Big Blue Brewing Packing Them In
New venue ups the ante for fun in the South Cape
Bye-bye bingo, hello Big Blue Brewing. Taking over what used to be a huge bingo hall in the heart of downtown Cape Coral, Big Blue offers more than just cold brew. It adds another layer to the South Cape’s growing food and entertainment scene. Another innovation of JoAnn Elardo, founder of Wicked Dolphin Rum Distillery in the Cape, Big Blue opened its doors Oct. 1 and has been packing people in ever since. Elardo’s love of home brewing is what inspired her ultrasuccessful, award-winning rum distillery. Home brewing is also something her nephews and employees at Wicked Dolphin had been experimenting with. She says, “I tasted a couple and said, ‘Hmmm, I think you’ve got something here.’ ” When the bingo hall off of Southeast 47th Terrace was put up for sale, she purchased it without an immediate plan for development. Even though the space is quite large, it was still too small for a Wicked Dolphin expansion. It was perfect, however, for converting a beer hobby into another booming business. Big Blue makes what it calls its “core four” of craft brews: Golden Ale (light but complex), Amber Ale (more citrus notes), India Pale Ale (a hoppy, bitter best-seller) and Honey Brown (malty, hints of coffee). Head brewer James Retzler says, “We want to build on those gateway beers, add some seasonal specials and support other local breweries by rotating kegs in and out.” Of its 24 taps, four are the Big Blue standards with room for its seasonal and special brews. The rest are dedicated to promoting other craft breweries in Southwest Florida, as well as across the state. Visitors get a bird’s-eye view of the fermentation tanks and working brewery through a huge picture window at the building’s entrance. You can also book a tour, something Elardo has perfected at Wicked Dolphin with some 24,000 people coming through annually. She’s hoping to bring that same kind of traffic to downtown Cape Coral. The entrepreneur could have kept her operation a relatively simple one, but she went for broke by including a full-service restaurant and an entertainment space. “I had to look at what was missing in Cape Coral, what would be good for Cape Coral and help it grow. It’s what the area needed,” Elardo says. She also wanted “to have roots downtown.” To offset the wasteland of stucco surrounding it, Big Blue’s façade was augmented with bricks to give it what Elardo calls
Sourcing quality, local ingredients is at the core of Elardo’s business model, along with being kind to the environment.
“that old-time look.” The massive outdoor patio includes a fire pit, a bar and seating for 125. Garage doors roll up when the weather is nice, integrating the indoor space, which seats another 75-plus people. The dining area is decorated with bottle chandeliers, a barrel wall and local art. Patrons appreciate extra touches like purse hooks and phone-charging outlets under the bars. The ceiling has exposed beams and special sound-absorbing construction to make the acoustics surprisingly good for live music Thursday through Saturday. As for the food, it’s not typical pub fare, but more gastropub, led by chef Brandon DeMarco, a graduate of Johnson and Wales University in Miami. “I want to provide something new for the community to try, whether it’s a different ingredient or technique so that even though it’s all familiar food they’ll recognize a difference,” he says. Some of the most popular items include the Confit BBQ Slider Flight, Spicy Beer Cheese topped with toasted malt and hops, and the Pork Belly Bao, inspired by Korean street food, with a steam bun filled with pork belly, hoisin, jalapeño, sweet pepper and cilantro. The fish is wild, line caught and thoughtfully sourced. Also look for the Big Blue Test Kitchen Menu—it changes often—and a Sunday brunch with a Bloody Mary bar and bottomless mimosas. While the beer is the bomb, Big Blue’s craft cocktails are making a mark on the downtown scene, with selections such as the Coquito Mojito, Cucumber Ortiz and Smokey Prickly Pear Margarita. These creative concoctions all feature small batch and craft spirits similar to and including Wicked Dolphin. Sourcing quality, local ingredients is at the core of Elardo’s business model, along with being kind to the environment. You’ll find no plastic here; the straws are made from corn. “They cost more but we don’t care,” says the entrepreneur. “We’ll lose a little bit to gain a little for the environment.” Even the leftover grains from the brewery don’t get dumped but rather donated to a local farmer for feed. Elardo shrugs, saying, “I’m 50-something years old, so my thought is this: Do it right if you’re gonna do it, don’t take any shortcuts. You’re not gonna pay $8 for a hamburger; you’re gonna pay $11, but you’ll know you’re eating something good and healthful, and that is really important.”
Gina Birch is a regular contributor, a lover of good food and drink, and a well-known media personality in Southwest Florida.
The $9 beer flights are perfect for trying the “core four” at Big Blue Brewing.
Brewing takes two weeks from start to finish, a process head brewer James Retzler closely monitors. Right, Coquito Mojito and Cucumber Ortiz are two of Big Blue's popular craft cocktails. The Confit BBQ Slider Flight (below) is a menu favorite.