The story of Pike Brewing Company and its founders, Charles and Rose Ann Finkel
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
IMAGES BY AMBER FOUTS
The history of Pike Brewing Company, one of Seattle’s original craft breweries, is as much a story about love as it is about beer.
As co-founders and co-owners, Charles and Rose Ann Finkel have long been trendsetters in the food and drink industry. And now, after some 50 years in the business, they’re downright legends.
The story starts in Oklahoma, in the early 1960s, and it starts with wine. A young Charles Finkel, then in college studying marketing and design, nabbed a job managing a liquor store. There began his unlikely education in wine and beer, and the standards were low. “In Oklahoma, we argued about whether Jesus drank wine,” Charles jokes. “The only place to go was up.” He increased the sales of wine in the store and connected with a wholesaler who recommended him for his first job out of college: working for a wine importer in New York.
“My wine education there was like a Ph.D. from Oxford,” Charles says. He visited top wineries and hobnobbed with some of Europe’s best vintners, earning recognition as top salesperson only a year into the job.
Along the way, Charles’s work brought him to Houston, where a mutual friend introduced him to Rose Ann. The friend promised her, “This guy would be perfect for you,” Rose Ann says with a broad smile. The two were married in 1968. The next year, they went into business together, launching a wine company called Bon Vin. “We were the first young people in modern wine marketing,” Rose Ann says.
Though this was the dark ages for U.S. wine appreciation — and with the California wine industry still in its infancy — Charles was ahead of the curve, importing small labels from Europe and marketing little-known West Coast vintners.
Rose Ann’s early career as a dental hygienist supported the company, but business grew quickly, and trips to Europe to visit wineries increased. Jaunts to Portugal, Spain, and France filled the calendar. “We fell in love with each other, but also with food, wine, beer, and travel,” she says.
During his travels, Charles stumbled upon a small Washington State winery, then called, simply, Ste. Michelle, that operated out of a charmless warehouse on Marginal Way. Sensing he’d discovered a hidden gem, he became the exclusive agent for the budding winery, meaning he was the sole agent representing the business outside of Washington and Oregon. That find wasn’t a fluke: Charles proved himself a talent for sniffing out diamonds in the rough, helping catapult small, unknown brands like Dry Creek and Sutter Home to national renown.
Charles had struck gold, and, in 1974, Ste. Michelle’s parent company bought Bon Vin. Charles and Rose Ann moved to Seattle, where their second child was born, and Charles became vice president of sales and marketing for Ste. Michelle. There, his many contributions included label designs, still in use today, and the design of the present-day Woodinville chateau that holds the offices and tasting room.
Meanwhile, Rose Ann was busy as an innovator in her own right, launching a small specialty grocery store in Seattle’s Laurelhurst in 1977 called Truffles. Charles, ever the designer, created the store’s logos and ads and consulted on beer and wine sales. Time magazine named Truffles one of the top five specialty food stores in the country. “It fed my interest in food,” Rose Ann says.
So how did two wine importers become craft beer legends?
“I was drinking all the best wine you can imagine, but I could have killed for a beer,” Charles says. The couple’s next chapter would become their most fame-garnering.
In 1978, Charles and Rose Ann started Merchant du Vin, which today is thought to be the world’s largest craft beer importer. Once again, Charles proved to be a visionary, bringing craft beer from Europe to the United States, before any other importer. Rose Ann was by his side as vice president of marketing, overseeing their customers’ marketing efforts and helping restaurant owners educate their staff about beer and food pairing.
“At first, our business was just going to be wine,” Charles says. “But by then, there was a lot of competition for wine sales, and no one knew anything about beer in America.” He represented up-and-coming breweries like Yuengling and was one of the first to import Trappist ales from Belgium. As an importer for Samuel Smith brewery, based in England, Charles encouraged the brewery to revive a then-dormant style, the classic oatmeal stout. He’s widely credited for reviving the style and popularizing it in the United States.
After amassing so much beer knowledge, the Finkels did something else farsighted: They started their own brewery, in 1989, at a time when craft beer in the Seattle area — and in the entire U.S. — was in its infancy. Only Big Time Brewery, Redhook, and Hale’s Ales were in operation; today, there are nearly 180 craft breweries in Seattle alone. Though opening a brewery in those days was a gamble, it proved to be a risk worth taking.
“Of course we were scared, but we were selling wine when no one was drinking wine,” Rose Ann says. “I’m not a gambler, but I do take risks. I grew up with humble beginnings — we both did. I felt, ‘How bad could it be if we lost it all?’”
The Finkels’ brewery project was born as Pike Place Brewery, inside Pike Place Market off Western Avenue. The market’s dedication to showing off local food and small purveyors made it feel like the perfect fit for the Finkels.
And they certainly didn’t lose it all. Over the years, the brewery has churned out classics like the Pike Place Ale, Pike Kilt Lifter, and Pike XXXXX Stout. Other notable brews include the Skagit Valley Alba, made with all Washington-grown ingredients; the Pike High Five, a blonde ale made with honey from Salish Lodge & Spa; and Pike Organic Double Oatmeal Stout, an homage to Charles’s history with the style.
Charles, ever the pioneer, was the first to incorporate local malt into his kettles. And he’s designed all the brewery’s labels from the very beginning, with Rose Ann choosing the color schemes.
By 1996, the Finkels needed a bigger production space, so they moved to their current location off 1st Avenue. No longer technically in Pike Place Market, they changed the business’s name slightly, to today’s version, Pike Brewing Company. They added food to the mix, opening The Pike Pub at the same time.
Food has long influenced the beer at Pike. “The style of beer we pursued from the beginning goes well with food,” Charles says. “It’s more approachable and drier in flavor. Philosophically, our goal has been balance rather than overwhelming consumers with flavor constituents.”
At the beginning, they experimented first with six different strains of yeast, making batches of beer with each to find the best flavor profile. “The one we chose has the most biscuity, bread-like quality,” Rose Ann says. “And bread goes great with food!”
In 1997, Charles and Rose Ann sold the brewery, stepping away to embark on an eight-year sabbatical and becoming heavily involved with the slow food movement, both internationally and locally. They bought Pike Brewing back in 2006 and, last year, capped the four-story space with a new brewing space that affords expanded capacity for experimental brews, and a restaurant called Tankard and Tun, which emphasizes beer and food pairing. Today, the Finkels co-own the entire venture with Drew Gillespie, vice president of operations; Gary Marx, executive chef; and Patti Baker, vice president and controller.
And the Finkels — she, with her generous smile, and he, with his ever-present bow-tie — are revered in the industry. They’re active in philanthropy and are passionate about mentoring future industry leaders. In 2015, they received the Angelo Pellegrini Award for their many contributions to the food and beverage industry.
The Finkels’ many chapters have one thing in common: They make a darn good team. “I love beer and wine,” Charles says. “But most of all, I love Rose Ann, and I love that we get to go to work together every day.”
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.