Thanks to a recent ownership change, one of Illinois’ favorite craft beers is riding high again
Interview by Michael J. Pallerino
It’s baaaaaaaack… When Blue Cat Brew Pub opened in 1994 under the name “Crooked River Brewing” in The District of Rock Island, Illinois by the brother and sister team of Dan and Martha Cleveland, the sky was the limit. Armed with a doctorate in chemistry, Dan learned the art of craft beer brewing in Colorado.
Under his passionate direction, the brand grabbed an impressive 15 World Beer Championship Awards during the 1990s.
After the Clevelands decided to retire, they passed the craft reins over to local John Timmer and Shane Scott, who later partnered with St. Louis transplant Charlie Cole. Cole was a craft beer savant, apprenticing under a Munich Brewmaster before earning his professional brewing certificates from St. Louis University, University of Vermont and San Diego State University. He was tenured as a brewer over five previous breweries, eventually racking up a number of brewing awards himself—23 to be precise, all in 2018.
Today, the Blue Cat Brew Pub name is back in the craft conversation. Known for his Wild Ales and Hazy IPA’s, Cole is rocking the Quad City scene. We sat down with Cole, owner and Brewmaster, to get his insights into where the Rock Island, Illinois brand is heading in 2022 and beyond.
Tell us a little about your brand.
Blue Cat Brew Pub opened in 1994 by the brother and sister team of Dan and Martha Cleveland. It currently is the oldest operating Brew Pub in the State of Illinois. The company was sold to a local partnership in 2017, which chose to rebrand to Big Swing Brewing.
In 2021, Brewmaster Charlie Cole joined the ownership group and rebranded it back to the Blue Cat name. Today, the brew pub has an arsenal of 200-plus unique recipes and has won more than 20 international awards, including five in 2022 so far. With a unique and ever changing food menu, large tap room and private event space, the legacy brand continues to grow almost 30 years later.
What kind of conversations are you having with customers today?
Having such a rich history, it has been really important to maintain constant and direct conversation to meet all of the wants and needs of our customer base. The main conversation revolves around our tap list and food menu. Trying to maintain food and beer that not only span a large array of styles but finding the balance of classic recipes and new innovative trends.
Give us a snapshot of today’s craft spirits market.
I’m happy to see the trend of large regional craft brands start to disperse while more hyperlocal brands are opening every day. In our area alone, the “Quad Cities,” which encompasses cities on both sides of the Illinois and Iowa border, there are over 15 local breweries. While a few are large enough to distribute to other markets, most are finding their niche in the community and are focused directly on their small footprint.
What’s likely to happen next?
People have been talking about the “bubble burst” for years in the craft beer industry. In reality, the only bubble bursting is with the breweries that grew too large, too fast in a market that is now showing to thrive in high saturation.
What trends are defining the space?
Social media marketing and a pandemic has forced the hand of craft breweries into a format of packaged 16 ounce cans. This size format offers a large surface to create and promote a unique brand that goes beyond the liquid inside the package.
But with aluminum can supply issues and costs, limited artists, and most brewers not having the same amount of creativity with packaging designs as they do with fermented liquids, the brands able to make a great product in a great package are the ones that set themselves apart.
What’s your story from a brand perspective?
During the pandemic, I did some continuing education by completing the Business of Craft Beer certificate program through the University of Vermont. One of my favorite projects was creating a business plan for a “legacy brewery.” Making an older brand new and fun again while still being able to pay homage to its history.
When I completed that project, I had no idea I’d have the opportunity to take that information and turn it into my career less than a year later. I have a background in both brewing and brewery marketing, so it has been really satisfying for me to balance legacy and innovation in the same brand.
We’re not trying to recreate how the brand was in the 1990s; we’re trying to pick up where they left off, and take it forward without forgetting the past accomplishments and memories.
Walk us through your branding strategy.
Our target customer base is a very wide age range. We have customers in our community that discovered craft beer from our brewery in the early 90s and we have younger customers who have either already discovered craft beer or are discovering it for the first time more recently.
Having grown up in the 90s myself, my strategy has been to include the nostalgia of that decade as much as possible either from the history of our own brand to connect with the older generation or through pop culture references in our new trend recipes and merchandise.
What’s the biggest issue related to the marketing/sales side of the craft business?
I’ve been pretty decent at keeping up with social media marketing trends, but I’ve always had trouble spreading out over more platforms. I focus on Facebook and Instagram from marketing but I’ve been missing out on the Twitter and TikTok side.
With ever changing algorithms, I’ve never had the time to tackle more platforms while handling other business operations and the brewing side. It’d be great to find an employee who can focus on those other platforms. It’s hard to find the right person to trust with your marketing vision.
What’s the secret to creating a branding story consumers can buy into?
I think the secret is knowing and focusing on your customer. Are you focused on a certain age group, location footprint, niche interests? Focusing on your customer and not “all customers” is difficult to remember when building a brand.
For Blue Cat, it starts with a focus on our history. It’s community based and focused on our small local footprint and may not appeal as well to younger customers or people who live a short distance away. For a brewery down the street they’re focused on the niche market of metal music in their branding. We’re able to exist a mile from each other successfully by appealing to and focusing on our respected customers.
What’s the one thing every craft beer brand should do in the way of marketing?
A necessity for my brand is maintaining relevance every single day. By creating new products, food specials, events, winning awards in competitions, collaborations with other breweries and community organizations, I’m using that content to stay relevant on my customers’ social media feeds daily. Brands that are not doing new things have no fresh content to stay relevant.
What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?
We just recently upgraded our brewing equipment and we’re looking forward to starting self- distribution. We’ve been working on adding a large beer garden on our property and have been involved in a “revitalization” project of our downtown area. All these things will allow us to bring in larger amounts of customers and create an even more unique experience.
What’s the biggest item on your to-do list right now?
Staff training. I have been wearing a lot of hats as an owner, general manager, brewmaster and marketing director the last six months. The big thing I need to focus on is letting some of those responsibilities be distributed to my more than capable staff. Relaying my vision is easier said than done.
Sitting down with… Spirit Hound Distillers’ Craig Engelhorn
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
It’s really strange when customers come in and thank me for bringing the Blue Cat back. For me, bringing the original branding back was a no brainer but I didn’t realize just how impactful this brand is to our community. When a couple tells me they had their first date in that booth over there 20 years ago and they can’t wait to be back every week, that is extremely rewarding to me.
What was the best advice you ever received?
“It will be beer.” It was something Stephen Hale, the original Head Brewer at Schlafly Brewery for 30 years, and one of my instructors in the Brewing Science and Operations program at St. Louis University, said often. Relax, don’t think too much into it. Do what feels comfortable. In the end, whatever you create will be beer.
What’s your favorite brand story?
I had a customer pull me aside to talk to me about one of my beers on tap a few weeks ago. It was about our Finnegan’s Dry Irish Stout which has been a March seasonal release since the early 90’s. He asked if I brewed it and if I followed the original recipe.
I told him I had brewed it and it was the original recipe but I had never brewed that style before so I hoped it was to his standards since I had never tried the beer before brewing it. He said, “This isn’t Finnegan’s; this is better.”
That definitely made me feel pretty relieved and proud. That beer won a silver medal at the World Beer Championships in 1997. This year it won gold in the New York International Beer Competition and we were named Best Illinois Irish Style Brewery. It’s currently the only batch of Irish style beer I’ve ever brewed.