There’s a saying in the wine business that it takes a lot of great beer to make great wine. And it makes sense: Harvesting and processing the fruits of the vine is thirsty work. For former wine importers Charles and Rose Ann Finkel, however, it took a lot of great wine to start a great brewery. The Jewish couple, who married in 1968 and moved to Seattle in 1974, met in Texas while Charles was employed by a wine import company based in New York.
“Our first date was a wine tasting that I was conducting,” Charles recalls. “But after the wine tasting, we went to the oldest tavern in Houston and proceeded to drink beer.”
Since that day, Charles and Rose Ann have been nearly inseparable and have devoted their lives to good food and drink.
In Seattle, two things happened that would change the course of their professional careers. To begin with, they fell in love with Pike Place Public Market. Then, several years later, they founded Merchant du Vin, the first company in the United States to import beer from family- or abbey-owned breweries in Europe. Not only did they find a market for these distinctive ales and lagers, but they saw an opportunity to go one step further.
US breweries peaked in the late 19th century, and by the 1980s fewer than 300 existed nationwide. Nonetheless, a small but growing number of fermentation-focused entrepreneurs had shown that it was possible to open a beer business specializing in flavorful traditional styles. So the Finkels acquired a space in their beloved market, squeezed a brewhouse with equipment by Alaskan Copper and Brass Company into the existing homebrew supply shop, and hired a brewer with a background in chemistry.
“It was tiny,” says Rose Ann. “The tail was Pike and the dog was Merchant du Vin,” adds Charles. “We couldn’t have done Pike without Merchant du Vin.”
Finally, on a sunny Tuesday in October 1989, the Finkels, along with a motley crew of pets, photographers, and a walking geoduck, escorted the first keg of Pike Pale Ale from their new brewery on Western Avenue to Cutter’s Bay House for an inaugural tapping. As publicity stunts go, the “World’s Shortest Non-Motorized Uphill Parade” probably isn’t remembered by many people today. But Pike Place Brewery (now Pike Brewing), the business the couple launched three decades ago, has evolved from a Seattle curiosity into a national success story.
Fal Allen was one of their first hires. Today he’s the brewmaster at California’s Anderson Valley Brewing Company. “Downtown Seattle was struggling its way back,” he says. “It was a bit of a mess in the early ’80s. By and large there were not a lot of craft beers or craft pubs out there. It certainly was an uphill battle to get a beer from a tiny unknown brewery on at any location.”
The Finkels and their team persisted and soon won over Seattleites with Pike Place Ale, Pike XXXXX Stout, Pike IPA, and Pike Kilt Lifter, a malty Scotch ale that would go on to become the company’s best-selling beer.
“[Charles] never stops,” says Patricia Gray, community relations manager for the Pike Place Marketing Foundation, an organization the Finkels have long supported. “He brings his full self, his full passion, his full heart to everything he does.”
With demand rising and square footage in short supply, they moved their business to its current location on First Avenue in 1996. After stepping away in 1997, they bought the company back in 2006 and ushered it into a new era. In 2017, the Finkels expanded again and added a seafood-forward dining concept, Tankard & Tun, above the classic pub that chef Gary Marx has run since it opened. Last fall, to keep in step with the rest of the beer industry, the brewery switched from bottles to cans.
“Charlie and Rose Ann succeed because they have no fear of failure, and they crave being part of something new,” says Redhook Brewery founder Paul Shipman, who met Charles at age 23 when they both worked at Chateau Ste. Michelle winery. “Most people like that are aggressive and macho — not these two. They are friendly, supportive, and charming to all they encounter.”
Those qualities have helped the Finkels attract and retain employees — presently more than 100. Drew Gillespie started at Pike in 1998 as a line cook. He wasn’t a beer aficionado and didn’t intend to stay long. However, Gillespie continued working at Pike, switched to a management role, and abandoned his culinary school aspirations. In December 2018, on his 20th anniversary at the company, the Finkels named Gillespie, already one of five co-owners, as Pike’s new president.
“I’ve learned a lot from them over the years,” he says. “I feel lucky. We see things differently. But that’s what makes us better as a company. Our goal is to be a 100-year-old independent craft brewery.”
While Charles and Rose Ann have stepped back from day-to-day operations, they continue to articulate their vision for Pike as co-owners and board chairs. And they continue to remain engaged with the historic market that captured their hearts as young wine drinkers all those years ago.
“I love how creative Charles is and how they’ve incorporated the lore and history of the market into their beers,” says Gray. “People like Charles and Rose Ann are people who really set the tone for the market.”