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Beer Central

With his encyclopedic knowledge of beer history, Charles Finkel was the first to market traditional European ales and lagers to an American audience. Photos by Miguel Edwards

 

One thing most museums get wrong is no beer. Though Pike Brewing Company is technically a brewpub, it could easily qualify as a museum. A museum of beer.

In other cities an establishment as grand as Pike Brew would be a point of civic pride and a go-to hangout for crusty locals and gawping tourists alike. Somehow—maybe because it’s existed so long in a location so prominent—most Seattleites forget it exists. The cavernous warren of rooms and bars and more bars and more rooms winds through two floors of the South end of Pike Place Market. It’s a 19-year-old secret treasure hidden in plain sight.

Every inch of every vertical surface is bedecked with “beeriana,” the highlights of what might be the greatest collection of beer-related ephemera on Earth: beer labels, beer ads, beer articles, beer books, beer accessories, beer photos, beer illustrations, beer recipes, beer history and legend and data. A sprawling array, for sure, but thoughtfully curated, elegantly framed and captioned in exacting detail. Brain candy for the beer drinker. One room is dedicated entirely to the 9,000-year history of brewing; you can follow the timeline across three walls, from Sumer to Seattle. Another details the story of Nellie Curtis, the glamorous madam who operated one of Seattle’s last brothels in a hotel below the Market. There’s also a shrine to King Gambrinus, the legendary Lowlands royal known as the King of Beer. He purportedly invented the toast.

Contemplate all this lore while drinking beer made one floor below. Pike Brewing’s Naughty Nellie—a robust but delicate golden ale named after Nellie Curtis—is one of Seattle’s greatest achievements. Pike Entire Wood Aged Stout is chewy and smooth. The current seasonal special is the Octopus Ink Black IPA, full-hopped but balanced and as dark as its namesake.

The owner of the collection—the executive brewmaster and self-described “creative director” and president and founder of the brewery—is also the man responsible, at least indirectly, for the craft beer revolution that began in the early ’80s. Back then, Charles Finkel was a renegade importer who believed Americans were ready for beer with a flavor profile beyond the bland, corn-syrupy lagers that dominated the landscape. Today Finkel is considered a visionary, one of the primary catalysts of a new American industry.

“When we started in the beer business, sales of craft beer were so small that they weren’t measurable,” Finkel says, sitting in a booth inside Pike Brewing’s office (which is also covered floor-to-ceiling with ephemera). “Last year, sales of craft beer exceeded sales of the Budweiser brand for the first time. That’s a major milestone.”

Vindication through longevity. And recognition: Finkel was described as “among a dozen principals responsible for the modern renaissance of beer” by no less an eminence than Michael Jackson, the scholar who was to beer what James Beard was to food. Finkel edited the illustrations to the Oxford Companion to Beer, 2011’s massive,  authoritative volume on the subject. And here he sits, bowtied and bespectacled, a 71-year-old Jewish boy born in New York and raised in Oklahoma, inside the inner sanctum of his unassuming empire. His wife Rose Ann, who’s worked alongside him every step, is answering emails a few steps away.

“You’re speaking to the artist right now,” she says of her husband.

True in more ways than one. Charles Finkel’s entry into the beer business wasn’t as a brewer but as an importer—an auteur, if you will. After moving to Woodinville, Wash. from New York and working in the marketing department of the fledgling Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in the ’70s, one of his first entrepreneurial endeavors was to re-launch Samuel Smith, a 250-year-old brewery in Yorkshire, England. Rather than make his own full-bodied beer, Finkel convinced the owners of the struggling brewery to remake theirs.

From his travels across Europe with Rose Ann, he’d developed a taste for artisanal beers made by traditional methods for regional tastes. “And as a guy from Oklahoma I’m not beyond going to a guy in Yorkshire and saying, ‘Can you make an oatmeal stout for me?’ And the guy from Yorkshire says, ‘What’s an oatmeal stout?’ And I have to teach them what their own heritage is. It’s not below my own chutzpah or dignity level to do that.”

When their product met his standards, Finkel applied his schooling in graphic design to develop a new, now-iconic label for the beer. Then, with its sophisticated look and flavor profile, he began importing Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout into the U.S. Soon he redesigned their entire line of beers. His success led him to rebranding and importing beers from Germany, Norway and Belgium. His import company, Merchant du Vin, is responsible for introducing American drinkers to their favorite European beers. And this is how Finkel inspired America’s craft beer movement.

“He was so far ahead of the curve in the alcoholic beverage business that even pioneers like me were astonished,” says Paul Shipman, co-founder of Redhook, the Northwest’s first microbrewery. Back then, he and co-founder Gordon Bowker were cracking open a brand-new marketplace in the U.S. (much like the current dawn of the recreational marijuana industry, Shipman notes.) “What Charlie did with imports was a beacon. It was an inspiration to us as we contemplated doing it ourselves. He was there at the big bang, recognizing that the consumer had an interest in a more flavorful, distinctive product.”

Once they’d amassed the finances, the Finkels opened the original Pike Brewing Company on Western Ave. in 1989. Charles developed the beer list and designed all the labels, both of which remain consistent through today. They moved to their present location, which serves a full menu of hearty, wholesome pub fare, in 1996. Pike Brewing Co. often features guest beers from upstart Seattle breweries and hosts food and drink events that draw talent from around the world. Pike brewers have gone on to brewmaster positions at breweries across the country and launched breweries of their own.

By unofficial count, eight breweries opened in Seattle in the last half of 2014. Several others debuted in the burbs. Still more are slated to launch in the coming months. Due to their minimal production capacities, most of them are categorized as nanobreweries—smaller even that the original four-barrel facility Finkel started with. As the brewery count in King County nears 70—and with some 200 in Washington state—the craft beer revolution that Finkel incited shows no signs of slowing. Neither does Pike Brew.

“We’ve got enough momentum that the more nanobreweries there are, the more there’s a need for a place like this, where you can come and learn about beer,” Finkel says. “Beer is a great lens to look at history through. We’re trying to introduce people, and hopefully encourage those nanobeweries, to recognize that we’re talking about a serious product of gastronomy through the ages. Nine thousand years of people having a civilized attitude about consuming beer. And we’re beer central.”

Pike Brewing
1415 1st. Ave.

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