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The Pike Brewing Co.

History unfolding

Pike owners Charles and Rose Ann Finkel have a history in the food and beverage industry that is just amazing. They've played an integral part in the craft beer and wine explosion, starting some of the trends we take for granted today. And now they're fine-tuning The Pike Brewing Co. and pub which they started in 1989, sold, and then repurchased in May 2006.

In the mid 60s, Charles managed a liquor store and his interest in wine, beer and spirits took hold. Always a designer, he was interested in the differences of marketing a product by great packaging vs. marketing by taste, history and tradition. "At the time, there weren't so many global players," Charles recalls. "It was more about family history." He was hired by a New York importer to sell wine in Texas and Oklahoma. A tasting in Houston came up and he looked for someone to accompany him-this ended in a blind date with Rose Ann Martin. "Rose Ann was exposed to wine and me simultaneously," he laughs. Rose Ann had only tasted wine at Passover, like Mogen David. "These were wines you truly wanted to pass over," she says. They went out the next night and enjoyed more wine. She canceled every other date for the weekend. "I knew I'd met money," Charles laughs. "She was a dental hygienist and made $100 more a month than I did. We had so much fun going to restaurants and trying good wine. We're still doing it 40 years later!"

As he worked in importing, he realized that most players were huge, like Seagram's. They had relationships with European agents and by default had European wines to sell. Charles decided to start his own company, Bon Vin, in 1968 that was an early, if not the earliest, wine company to import high quality wine from small family vineyards. They became agents for great estate-bottled wines and some of the oldest houses in Europe. Seeing the start of vineyards in Napa in 1969, Charles and Rose Ann traveled to Napa Valley. Bon Vin became the exclusive US agent for wineries like Sutter Home, Dry Creek, Kenwood, and many more. Charles traveled around the US selling wine in Boston, Washington, DC, Florida, and New York, building the business.

On one California trip, he tasted a wine in a Sacramento wine shop he liked. It was the only place outside of Washington that you could get it. He called and became their exclusive US agent. They didn't know why he wanted to market them since they "couldn't give the stuff away." It was the beginning of what we know today as Chateau Ste. Michelle. He helped build the brand and the company was sold. In 1974, it was taken over by a group of local investors who ran it for 3-4 months and then sold to US Tobacco Co. At the same time, the company bought Bon Vin. Charles and Rose Ann moved to Washington and Charles was responsible for helping design the Chateau and spent four years as their VP of Marketing.

Photo above: Charles and Rose Ann introducing Chateau Ste. Michelle wines in Texas (appeared in the Houston Chronicle around 1970), courtesy of Charles Finkel

In 1977, Rose Ann and two other women started a gourmet grocery store in Laurelhurst called Truffles. Time Magazine called it "One of America's five best specialty stores." Charles acted as their graphic designer and wine/food advisor. They wanted to franchise and build a chain, but instead started a beer and wine importing company called Merchant du Vin. Washington liquor laws being what they are, precluded them from being involved in both businesses.

Merchant du Vin was started with the intention of representing small American breweries. They have since sold the company which is now the largest importer of specialty craft beer in the world. "It quickly became apparent how few small breweries there were, maybe around 40," says Charles. "We did become the agent west of the Mississippi for D.G. Yuengling, America's oldest brewery, and created a contract for all-malt beer with the Cold Spring Brewery in Minnesota, but had to turn to Europe for more interesting and authentic beers and for the volume we needed to sustain the business. Most American beer from independent breweries was more or less like mass-market beer. Even in Europe, classic styles had been abandoned, so I worked with breweries to reintroduce beers like Porter, Oatmeal Stout, Imperial Stout and others. No one else had been selling by taste as opposed to where the beer came from. I learned about the subject, reading books, writing to consulates and breweries. We were the first to market craft beer from Britain, Germany, and Belgium in the US. In the mid 80s, people started coming to us."

It was hard to even find good books on the subject of beer, but one that was very helpful was World Guide to Beer, written by Michael Jackson, a Brit who patterned it after  World Guide to Wine. After reading it, Charles had Jackson come to Seattle to give seminars. Charles and Michael introduced craft beer to Seattle; we now have the second highest consumption of craft beer in the US (22% of all beer we drink is craft beer).

The Pike Brewing Co.
1415 1st Ave
Seattle, WA 98101
206-622-6044

www.pikebrewing.com

Rose Ann and Charles in the brewery

In 1989, Charles and Rose Ann opened Pike Place Brewing (the name was changed in 1995 to Pike Brewing Co.) in the old LaSalle Hotel, a former brothel, buying Liberty Malt Supply for the Pike Place Market location. Liberty Malt had been part of the Market since 1921. "We thought, and still do, that the Market is a great place for a brewery. It's the largest food attraction in the US. Eleven million people a year come here." In 1996, they moved the brewery to its current location, 1415 1st Ave, to incorporate food. "Most breweries in Europe have something-they are just hotels, sometimes hotels and pubs. The word "pub" comes from Public House where there is food, housing and beer," explains Rose Ann.

"We had had an incredible education," says Charles. "We had represented family-owned companies that had been in business for generations. Now you see that starting to happen here. There are microbreweries that have been around since 1984 here and some in California that started in 1980." Pike beer was an immediate success-they sold all they brewed. In 1977, a brewery supplier offered to buy the company, including Pike Brewing and pub, Liberty Malt and Merchant du Vin. For the first time ever, Charles and Rose Ann had time for coffee and a paper in the morning, tandem bicycling, trips to Europe, and involvement in the Slow Food movement and the national board of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Connie Adams/July 2010


Click here to read Part 2: Charles' and Rose Ann's decision to buy back Pike Brewing Co.


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