I realize that Piece can be a tough place to spend much quality time, especially if you’re old and cranky and prefer to be able to talk to people rather than hollering at their ear holes from point-blank range. (I like loud bands, not loud bars.) It’s a noisy cavern of a restaurant, and its multitudinous flat-screen TVs attract yahoos who like to yell at sports in groups. But here’s the thing: Piece also runs a damn fine brewery. Maybe pick up a growler to go?
New evidence for the quality of Piece’s beers arrived on April 11, when the World Beer Cup announced its 2014 winners from Denver. The WBC is held every two years, in a different city each time; if you haven’t heard much about it, that’s probably because it’s an industry event, overlapping with the Craft Brewers Conference, rather than a big public party like the Great American Beer Festival.
Piece has been winning WBC medals since 2002, the year after it opened, and this time it took home a pair—gold in “American-Style Pale Ale” for the Weight (with 122 entries, APAs were the second biggest of the 94 categories, exceeded only by American-style IPAs with 224) and bronze in “Australasian-Style Pale Ale or International-Style Pale Ale” for Marketing Ploy (Ballast Point‘s Sculpin won gold). That brings Piece’s WBC total to eight, plus a Champion Small Brewpub and Brewmaster award in 2006. The brewery has also racked up 13 GABF medals—including a silver for the Weight in 2012.
- Jonathan Cutler and I both realize that what he’s doing is an obscene gesture in the UK. Here, however, it’s the Piece sign—as distinct from the peace sign.
Piece brewer Jonathan Cutler has been with the restaurant since before it opened. He got his start in the business working part-time at Mickey Finn’s in Libertyville in the mid-90s, then took classes at the Siebel Institute, which helped him land a job at Goose Island’s Fulton Street brewery, where he stayed for about three years. (You can’t swing a dead cat in the craft-beer world without hitting a Goose Island alum.) After a brief stint in California working for the even more venerable Sierra Nevada, he got a tip about the position at Piece.
Cutler devised the recipe for Marketing Ploy in 2010 with his friends at Three Floyds, but it’s not brewed in Munster—he uses Piece’s seven-barrel system (seven barrels is about 220 gallons, in case that helps you picture the scale). The Weight, on the other hand, is entirely Cutler’s doing. He first brewed it in spring 2012, after Levon Helm, beloved drummer and vocalist for the Band, died of throat cancer. Helm played and sang on “The Weight,” and though it wasn’t a huge hit in the States when it came out in 1968, it’s since become a favorite of fans and critics; Pitchfork named it the number 13 song of the 60s in 2006, and it’s number 41 on Rolling Stone‘s 2004 list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
Cutler says he made the Weight an American-style pale, not an IPA, to honor the Band’s quintessentially American music. Entirely by coincidence, I met him at Piece to review the Weight on April 19, the second anniversary of Helm’s death. I could smell the beer as soon as Cutler walked into the room carrying a glass of it—its aroma is almost alarmingly bright and lush. It’s got mango, peach, and tangerine at its heart, jasmine and cut grass at the edges, and hints of pine, milk caramel, and white pepper underneath everything else.
- Piece won two World Beer Cup medals in 2002, the first competition year it was open—and it’s kept up a solid record since.
I spent quite a while just enjoying the experience of inhaling over my glass—eight times out of ten, the taste of a delicious-smelling hoppy beer is a letdown by comparison, and if that were going to happen with the Weight, I wanted to postpone it for as long as possible. Fortunately this beer is equally full and juicy on the palate, though the flavor emphasizes different elements: the fruitiness here is more like cantaloupe, dried apricot, raspberry, and pineapple, for instance. The malts come through in a way they can’t on the nose, reminding me of a toasted biscuit with honey, plus maybe a little burnt toffee. The bitterness isn’t chalky or harsh—think ruby red grapefruit and young juniper. The Weight finishes dry, despite all its fruit, with a soft, pleasant mineral astringency. And it’s an entirely reasonable 6 percent alcohol, so you don’t necessarily need to stop with just one.
This is a beautifully balanced APA, not an attempt to weaponize hops—it avoids what Cutler calls “tastes like burning” syndrome (yes, that’s a Ralph Wiggum joke). He favors accessible, down-the-middle beers, with an emphasis on broad appeal and quality craftsmanship, and he’s been hitting them out of the park at Piece since long before Half Acre, Revolution, Metropolitan, and Haymarket existed—Josh Conley at Serious eats calls him “the Neil Young of Chicago brewmasters.” Maybe the best part, though, is that the Weight isn’t priced or hyped like a world-class APA—it costs $6 for a pint, $18 for a growler, and you can walk in and have one right now.
I’d be remiss not to say something about Marketing Ploy, since I had a little glass of that afterward. (If I hadn’t been biking, I would’ve made it a proper double review.) It’s dry and toasty, with a lot of grapefruit and cedar, and it gets really interesting in the finish: herbal and resiny, almost oily, with a flavor almost like garlic chives.
Six other Illinois beers won WBC medals too, and most of them are available in Chicago: 5 Rabbit’s 5 Lizard (bronze, Fruit Wheat Beer), Cheval Deux by Horse Thief Hollow (silver, Field Beer or Pumpkin Beer), Two Brothers‘ Domaine DuPage (gold, Belgian- and French-Style Ale), Devil’s Thumb by Rock Bottom Orland Park (gold, Belgian-Style Pale Strong Ale), Triptych’s Dirty Hippy (silver, English-Style Mild Ale), and Haymarket‘s the Defender (gold, American-Style Stout).
Now, the songs. It’s not metal, of course, but I’m pretty much obligated to post the Band’s version of “The Weight.” (It’s been covered roughly a zillion times, perhaps most significantly by Diana Ross & the Supremes with the Temptations.)
You’re not getting out of here without a bit of the devil’s music, though. How about “When the Sun Drank the Weight of Water” by Finnish death-metal weirdos Demilich? It’s from their sole full-length, 1993’s Nespithe—and if you think those toilet-belch vocals sound weird now, imagine what people must’ve made of them 20 years ago.
Ten years ago Isis were one of my favorite bands, and on their 2002 album Oceanic they had a song called “Weight.”