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Cheers! Pike Brewery Reinvents Itself

By Ronald Holden

A generation ago, when half a dozen nationally-sold "lawnmower beers" dominated taverns and grocery shelves, microbreweries were tiny outfits run by wide-eyed idealists and trust-fund hippies. Industry wags would note that Budweiser spilled more beer in a day than these guys brewed in a year. But it turned out that people kinda liked the microbrews, even when they cost more than Bud or Miller's. They had character, flavor, style; they also generated brand loyalty. And the whole point of the microbreweries was that they were tiny, very tiny, and very local. Grounded not just in a city but in a neighborhood. So the big guys started paying attention.

In 1989, Charles and Rose Ann Finkel founded Pike Brewery in a hole in the wall on Western Avenue below the Pike Place Market. Charles had been the sales manager at Chateau Ste. Michelle, and then an importer of specialty beers. Rose Ann and a couple of friends were running a deli in Laurelhurst called Truffles.

Charles and Rose Ann Finkel, courtesy of Ronald Holden

The Finkels 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 had been hired to run the company's national sales effort. Later, Charles started a company called Merchant du Vin, which, despite its name, imported nothing but craft beer. The Finkels' shop on Western Avenue sold home brewing supplies in addition to housing a tiny craft brewery. Over the years it grew to its current location, a multi-level, gravity flow, steam-heated brewery, and brew pub.

Charles and Rose Ann 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 later, with Rose Ann as president. They hired a serious master brewer, 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 some 6,000 barrels a year. (At 15.5-gallons a barrel, that's about a million 12-ounce glasses or bottles of beer. Charles himself, a graphic artist of considerable skill, designed all the brewery's marketing materials.

Today, Drew Gillespie, the president of Pike Brewery, carries on his shoulders the accomplishments and the dream of its founder, Charles Finkel. That dream: to create a "100-year brewery" like those found in cities across Europe. There are now 750 breweries in Washington state alone, and Pike, at 33, is Seattle's oldest. Not the biggest, by far, but punching well above its weight (or volume, in this case: some 6,000 barrels-half of its pre-pandemic production).

Drew Gillespie, photo by Marcus Donner

A few years ago, Charles Finkel sat down with his senior staff. What was going to happen to his dream, that Pike would become Seattle's 100-year brewery? The pandemic was devastating retail businesses everywhere, tourism was down, bars and restaurants were barely hanging on. Rose Ann Finkel, the brewery's co-founder and president, had succumbed to bone cancer at the age of 73. Charles responded to the storm clouds by making phone calls; Pike needed a savior.

Two parties stepped up. Seattle Hospitality Group took the lead. Its president, Howard Wright, heads the family that owns the Space Needle, which had just undergone a $100 million refresh. The other was Ethan Stowell, the restaurant owner (two dozen locations) which itself had been bolstered by a substantial investment from SHG. SHG acquired partial ownership of ESR three years ago, and ESR in turn has become involved on the food-service side of Pike's operations. The first thing the new team agreed on: the need to rethink the Pike Brewery brand.

To survive, Pike needed to be more profitable, which meant, among other things, it needed to increase sales. To this end, internal upgrades. Pike hired Leslie Shore, the former lead brewer from Reuben's Brews, to head up its brewing team. It added Georgetown Brewing's quality coordinator Barbara Beaver as Pike's brewery and quality assurance director.

Last but not least, Pike looked at the local beer scene and realized that there was a new generation of beer drinkers, in their 20s and 30s, who were even more adventurous consumers than their parents, who had dumped lawnmower beer in favor of craft brews. But Pike's beers didn't just "taste" old, they "looked" old. Sad to say, Charles Finkel's ingenious labels had become outdated. New flavors, then. A slate of new beers (referred to by insiders as "fluids") ordered up by the brewers: five "always on" beers plus a rotating lineup of seasonal flavors. And bold new designs for the cans. Photo by Marcus Donner

Drew Gillespie joined Pike almost a quarter century ago as a line cook and soon realized there was more satisfaction in dealing with people than with burgers and pretzels. He grew up in Seattle; his mother Dorothy was a bicycle activist and longtime leader of the Cascade Bicycle Club. To this day, Gillespie doesn't drive; he never needed a license, and commutes to work by light rail.

Some 65 people work at the Pike location in the Market (the brewery and two restaurants). Two thirds of Pike's revenue actually come from those restaurants (a sprawling brew pub one flight down from First Avenue, with WiFi at every table, and a seafood bar at street level).

The Pike Brewery is a landmark, an icon. But Pike has gone out of its way to avoid fustiness. Its new wardrobe is evolutionary, less ornate, clean but still giving off a "classic" vibe. And similarly the contents of Pike's cans (the "fluids") avoid extremes. Evolutionary but not experimental. Pike is, in many ways, still the most traditional of Washington's 750 craft breweries.

Pike's most recent announcement is that it will expand its own operations with two taprooms. The first will be in Ballard, in the space formerly occupied by Bramling Cross. (Yes, that's the restaurant on Ballard Avenue that was, pre-Covid, an Ethan Stowell restaurant.) Forty-five seats plus outdoor seating, to be redesigned by Kelly Moore, the owner of Pink Bateau (a floating caterer).

The second is a 600 square-foot taproom just inside the newly expanded Seattle Convention Center, with a 1,000-square-foot outdoor patio that will anchor the expansion's new entrance on Pine St. There will no doubt be more locations as well; Gillespie understands that a lot of people in the Seattle area don't go "downtown," let alone to the Market, for a variety of reasons. And the fall-off in tourism during the pandemic showed up immediately on Pike's bottom line.

In the beverage business, distribution is everything. So Pike beer has to be available where its customers are, whether that's in Ballard or on Beacon Hill, at the Market or in Maple Leaf. Right now, Pike's sales team (including its most energetic voice, none other than Charles Finkel) is out in the field, pitching its liquids (in their bright new cans) to tavern owners from Alki Point to Sand Point and all points in between.

Some of Pike's beers still carry whimsical names (the Scottish Ale Kilt Lifter; Monk's Uncle, Cosmic Pulp Juicy IPA, Uptown Hazy IPA) while others are straightforward: Waterfront, Post Alley, Space Needle, and Pike Place. They are all wear the bright new livery, more like a vibrant soda pop than a fusty ale, created by a Ballard outfit called Blindtiger Design that specializes in graphics for the beer industry. Its founder, Oceania Eagan, explains that the young drinkers of craft beer today have a wide range of choices and that visibility-distinctive visibility-is crucial to building brand loyalty.

New can look, photo by Marcus Donner

At this point, Pike looks well organized for the future. Seattle Hospitality Group provides a secure base. And the relationship with Ethan Stowell's restaurant group gives Pike a solid grounding on the food side of its business. (Lest we forget, food service provides two thirds of Pike's revenue stream.)

There are no guarantees in this world, even the mightiest teeter and fall. But Charles Finkel's vision of a 100-year brewery-almost unimaginable at the outset-now seems attainable. Bottoms up!

November 2022

 Ronald Holden, a longtime contributor, has written several books about the history of food & wine (and other "fluids") in the Pacific Northwest.

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