Today’s excerpt from the new edition of FORKING SEATTLE.
It’s been over 35 years since Charles and Rose Ann Finkel opened their Pike Pub & Brewery. It’s such a fixture at the Market, you’d think it’s been there forever, but there was a time, not that long ago, when fewer than half a dozen national breweries supplied the entire country with “lawnmower beer” while perhaps half a dozen artisans and idealists were brewing what they called “craft beer.” It was a battle between industrial, bottom-fermented lagers and flavorful, top-fermented ales, between standardization and individuality. In the end, as we know, it was the consumers who won.Local artisan beers flourished, and some, like Red Hook, even formed an unholy alliance with the big boys to get national distribution.
Into this fomenting vat of yeast and mash stepped the Finkels, who had decades of experience navigating the currents of beverage sales.Back in Oklahoma, Charles had been an early champion of Chateau Ste.Michelle wines and was hired to run the company’s national sales effort. Arriving at the same time was a young marketing whiz, Paul Shipman, who became Ste. Michelle’s brand manager. Later, Charles started a company called Merchant du Vin, which, despite its name, imported nothing but craft beer, while Shipman went on to join forces with Gordon Bowker and run Redhook. Then the Finkels opened a shop on Western Avenue that sold home brewing supplies in addition to housing a tiny craft brewery. Over the years it grew and grew to its current location, a multi-level, gravity flow, steam-heated brewery and brew pub.
The Finkels sold the company, “retired,” and embarked on bicycle trips to the food capitals of Europe and Asia, but they ended up taking the place back a decade ago, with Rose Ann as president. They hired a serious master brewer, Drew Cluley (who has since moved on to other breweries), and quickly restored Pike to prominence. The sprawling, family-friendly pub seats 300 and features a dozen or so brews on tap, a vast array of bottles and mixed drinks. Down in the brewery, several bourbon barrels stand alongside the stainless steel trappings of a craft brewery that produces 9,000 barrels a year. (At 15.5-gallons a barrel, that’s about 1.5 million 12-ounce glasses or bottles of beer. Sounds like a lot, but Budweiser probably spills more every day.)
Rose Ann is one of Seattle’s most prominent foodies. She and a couple of pals owned Truffles, a specialty food store in Laurelhurst; she was chief operating officer of Merchant du Vin, started Seattle’s Slow Food convivium, and is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier.Charles, in addition to his passion for craft beer and fine wine, has a remarkable talent as a graphic designer, specializing in marketing materials for breweries. He’s also a writer, photographer and world traveler; his design shop website is a hoot. But his favorite stories still revolve around wine.
On vacation in California decades ago, the Finkels paid a call on the wine writer Leon Adams at his home in Sausalito. “Pay attention to the Yakima Valley,” said Adams. (Shades of “Go north, young man.”) Eventually, as Ste. Michelle’s sales manager, Finkel found himself sorting through resumés. One was from a promising microbiologist who’d just returned from a year in Europe. “My claim to fame,” Finkel says, tongue in cheek, “is that I called Bob Betz back.” Betz, of course, went on to become a mainstay of the Washington wine industry, while the Finkels have become fierce advocates for local beer.
Pike Brewery was the very first to use malt from Skagit Valley. Most of their beers and ales use distiller’s malt delivered in 50-pound sacks from suppliers like Briess in Chilton, Wisc. Even the specialty grains taste pretty bland, but a couple of bags, shipped from Burlington, bear the name Skagit Valley Malting, and they’re quite tasty: Alba, developed at Oregon State University, and Copeland, a hybrid from the Washington State University’s bread lab (headquartered in the same Bayview Industrial Park as SMV). To differentiate the beers them from their established brands like Naughtie Nellie and Kilt Lifter, Pike calls these Lo-Cales. “It’s one of the most exciting things in beer,” says Charles Finkel, whose spent the first two decades of his professional career in the wine world. “It’s like 1965, when all we had was stuff like ‘Pink White Port.’” The pale Alba has a lemon-y fragrance; it could be a sauvignon blanc.
“The malt sets a foundation for the hops,” is how Finkel explains it.