Rock Island’s iconic Blue Cat Brew Pub returns on Friday, Nov. 5

Local News

Charlie Cole is the new head brewer and co-owner at Big Swing Brewing, which is returning to its original brand, Blue Cat Brew Pub, 113 18th St., Rock Island.

The Blue Cat’s back and you’re gonna be happy.

Four years after new owners of the former Blue Cat Brew Pub (113 18th St., Rock Island) rebranded the bar and restaurant Big Swing Brewing Co., the name and some of the original beer recipes from the 27-year-old QC craft brewing pioneer will return with a soft re-opening Friday, Nov. 5, starting at 11 a.m.

The new head brewer and co-owner Charlie Cole is paying tribute in every way he can to the legacy that Dan and Martha Cleaveland started in 1994. Blue Cat will release new menu items including experimental soups, sandwiches, and burgers and a tap list with a mix of classic, award-winning Blue Cat recipes and new beers from the award-winning head brewer, a 32-year-old native of Belleville, Ill., outside St. Louis.

Co-owners John Timmer and Scott Shane are still on board, active in the business. They renamed the business Big Swing, after buying the entire business including beer recipes.

“They were looking at the numbers Blue Cat had, in the past few years, and it looked like it was a stagnant and dropping business,” Cole said this week. “They thought doing a rebrand, while keeping the legacy alive – give it a facelift, give it a new name – would make it better. Unfortunately, the pandemic didn’t help with anything. They were never really able to get their own identity and grow with that.”

The downtown Rock Island mainstay is awaiting the return of its original Blue Cat sign out front (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The other owners both have other full-time businesses, so they weren’t able to devote their full attention to Big Swing, he said.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the other breweries every week, I get around,” Cole said of the more than dozen QC breweries. “They’re all my friends. So hanging out at Wake, Radicle Effect, other breweries in Rock Island, and getting to know their regulars. Nobody mentions Big Swing – this is still Blue Cat. That’s the way anybody addresses this place; it still has Blue Cat Brew Pub on the side of the building, so it’s never really had its own identity aside from Blue Cat.”

Blue Cat (113 18th St., Rock Island) was just just the second craft brewery in the QC to open, in 1994, following Front Street Brewery in downtown Davenport.

“We’ll just make it the new Blue Cat and go from there,” he said. Getting its old groove and popularity back will result from tapping (pun intended) into that nostalgia factor, mixing the best of the old with the best of new brewing trends, the head brewer said.

“This place had a culture; they played by their own rules,” Cole said. “They were doing things quite differently. They’re the second oldest brewery in the Quad Cities; the oldest on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities. When they opened in ’94, they were just over 500 breweries in the country. Now, there are over 8,000 in the country.”

As a homebrewer, he’s always been very experimental and most of the awards he’s won are for vegetable beers. “That’s the way they were here,” Cole said of Blue Cat. The classic Big Bad Dog is his favorite, and the one most people ask about. He described it as a combination English and German ale, with a mix of malts and other flavors.

“You won’t find anybody else that makes something like that beer,” he said. “Recreating that beer has been really interesting…It’s a rule-breaker beer, so I definitely like that.”

While Dan Cleaveland isn’t involved in the current Blue Cat, Cole has been meeting with him at least once a week to go over recipes. Some of the suppliers for his ingredients don’t exist anymore, so they try to find the right substitutes to keep faithful to the original styles.

As of Thursday, they were down to three kegs of Big Swing beers, and they’re available for $3 pints until they’re gone. Cole will start eight new Blue Cat beers on tap starting Tuesday, Nov. 2, including three classic recipes.

Charlie Cole, a 32-year-old native of Belleville, Ill., with brewing tanks at Blue Cat (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The first is Off the Rail Pale Ale, the first Blue Cat beer ever, and the last one Cleaveland brewed before he left. The second is the popular Wigged Pig Wheat, and third is Ramblin’ Raspberry Wheat, a multiple medal winner.

Cole’s new beers include a new pale ale, a salted caramel Scottish heavy (almost like a shortbread cookie), a birthday cake stout (to celebrate the rebirth of Blue Cat), and a wine hybrid sour.

The last one is a beer he brewed in 2019 in Geneseo, that’s brewed in chardonnay wine barrels. It was fermented with wine must, so it has the fruity flavors (51 percent of the sugars from beer malts, and the rest from grapes).

“It was something I got to do for years as a homebrewer,” Cole said of wine/beer hybrids. Coming soon in the Blue Cat menu will be the Big Bad Dog, a Hefeweizen, a cucumber gose (a German sour beer, which Cole has won medals for), a classic Pilsner, a hazy IPA, and a cotton candy bubblegum ale (NOT for kids), which he calls a nice, pink fairy-tale beer.

Cole, who has worked at many breweries in Illinois and St. Louis, recommended resurrecting the Blue Cat name and beers (photo by Jonathan Turner).

He also has a Bock, a strong, dark lager and other wine/beer hybrids to come.

During this transition period, Cole has been brewing three times a week and experimenting a lot (natch), with smaller batches. “It’s brand-new stuff constantly. As long as people can empty two kegs, another new thing will come on. I’m just gonna keep that rolling until I get the big system going.”

