Up Close With... Pike Brewing Co.
April 15, 2009
This year, The Pike Brewing Co., Seattle, will celebrate its 20th anniversary with the release of Entire, a stout aged in bourbon barrels. Specialty beers like Entire offer a classic example of what the family-owned brewery is all about: “We just want to develop a really high-quality brewery,” says Charles Finkel, president and founder of the brewery.
Even though Pike Brewing is in its 20th year, the company is in the process of a rebirth. Finkel, along with his wife Rose Ann, founded Pike Brewing in 1989 based on their love of beer. Before the founding of Pike Brewing, the couple had operated a boutique wine distributorship, sold the wine distributorship, and then founded a second importing company, Merchant du Vin Corp., which imported fine European beers.
The exposure the Finkels had to some of the world’s greatest breweries led them to think they could make great beers too, and the couple founded Pike Brewing, which was originally named Pike Place Brewery. The Finkels wanted Pike Brewing’s beers to be equal to or better than those they represented from Europe. The owners favored beers that complemented food, especially British brewing styles like ales, porters, stouts, Scotch ales and barley wines.
In 1995, the brewery moved to Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle and changed its name to Pike Brewing. Two years later, the Finkels briefly got out of the business, selling Pike Brewing, Merchant du Vin and Liberty Malt Supply Co. Having worked since 1965 in the wine and beer trades, the couple says they were ready for a bit of a sabbatical.
In 2006, Finkel’s reawakened entrepreneurial urge coincided with the new Merchant du Vin owner’s plan to sell Pike Brewing. The Finkels jumped at the chance to get back to brewing.
“Fortunately, just when we reacquired the brewery, the craft beer industry was on fire and continues to be,” Finkel says. “…It was a real category by the time we came back in.”
While the company’s beers were growing in popularity, the Finkels realized the brewery was outdated and in need of upgrades.
The first changes they made were to update the brewery. The bottle filler that the company inherited did not pre-evacuate oxygen from the bottles, so the Finkels invested in an Italian-built bottle filler that double pre-evacuates. Pike Brewing uses the filler to produce 22-ounce and 12-ounce long-neck bottles, and also has the ability to produce 12-ounce select bottles.
“It has been a phenomenal boom in terms of the success of the business â€” not only in terms of the quality of the product, but the ability that we have to bottle in two different sizes,” Finkel says.
The company also added more cooperage to the brewery in the form of stainless steel and the Heaven Hill bourbon barrels in which it produces aged stouts.
In addition to new equipment, Pike Brewing has been making its brewery more visually exciting.
“Unlike most breweries around the country, we are in a very visible, highly tourist location,” Finkel says. “We’re in the Pike Place Market, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state. Where the brewery is, we wanted to make it not only be world-class in terms of the quality of products that we were producing, but look world-class.”
The gravity-flow, steam-heated brewery operates alongside a pub, which has been remodeled, and a new microbrewery museum. The museum traces 8,000 years of beer history, and the pub features historically significant beer memorabilia.
The brewery and the pub together take up 22,000 square feet. Because Pike Brewing is located in Pike Place Market, it is not accessible by semi-truck. The brewer therefore operates a 6,500-square-foot warehouse about a mile and a half away, and shuttles supplies and finished products with a smaller truck. Pike Brewing’s distributors also pick up their orders at the warehouse.
Pike Brewing sells 60 percent of its volume on draft with its local area as its strongest market. The company’s beers are distributed in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Utah and British Columbia, with some of its specialty beers also distributed in other states.
While this year may prove to be a more challenging year for the brewery and pub business, since re-acquiring the brewery, Pike Brewing has experienced double-digit growth annually. The brewery plans to celebrate its anniversary this year with special tasting and food pairing events, along with a celebration in October.
The Finkels still are bullish on the business because craft beer remains an affordable luxury, and it sees its location in the Pacific Northwest as a benefit.
“We’re a local, family-owned brewery, and that has been a big appeal,” Finkel says.
Pike Brewing Co., Seattle, concentrates on only hop-fermented beers, i.e. ales. The company’s first beer and largest seller is Pike Pale, which is medium-bodied with a nutty and fruity malt flavor that is balanced with floral hops. Pike Brewing’s next largest seller is Pike Kilt Lifter, which is a Scotch-style ale that features a underlying smokiness from peated malt.
IPAs also have reached their stride in the Pacific Northwest, says Charles Finkel, president and founder of the brewery. Pike Brewing offers Pike IPA, which features a malt backbone balanced with aromatic herbal hop character.
Pike Brewing’s two newest beers, Pike Tandem Double Ale and Pike Monk’s Uncle Tripel Ale, are Belgian-inspired styles. For the past two years, Monk’s Uncle has been a seasonal beer, but based on its success, the company decided to make it a year-round offering, Finkel says.
Since the Finkels reacquired Pike Brewing, the brewer has made Old Bawdy Barley Wine, its most extreme beer. “It kind of has a cult following,” Finkel says.
Brewed once a year and vintage dated, Old Bawdy 2008’s grist blend is made with large quantities of biscuit malts. The barley wine is sweet and earthy with the flavor of pale, crystal and wheat malts, which are balanced by Columbus, Magnum, Chinook and Centennial hops from the Yakima Valley. Old Bawdy is 10 percent alcohol by volume.
Sustainability also plays a large role in Pike Brewing’s operations, and the brewer makes its Naughty Nellie Golden Artisan Ale and Monk’s Uncle with organic ingredients. “The base malt of most of our beers is organic,” Finkel says.