Beer lovers, rejoice! It’s a great time to be alive! This could have been a headline in 1890s Chicago when our town was one of the biggest producers of beer during the late 19th Century. And lucky for us, history repeats itself. Today we are in the midst of the greatest beer producing period in American history. Walk in any direction and you’ll undoubtedly find a brewery within half a mile. As a historian, it’s fun to think about how the past influences our present. And as a beer historian, it’s pretty special to reflect on recent beer history.
In thinking about the modern era of Chicago beer, there are certain breweries that were true pioneers. Piece Pizzeria & Brewery (1927 W. North Avenue) opened in Wicker Park in 2001, at a time when the city of Chicago had only one other brewery (waves at Goose Island). A brewery in Wicker Park may have seemed novel 16 years ago, but 116 years ago, not so much.
After the Fire of 1871, the area of Chicago now known as Wicker Park was inhabited by wealthy European immigrants, most hailing from Germany and parts of Scandinavia. When Charles and Joel Wicker purchased the land, they created a lovely little park that was surrounded by monstrous mansions that were built by the beer barons who resided in the neighborhood. Stroll down some of the side streets for prime examples of Victorian style architecture that dotted Chicago’s landscape during the late 1800s. For miles and miles this now popular part of town was also home to vast amounts of farmland that eventually became homes and apartments, industrial spaces, art studios, or random businesses.
The history of the location where Piece now stands is no exception. The bow-truss building that houses Piece is a left over from the 1920s. Both the exterior and interior offer a glimpse into the area’s history – large spaces that could have served as stables, warehouses, and in this case, a car garage. That garage remained in place up until the pizzeria/brewery opened its doors. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the area became somewhat rundown, dirty, and untouched. The neighborhood also saw various ethnic groups, bohemians, artists, and musicians come and go.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Wicker Park (and Bucktown) saw some positive change, much of which was made possible by those aforementioned artists and musicians that helped pump money back into the district. Literary fans flock here to see the streets that writer Nelson Algren once roamed (Piece’s Golden Arm is a tribute to the scribe). Hometown favorites like Liz Phair wrote Exile in Guyville about Wicker Park and John Cusack co-wrote the adapted screenplay and filmed High Fidelity in the neighborhood because of the booming alternative Wicker Park music scene. New investors and businesses, like Piece, continued to help this part of West Town grow and have made it a hoppin’ place to be.
Prize-winning Beer: Racking in the Medals at World Beer Cup & Great American Beer Festival
In a way, Piece’s approach to pizza, beer and community is an extension of what came before. But let’s talk beer because clearly they do it well. That beer you enjoy is courtesy of brewer Jonathan Cutler. Just take a sip of staples like Top Heavy Hefeweizen or Full-Frontal Pale Ale. Throw back a few seasonal favorites like Festivus or The Weight and you’ll know why Jonathan and Piece have won 27 medals at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. Piece was even the Champion Small Brewpub at the 2006 World Beer Cup. If all that prize-winning brew weren’t enough, they have this pizza too.
Bill Jacobs — Owner of Piece — on Deep Dish vs. Thin Crust, Brilliant Beer Minds & Connections to the Classic Rock Band, Cheap Trick
There’s more to Piece, besides the phenomenal food and beverage offerings, that draws me there. Is it the hungry and happy vibe? Is it the diversity of the crowd? Is it the fact that there’s some rock ‘n’ roll history also connected to the place? What is it? I decided that the best way to get insight into Piece would be to let owner, Bill Jacobs, tell us about his place.
LG: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get from XYZ to owning the best darn pizza brewpub in Chicago?
BJ: I was always entrepreneurial as a kid, loved food, and to make a long story short, headed to Chicago after graduating college with a loan from our parents–from a second mortgage they took out on their home–with my brothers Andy and Pete. Chicago was the perfect market, without bagels downtown. We built a chain of bagel stores, Jacobs Bros. Bagels that operated from 1983-1999, when we were bought out by Big Apple Bagels. Like bringing great bagels to Chicago, a city bagel bereft in 1983, I had always thought about bringing a great thin-crust pizza, like that which I enjoyed when I grew up in New Haven, CT. There was plenty of deep dish pizza to be found here, but no great thin-crust pizza.
