Brew Pub Poets drink beer with tongue firmly in cheek

The Brew Pub Poets Society celebrated its 25th anniversary 10 years ago. This past Tuesday, they did it again.

“How shortsighted we were for celebrating our 25th anniversary in our 15th year,” said Jack Dillard, the society’s co-founder, as he addressed his fellow scribes at the Belle Acres Country Club in South End. “But who knew? The Brew Pub Poets Society is like a wart that won’t go away.”

That’s the kind of self-deprecating humor that has characterized the group for 2 1/2 decades now. Dillard and fellow co-founder Bruce Hensley celebrated 25 years early as a joke, because they never imagined they would actually reach such a milestone.

The two men formed the group in 1991 when they were tasked with coming up with a marketing campaign for Dilworth Brewing Co. Today, a brewery might start a run club or offer free yoga classes to drum up business. But Dillard, then a 40-year-old copywriter, looked to his love of language for inspiration. He sent out postcards to some of Charlotte’s biggest media personalities and invited them to join the first meeting. To become a member, you had only to write and recite a poem about beer “and/or its associated pleasures.”

It was an instant success. About 35 people attended the inaugural meeting, including Charlotte Observer columnists like Tom Sorensen, Doug Robarchek and Lawrence Toppman. Soon after, Dillard was scrawling poems on more postcards and sending invitations out on a monthly basis. In 1993, he compiled some of the group’s best work and published it in “Once Upon a Frothy Brew: The Best of the Brew Pub Poets Society, Vol. 1.”

As the years passed the monthly meetings became quarterly meetings, and then yearly meetings. Some members moved away. A few passed away. But a strong core of poets remains, including several charter members who have attended the meetings for a quarter century.

Several were in attendance this past Tuesday night at Belle Acres, the private club the society has called home for many years (Dilworth Brewing closed in 1998). The owner, Bud Nachman, is something of a collector; the brick walls inside are covered in old sports memorabilia, much of it autographed. From the ceiling hang old bicycles, wagons, strollers and even a shark. The country club moniker doesn’t quite fit, and of course that’s the joke. Nachman affectionately refers to his business as “the worst end of South End.”

There’s a lot to take in, but when Tuesday’s meeting began all eyes were on Dillard. As the “self-appointed chief scribe,” he kicks off the meetings. It’s a regular routine that, after all these years, the group falls easily into – an act of call-and-response, part quick-witted improv, part well-worn, familiar jokes.

His “State of the Bunion” address poked fun at topical issues like the New England Patriots’ “Deflategate” controversy, the arrest of former Mayor Patrick Cannon, and Chiquita’s decision to leave Charlotte. His inquiry as to the status of the society’s investor fund and celebrity sponsor program were met only with laughs.

After this, James K. Flynn, the society’s “Poet Lariat,” showed off his namesake: an actual lariat adorned with a church-key and bottle-cap badges. Richard McDevitt asked all current members to stand and recite the society’s pledge, promising “to uphold a beaker of beer on frequent occasions, and to keep its accidental spillage to a beer minimum.”

Three prospective members read their poems, after which the table voted on membership by wavering their hands and chanting a doubtful “Eh!” before ultimately giving the thumbs up. It’s always a thumbs up. Well, almost.

“Only one person has failed,” Dillard told the new members. “And it turned out to be an insurance salesman who snuck in.”

More poems were read. Craig Fulton’s included a refrain of “we ain’t drunk, we’re just drinkin’.” Mitchell Kearny donned white gardening gloves as he tenderly flipped through the pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Curse of Lono.” McDevitt’s verses lamented today’s golden age of craft beer (“the sad truth is I can’t keep pace, or else I’ll fall flat on my face”). The poems elicited jeers, cheers, and frequent shouts of “Ale, yeah!”

Then Dillard closed out the meeting as he always does, by trying to shed his role as the group’s self-appointed scribe. It’s a running joke. Last meeting, he brought a doctor’s note. This time, he displayed a black posterboard covered in letters clipped from magazines. The ransom-style note – in language I can’t reprint here – urged Dillard to step aside. Or else.

“Bud called the FBI before I had a chance to talk to them,” Dillard told his fellow poets, deadpan. “They assure me they are closing in on the culprit and will put him behind bars very soon.”