Started as home brewer

Cole first learned to home brew from friends and got super into it, joined a homebrew club, entered homebrewing competitions, and worked as an apprentice with Hofbrauhaus, an authentic German micro brewery in St. Louis, under a brewmaster from Munich.

Cole moved to the Quad Cities in 2018, since his ex-wife’s family is from this area. He worked at Bent River Brewing (including as marketing and social media director), based in Rock Island. Cole became the head brewer at Geneseo Brewing in 2019 for a year.

“It was a small system, I loved brewing there,” he said. “I got the freedom and opportunity to kind of play around and explore.”

With the pandemic, Cole worked at Midwest Ale Works in East Moline for a couple months, and went back to St. Louis for several months. He did three online brewing programs (through St. Louis University, University of Vermont and San Diego State). He came back to the QC this past February, but couldn’t get work at any of the local breweries, so he commuted to a brewery in Byron, Ill., near Rockford, for eight months (an hour and a half each way).

Big Swing was looking for a new head brewer and reached out to Cole, who also has been the beer blogger for Visit Quad Cities and host of the “What’s Tappening” segment on 97X radio. He ended up asking them more questions than they asked him.

It was a good fit for both the Big Swing owners and Cole, who recommended he come on as head brewer, marketing manager and rebrand the business back to Blue Cat, and completely update their menu, including some classic Cleaveland brew recipes.

“If you really want to make this work, you’ve got to put a lot more effort into it than just the beer,” Cole recalled telling them. He pitched a business plan to the owners, and bought a 30-percent stake in the place.

The upstairs party room at Blue Cat is available for rentals.

“It’s got to be back to Blue Cat again,” Cole said, noting he originally thought of starting his own brewery after taking the online courses. “It turned out they were looking for someone to run their brewery and I was looking to start my own brewery. I had a business plan that they were on board with. Everything just kind of fell into place.”

The pandemic was rough for the entire industry, he said, noting Big Swing got back to brewing in October 2020.

The food menu also will be completely updated, and isn’t available yet. “It’s beer focused first, and the kitchen will almost be like having a food truck in the brewery,” Cole said. The new website, bluecatbrewingco.com, is still under construction.

The business still needs new signage and system updates inside the restaurant. The formal grand opening likely will be by the end of November three weeks, including the new food menu. Cole said they’re trying to get the original exterior sign back.

Why is craft brewing so big?

“For me, it’s just a huge creative outlet,” Cole said of brewing. “I can do whatever I want; there’s no rules in American craft brewing, which is great. I’ve always been heavily into marketing and promotion, so not only do I get to come up with the new beer recipe and execute it, I get to name it, come up with design work for it.”

“You can make beer for a good cause; you can make beer for yourself, for other people,” Cole said. “It’s a complete creative outlet.”

As a veteran of completing the entire QC Ale Trail multiple times, craft brewing is so popular because it’s evolving, growing and getting better, he said.

The QC Ale Trail is currently made up of 17 locations in the region, not counting the reopened Blue Cat.

“We have 13 breweries in the greater Quad-City area and everybody does their own thing,” Cole said. “You might find a blonde ale at every single one, but all the blonde ales will taste different. Everybody’s IPA will taste different.”

Beers are made with everything from spearmint and cotton candy, to sweet potato and garlic, he said. “We have all these different things. You could fall in love with one place and that can be your place, your brewery, or you can be a brewery enthusiast and go to all 13 on the trail.”

In Illinois now, there are 295 craft breweries, and 107 in Iowa, according to the Brewers Association (which promotes independent craft brewers). Nationally, craft brewing is a $22.2 billion market, accounting for just under 24% of the $94 billion U.S. beer industry. Learn more about the local breweries at qcaletrail.com (Blue Cat will be added to the trail soon).

Blue Cat will host homebrew day

Charlie Cole, who as a homebrewer won over 20 awards in one year, will lead a “Learn to Homebrew Day” at Blue Cat on Saturday, Nov. 6, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. He’ll teach the basics of the brewing process and required equipment for you to start brewing at home, while demonstrating a live brew day on homebrew size basic equipment.

The interior at Big Swing Brewing (from Thursday, Oct. 28) and some of the awards won by Blue Cat Brew Pub (photo by Jonathan Turner).

This is a free event and open to the public. It’s part of the national Learn To Homebrew Day, established in 1999 by the American Homebrewers Association to promote the most rewarding and delicious activity of all time — homebrewing. On the first Saturday in November, thousands of people celebrate Learn to Homebrew Day.

“Homebrewing is an innovative and social hobby that allows people to be adventurous with ingredients. Learn to Homebrew Day is one of the best days of the year to share in the experience and introduce curious newcomers to the rewards of homebrewing,” said Rachel Staats, senior marketing manager, American Homebrewers Association (AHA). “We raise a glass to celebrate the best hobby in the world—homebrewing.”

The AHA offers an abundance of resources for beer lovers and brewers of all levels, including:

“A wealth of information is available to AHA members, with access to thousands of trusted homebrew recipes and at-home tutorials,” added Staats. “All members can tap into savings at taprooms, brewpubs and homebrew supply shops nationwide, and receive a subscription to Zymurgy magazine.”

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