“Why did you switch from wine to beer?” “I graduated!” always gets a laugh. Though I’ve been commercially close to Gambrinus far longer that I was to Bacchus, I have never lost my taste for wine. Neither tipple is nobler than the other, though beer snobs pale in comparison to wine snobs. Over the years I have discovered a certain amount of prejudice against one, in favor of the other. Some say “I’m a wine drinker; I don’t like beer.” The same is true for “beer drinkers” who won’t give wine a chance. It is, after all, not like being a Democrat or Republican!
I grew up during prohibition—No, I’m not an especially young-looking 98 years old! In Oklahoma, my home state, the noble experiment was repealed in 1959, 26 years after federal repeal. Spirits, wine and beers over 3.2 percent alcohol were forbidden. Such a system didn’t exactly encourage scholarship, but I did develop an early interest in beer: its taste, history, and especially advertising and particularly packaging. I discovered them in the pool hall next door to the cotton gin. Gus, the owner, wasn’t big on checking IDs, so beer became my tipple at an early age. Even then, I chose the local beer: Progress, Goetz and my favorite, if only for the name, Griesedieck. They each cost a nickel compared to national brands that tasted the same but sold for a dime! I researched beer and did what I could to study the labels and consider the tastes, which were all very similar. As I grew older and local beers became history, I drank “the coldest brew” and often mixed it with tomato juice.
My first intellectual discussion about wine was at a friend’s home to answer the question: “Did Jesus drink wine?” His parents insisted that his tipple was grape juice. Turning water into grape juice didn’t sound like much of a miracle to this non-believer, plus I knew that sugar in grapes naturally ferments into alcohol. I was more interested in my girlfriend’s wine-drinking habits than Jesus’. She did, and so did her bon vivant uncle who gave me an assorted case of wine when I started college. I was taken, not only by the variety of different tastes, but also by the packages, history and tradition. It led me to a job managing a liquor store my senior year. I devoured more wine books than wine and developed a good enough understanding of the subject to receive a job offer from a wine importer. My fascination with beer was hamstrung only by the dearth of information on the subject at the time, plus I had wine to sell.
I became encased in the wine trade, and ultimately started my own wine company, which I sold and moved to Washington to build a winery. When I traveled in the U.S., I sought out local beer, though most of what I tasted was light, tasteless lager. I also “experienced” every imported beer I could get my hands on, hoping because they were imported, and more expensive, they would be better. They were not! Almost all fell short of what I knew malt and hops were capable of, based on beers I had tasted on trips to Europe. As an artist, I also felt that they came up short on packaging in comparison to wines. My timing was grand cru classé. The 1970s started what became known as “the wine boom.” There were many marketing successes. My company originally acted as the exclusive U.S. agent for one of two extant Washington wineries. Though we started with only a few thousand cases, today they produce more Riesling than any other winery in the world, and there are now more than 800 Washington wineries. Knowledge and availability increased exponentially, but so did competition.
I felt that the beer lover, like me, was not being as well served and decided to do something about it. In 1978, I quit my job working for the winery and got into beer. Having built my previous business marketing wines that tasted different from one another, I sought out American beers of different styles. I toured the country visiting breweries and worked with one to produce what would become America’s first contract beer, an all-malt lager of the Export style. Other than pilsner, there weren’t many styles available. My only other option was to secure the exclusive agencies for traditional family-owned breweries in England, Germany, Belgium and France, something no one else had ever done, and I became the first person in history to market a variety of craft beers of different brewing styles: different tastes, just like wine!
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Charles Finkel is the founder and president of The Pike Brewing Co. in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Public Market.