Pike Brewing Company: Celebrating 30 Years as a Craft Beer Pioneer

2 men toasting

By: Becky Garrison

Why is Seattle-based Pike Brewing Company still standing 30 years after its 1989 founding when a growing number of craft breweries in the Pacific Northwest are either shuttering their doors or being bought out by global conglomerates?

  According to Pike’s co-founder and co-chair of its board, Charles Finkel, “There’s an unbelieva-ble amount of competition out there with a challenging business climate, but we’ve done our best to have a sustainable business model. We work really hard and have a good team of people.”

  Following his lifelong passion for imported beers, Finkel founded Merchant du Vin in 1978, so he could introduce consumers to craft beers from England, Scotland, Germany, Belgium, France and Norway, as well as several small American breweries. Jason Parker, co-founder of Copper-works Distilling and Pike’s first brewer, points to the difficulties in convincing Americans to give craft beer a chance. “Back then, nobody knew how to drink a quality beer, so Charles had to edu-cate each person bottle by bottle.”

  Finkel would enter a restaurant and ask to see their beer menu. Inevitably, the waiter would re-spond, “We don’t have a beer menu, but I can tell you what we have.” The waiter would recite names of commercial beers like Budweiser, Coors Light, and Rainer. Then Finkel would reply, “Oh, just bring me some jug wine.” When they noted they don’t serve that type of wine here, he would respond, “Yes, but you serve that type of beer.” Following this exchange, he would set out some imported beers and encourage them to up their beer game.

  In assessing the Seattle beer culture circa 1980, Christian Krogstad, Seattle native and founder of House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon, recalls being smitten by the unusual styles and packaging of Merchant du Vin’s imported beers. In Krogstad’s estimation, “More people than you can imagine were influenced by the beers they imported. I credit them more than any mi-crobrewery or homebrewing writer with creating the spark that led to the explosion in American craft brewing.” In the spirit of other like-minded folks, Krogstad tried his hand at home brewing, and he discovered his vocation in this process.

The Founding of Pike Place Brewery

  In the late 1980s, Finkel took his experience influencing some of the finest breweries on the way that they brewed, packaged and marketed their beer, and founded his own brewery. “I felt if I could sell beer from Bavaria, Yorkshire or Belgium at a price level that was the highest in histo-ry, I could do at least as good, if not better, here in Seattle.”

  On October 17, 1989, the Pike Place Brewery announced its grand opening courtesy of the World’s Shortest Non-Motorized Uphill Parade. John Farias of Liberty Malt Supply led the pa-rade pushing a two-wheeled silver hand truck filled with a keg of Pike Pale Ale. Following Fari-as were the Finkels, Franz and Angela Inselkammer from Bavaria’s Ayinger Brewery, and Jason Parker, along with local media and about a hundred beer aficionados. Also included in the parade were dogs, a cat, a walking geoduck from the Sheraton Hotel, a llama from the Herb Farm and an oyster. After a two-block uphill walk, the menagerie arrived at Cutter’s Bay House, where Franz Inselkammer tapped and poured the inaugural pint of Pike Pale Ale.

  Finkel chose the brewery’s location on Western Avenue due to its uphill location so he could in-stall a gravity-flow steam-powered system. At the time, the brewery’s equipment was state-of-the-art with a four-barrel copper kettle custom made by Seattle’s Alaska Copper and Brass Com-pany.

  When Dick Cantwell, currently the Head of Brewing Operations for Magnolia Beer Company in San Francisco, was hired in 1991 after Parker went back to college, the craft brewing scene was in its infancy. About 200 U.S. breweries were in existence, with Pike being the third in the great-er Seattle area. Cantwell recollects, “By today’s standards, most people made mediocre beer, but the scene was exciting, and we all became lifelong friends.”

  In addition to brewing their perennial best-selling Pike Pale Ale along with a porter and Pike XXXXX Stout, Pike also has the distinction of making one of the first IPAs in the United States. By developing relationships with companies such as Skagit Valley Malting and area grain farm-ers, Finkel sourced local products to create flavorful beers.

