright, screw it, I'm making a dunkelweizen and we'll see if people drink that.'

Was that the Dark 'n Curvy? I feel like I have to shake your hand for that beer. That beer just blew my mind as to what a beer could be, so thank you.

Well, you're welcome! And that was almost kind of a screw-this-I'm-not-making-hefeweizen-anymore beer. And look how that turned out, the customers didn't miss a beat. The only difference was that we didn't see any more lemons on the table. I was just thinking 'oh shit, what'd I do!?' Because those are really hard beers to make on the system we have. 

But yea, so it's just that we like to make traditional style beers really.

I thought, if I make beer that I like to drink, there are probably other people who’ll like to drink them too.

So, we brew our own beer also. What is one tip or trick you would suggest as most important for homebrewers?

Just be clean! Sanitization as a homebrewer is the most important thing. Then I would say yeast starters as the second most important. And third would be temperature control. Those are the 'big three.' Homebrewing is hard, it's just hard to make a lot of styles this way.

 

Alright, if you're not drinking Piece, what's in your glass?

You know, I've really been into radlers. Like Stiegl Grapefruit Radler. It's like drinking a grapefruit soda. I've also really been loving A Little Crazy by Revolution. And also, of course, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The go-to beer. Oh, and also Bell's Oarsmen.

 

If there were no production limits here, what would be the one beer you'd like to brew?

Ya know, I'd really like to brew more lagers. Right now it's something we just don't have the time or space for. So yea, I'd love to be able to screw around with some of those. And also, some sours.

 

Are there any plans to get a facility setup where you could experiment with other styles like this, or just grow the operation in general?

Yea, we've always kind of talked about packaging, or doing another venture. And that's kind of the next logical step – to open another place for a production facility. It would just be too hard to do any kind of production effort out of here. We're just shoehorned in here...

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Thank you to Jonathan for sitting down to a few pints with us. Like many, we can say with certainty that Piece is a must-frequent Chicago staple. And if you haven't already, be sure to swing by on s Sunday for their growler + pizza special. It, of course, does not dissapoint.

You can visit Piece at 1927 W. North Avenue in Wicker Park. And follow their updates in the social mediasphere via Facebook and Twitter.