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Libations/Best Brewers

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Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery

1035 Sterling, Flossmoor

708-957-2739

Piece

1927 W. North

773-772-4422

Jonathan Cutler, the brewer at Piece, faced stiff competition in March's World Beer Cup, where there were 540 breweries from 56 countries and more than 2,200 beers being judged. But his Top Heavy Hefeweizen beat out 69 other hefeweizens (including many from Germany) to win in its style category, and Piece itself was named best small brewpub.

Then last month Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery, located in the far south suburb of Flossmoor, beat out Piece and scores of others to win best small brewpub, the most competitive category, at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Flossmoor brewer Matt Van Wyk also took a gold with his Black Wolf Schwarzbier and a silver with his Pullman Brown Ale. In the experimental category, his Angry Mike's Stoudt Creek, a stout aged on tart cherries in an oak barrel, beat out Samuel Adams Utopia, which sells for upwards of $100 a bottle, to take another silver medal.

Cutler and Van Wyk, both 34, got into the game through home brewing and went on to attend Chicago's Siebel Institute of Brewing Technology. Cutler enrolled after graduating from Southern Illinois University ("best seven years of my life") and worked for Goose Island and Sierra Nevada before Piece opened five years ago. Van Wyk arrived at Siebel after leaving a secure career as a high school science teacher. After graduating he worked at the suburban microbrewery Two Brothers and the now-defunct Firehouse brewpub in Morris.

So if their beers are so good, why aren't they bottled? "A lot of people have misconceptions about how hard it is to do," says Van Wyk. A bottling brewery has to deal with production, storage, distribution, and promotion, but a brewpub only has to roll the beer over to the taps. "It's a totally different business," says Cutler.

The concept seems more popular in the suburbs, where there are around 20 brewpubs, than in the city, which has just four. In part that's because zoning for brewpubs is stricter in Chicago and the competition among bars is far more intense. "Brewpubs have a very bad track record here," says Cutler. "One of the reasons we've been successful here is it's not a cookie-cutter brewpub."

Piece, Chicago's only New Haven-style pizzeria, became famous after employing cast members of MTV's Real World in 2002, and it plays down the brewpub angle. The crowded, high-volume space doesn't have any visible brewing equipment. "We get people who come in and say, 'I've been coming here for a year now and I didn't know you guys had a brewery,'" says Cutler.

At Flossmoor the huge copper brew kettles gleam just inside the front door. The quiet brewpub's housed in the historic Flossmoor railway station on the Metra's Electric Line, a 45-minute ride from downtown Chicago. Lately Van Wyk's noticed more customers from the city, who inevitably ask him where a person can buy the beer in Chicago. The answer's nowhere, of course. But both brewpubs sell refillable half-gallon growlers.

In December and January, Flossmoor Station will be adding a series of different barrel-aged beers to their standard tap selections, including the award-winning barley wine Wooden Hell. Meanwhile Piece is now pouring a new dunkelweizen, or dark wheat beer, and will soon be offering "nondenominational Christmas beer," as Cutler calls it, a Belgian ale cheekily named Festivus.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.

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