  Finkel worked in conjunction with his wife Rose Ann, co-founder and co-chair of the board. Parker sums up their creative, collaborative relationship. “Charles is the artistic force while Rose Ann is the business financier. When he wants to bring a vision to life, Charles needs a team who can come behind him and help him figure out how to do that.” Finkel’s artistic touch can also be found on Pike’s iconic beer logos. The art is distinctly “Charles Finkel” in its design, colors and Victorian-style lettering.

Opening of Pike Pub

  In 1996, they moved to a larger 30-barrel brewery located at the site of a former winery on First Avenue. Rose Ann’s experience of owning a cooking store played a seminal role in their mission to combine craft beer with local, sustainable food. Also, they changed their name to the Pike Brewing Company due to their proximity to Pike Place Market.

  Concurrently, they launched Pike Pub as a destination place that offers a curated experience visi-tors cannot experience elsewhere. For example, the pub houses the Microbrewery Museum, a collection of Finkel’s personal artifacts that document 9,000 years of brewing history. “My goal was to encourage people through our decorations to view beer as cultural items instead of a mass-marketed highly advertised commodity,” Finkel tells Beverage Master Magazine.

  Then after realizing that the brewery and pub could not stand on its own without the support of parent company Merchant Du Vin, the Finkels sold the brewery and pub to Merchant Du Vin the following year. Drew Gillespie, Pike’s current president, began as a line cook in 1998 during this period, which he describes as the Dark Ages. “There wasn’t a lot of investment or passion within the company.”

  After realizing they were missing their brewery and the maturation of the industry, the Finkels purchased Pike back in 2006. Gillespie describes this purchase as “a rebirth that really picked up the heart and soul that the Finkels bring to their work.” Upon their return, the Finkels further built up their community connections, ethical business practices and sustainability focus.

  Among their numerous community projects include a long-standing commitment to Planned Parenthood, where Charles Finkel served on their board before founding Merchant du Vin. They brew a specialty beer titled Morning After Pale as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, which they offer during their annual Women in Beer event. Also, their annual event, Chocofest, sup-ports Long Live the Kings, an environmental group dedicated to preserving local salmon.

Moving Towards the Future

  Currently, Pike has five owners, who are all members of the board: the Finkels, Gillespie, VP and Controller Patti Baker and Executive Chef Gary Marx. “We call this selling in versus selling out,” Gillespie says. “You have to have people on site who are really focused on how to make it successful and willing to put their life into it.”

  Pike further expanding its brewing capacity in 2017 by launching Tankard & Tun. This intimate seafood restaurant located on the second floor above the pub enabled them to serve dishes like oysters on the half shell that are hard to serve in a hectic pub environment.

  They also introduced cocktails, which Parker says is a relatively new development in brewpubs. “There was a time, if you were a brewery and you had cocktails, you were seen as not committed to being a brewery. You must think your beer is not good enough to be able to stand on its own. But that’s sort of like saying we’re not going to serve wine either because no wine can be better than our beer. Well, that’s wrong.” 

  Presently, Pike partners with local distilleries, including Woodenville Whiskey, Dry Fly Distil-ling and Copperworks Distilling for their barrel-aged program, which they look to expand in 2020. They also plan on making more sour beers to meet the customer demand for more extreme types of beers.

  Despite these innovations, Pike’s prime focus remains its consistency. “We like being slow-moving. We don’t feel we need to expand and get giant. We just want to have a nice solid base, two restaurants and a beer distribution network in the Pacific Northwest,” says Gillespie.

  To this end, they’ve made in-roads in Hawaii and Alaska and want to establish a presence in Or-egon. In 2018, Pike went global by launching a collaboration in Japan with hopes to expand the Pike concept to China through a Chinese partner.

  “If we could maximize the capacity of the brewery, we will be helping the local community and being a good employer,” says Gillespie. “That’s a recipe for success for our little mini-empire.”

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