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Behind the Bar

Jonathan Cutler's Fresh Beer

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Lunchtime diners at Piece, Wicker Park's busy pizzeria and brewpub, occasionally spot a man in in coveralls and rubber boots through the brewery window. "Essentially, I'm a janitor," quips Jonathan Cutler, Piece's brewer, as he hoses out the 217-gallon copper tanks. Much of his job involves cleaning--filters, pumps, three tanks for every batch of beer--but his serious attention to sanitation is critical: the cleaner the equipment, the less likely the beer is to be cardboardy or skunky. "Our beer is ridiculously fresh," he says: Piece goes through a tankful in two to three weeks, faster than most standard beers even get to market.

Cutler, 29, is responsible for keeping seven varieties of beer on tap at all times to wash down the restaurant's signature east-coast-style thin-crust pies. Most of his creations are ales--the refreshing West Side Wheat, the hoppy, extrapale Gentrification Ale, an English ale named Worryin', and the newest in the lineup, J. Diddy's Extra Special Bitter. "An ale can go from grain to glass in two weeks," says Cutler, whereas lagers take more like a month to make. He complements his own selection with a thoughtful list of international bottles, including Belgian, Czech, and Japanese brews.

In college at Southern Illinois University, Cutler did a lot of home brewing. After graduation he moved back to his hometown of Libertyville and worked part-time for a friend who was the brewmaster at Mickey Finn's. "I helped him grain out, unloaded stuff, and just kind of watched and helped out wherever." Then his parents agreed to contribute to his tuition at the venerable Siebel Institute of Technology & World Brewing Academy, on Chicago's northwest side. Siebel, which has been offering courses on such topics as yeast management and brewing microbiology since 1872, gave him a solid foundation. In beer making, says Cutler, "recipes are a dime a dozen, but execution is key."

When he finished at Siebel he worked the bottling lines at the Leinenkugel's plant in Milwaukee, then landed a job as a cellarman at Goose Island. (The cellarman is responsible for sanitizing the equipment, pitching the yeast, and fermenting the wort someone else has cooked up.) There Cutler learned the intricacies of yeast handling (brewers culture and maintain their own yeast strains), dry hopping (a finishing process that boosts aroma and flavor), and carbonation. A transfer to the packaging line clarified his goals: he wanted to be a craftsman, not a mechanic. He moved across the country to specialize in filtration and bottle conditioning for Sierra Nevada, the largest single-location microbrewery in the U.S. Six months later he got the call from fellow Goose Island alum and Piece partner Matt Brynildson about the job at Piece.

"Beer is a social thing," says Cutler. "It lends itself to hanging out and the free exchange of ideas." He promotes this loose alliance by regularly inviting his beer-making buddies to create guest brews. Jim Cibak of Indiana's Three Floyds Brewing Company and Dan Vasa of the Great Dane brewpub in Madison helped him make Piece's very first in-house brew, Prodigal Porter. Nick Floyd (of Three Floyds) helped him concoct Dolomite, an unusual choice since it's a malt liquor, a beverage usually sold in 40-ounce bottles at convenience stores. And recently Cutler and three bartender pals from the Map Room got together to create the "huge" Four Reverends Imperial Stout, a dark, malty brew with a pleasantly metallic tang that tops out at 9.5 percent alcohol (most beers hover around 4 percent).

The beer selection at Piece changes as often as a batch runs out. Cutler chooses his recipes partly according to whim, partly by "what I think people will like," usually offering only one heavy beer--porter, stout--at a time. Meanwhile, he has no intention of shedding his scrub brush and coveralls. In Chicago's notoriously competitive microbrewery market, a consistently good product is necessary for success. "Good beer," Cutler claims, "benefits us all."

Piece is at 1927 W. North, 773-772-4422.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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