In 1997 I was approached by then Goose Island brewer, Matt Brynildson, encouraging me to keep him in mind if I ever consider creating a new concept. I remember the moment vividly. He and I were playing in an ultimate Frisbee tournament in Hyde Park. Matt walks over to me with a Goose Wit beer and hands it to me. I drink it and he says, “we can make this.” And that was where it all began. Matt was instrumental in developing the brewing component of Piece and the hiring of our award-winning brewer, Jonathan Cutler. Jonathan attended Siebel and worked for Matt at Goose.
LG: Speaking of Jonathan, the beer at Piece is a pivotal component of the business and clearly adored – the medals speak to that. What’s the beer development process? Do you come in and say, “I’m really into mulberries and Oreos right now, how can we make that into a beer?” or do you just leave the creative genius up to Jonathan?
BJ: Jonathan has complete control over the beers produced. He’s brilliant with his beers and he’s also an awfully good marketer as you can see in the names of his beers. He make award winning beer and you can’t argue with his success and our approach.
LG: Given the popularity of Piece beer, will you ever package or distribute?
BJ: We cannot bottle or keg our beer on North Avenue. We don’t have the capacity. Will we ever? It’s possible, but nothing is imminent.
LG: You guys are popular all around. The place is always packed. Will you ever expand?
BJ: One of the best things that we have done has been staying focused on our operation. Piece has evolved nicely over the years and sales have followed suit. Today Piece is the highest grossing independent pizzeria in the continental U.S. In 2011 Pizza Today Magazine honored us as its Top Independent Pizzeria. Opening another Piece would be a distraction, will pose significant challenges, and frankly will not necessarily be satisfying. Staying in control, putting out great pizza and great beer, and having a happy staff and customers is our pursuit.
LG: Now that you’ve won best new Pizzeria in the country, do you have a big head?
BJ: I can confidently say that my managers and I share a disdain for anything ego related. We are all flattered by this honor. This recognition is the result of years of hard work. We always strive to make Piece a better place, and we do it with a sense of humor and humility. From my yoga practice I’ve learned that perfection does not exist, and this certainly is true in the restaurant business. It’s all about the journey, working hard to improve, and staying true to our mission.
LG: Most people know that Rick Nielsen, lead guitarist for the infamous Rockford based band, Cheap Trick, is an investor. How did that come to be?
BJ: After writing my business plan and putting together a private placement memorandum in 2000 to raise money, I spent a year shaking all trees, being rejected, and working hard to sell shares in Piece. That summer I made an announcement to my summer league ultimate Frisbee team that I was raising money for a new concept. A woman on the team told me that she had a friend in Rockford who might be interested. This was a friend of Rick’s, and the person responsible for getting the business plan in front of him. He and Rick came to Chicago, met me at the site on North Avenue – an empty dirty garage – and then met with me for a beer at the Northside.
LG: What’s it like having a music legend and local hero as a partner?
BJ: I could not have imagined having a better rock star partner. Rick loves Piece, loves his place in it, and given his innate talent for marketing is an amazing promoter. He often wears a Piece T-shirt on stage and talks regularly with the media about the place.
LG: I went to Boston University for graduate school. I was kind of shocked to see a BU hockey jersey hanging at Piece. What’s the deal?
BJ: I went to BU and Piece is where graduates in the Chicago area come for BU sponsored events including the Beanpot. I expect to see you!
LG: What do you love about Chicago?
BJ: I love that Chicago is unpretentious. It has a world-class restaurant and beer community, great sports, and the lakefront. It’s a livable city with a wonderful Midwest sensibility. Chicago people are approachable, friendly, and proud.
Thanks, Bill. I love Chicago too. And Piece, of course.
Check out Piece Brewery & Pizzeria at the next Friday Night Flights, a summer series of neighborhood beer festivals, and learn more about the craft beer scene in Chicago — home to over 60 breweries and a full calendar of beer fests and tasting events.