q and a with the guys behind brews + prose

Meet Michael Croley, Jeff Draeger, Dave Lucas and Matthew Stipe, founders of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery, a monthly literary series featuring readings by established and emerging authors in one of Cleveland’s most popular places to eat and drink. The group’s motto -- “Literature is better with beer” -- encapsulates the mission to make literature, authors, reading and writing more accessible and engaging to larger audiences throughout the greater Cleveland area.

As the group continues to deepen their commitment to local authors and audiences, they also seek to introduce the city to visiting writers. Now entering its third year, Brews + Prose aspires to feature the best beers from around the corner and the most exciting writers from around the country.

Fresh Water recently sat down with the group to discuss the genesis of the project and how beer and books go together like authors and booze.

How did you guys come up with the idea for Brews + Prose?

Matthew Stipe: The whole conversation about Brews + Prose started over a couple of beers with co-founders Dave Lucas and Mike Croley, along with two-time reader George Bilgere, dear friend Jason Nemec, and a few other notables from the Cleveland literary scene. George commented that the arts community in Cleveland, in particular the literary scene, was very disjointed and unorganized. There were so many great nationally known authors in town, but no forum to bring a mass audience to hear them.

That's when a light bulb went off. I knew of a brewery in Chicago that hosted a monthly reading series. It became so popular that when the owner opened a new brewery, he built a library and private bar area to host all of the literary events they were putting on. We had just opened Market Garden Brewery a few months prior, and I thought, "Why couldn't we do this here in Cleveland?" The response has been incredible and beyond what I had ever expected.

Michael Croley: We wanted a series that was laid back in its approach -- no introductions, no question and answer session -- but serious in finding really great artists. We wanted to showcase literature and not more popular forms of writing.

How do beer and a good book go together?

MC: The better question is how does it not go together? The atmosphere of the bar really helps break down the barriers of highbrow often associated with great art -- and that’s what I feel like we’re providing each month. No writer is writing for just three people and his or her mother. A writer has something to say. I like to think of our crowds as those that Shakespeare wrote to, which is to say across all classes and education levels. That’s what makes Shakespeare so amazing. We have better glasses and flannel shirts, though.

Dave Lucas: In my opinion, they go together almost as well as Jameson and a good book go together. Beer and books are opportunities for different kinds of conversations. Beer allows us to toast with the living, with family and friends. Books allow us to talk with characters who are purely imaginary, authors who are long dead. At our readings, we get to do both.

JD: Well, the theory that I live by is that when you drink, you think.

MS: Naturally, there is strong connection between alcohol and the greatest writers in history. But what doesn't go with a great beer? It seems like a natural fit. Life is all about friends and family, food, drink and great conversation. That's what Brew + Prose offers.
How do you find your authors? Are they all local?

MC: Most are local but we’re interested in bringing people from out of town and showing off Ohio City and Cleveland. We want to show Clevelanders that some of the best writers in America live in Northeast Ohio.

DL: We started with local authors almost exclusively, which allowed us to benefit from both the audiences those authors had already built in Cleveland and the goodwill of those authors and audiences in coming out to our events. We have a remarkable wealth and diversity of talent in Northeast Ohio, and we want to show that off. But we also want to show off our city to the writers we love who happen (for whatever inexplicable, indefensible reason) not to live in Cleveland, and to introduce them to the audiences here too.

Who is your favorite guest author you’ve hosted?

MS: This is like choosing which one of your kids is your favorite. We have been blessed with so many amazing authors, but one that stands out has to be Michael Ruhlman. I had met him a few times before and followed him on the Food Network and shows like “No Reservations.” His stories really blew me away and he was so funny. I'm glad there is someone out there like him in the national food scene constantly singing the praises of Cleveland

DL: Of course, I’ve loved and will always love each of our authors equally, and unconditionally too, for that matter. But I’ll take my tongue out of my cheek long enough to say that it’s a special privilege to be able to host writers who have also been teachers of mine, such as George Bilgere and Linda Gregerson.

What book do you love and read over and over again?

MC:So Long, See You Tomorrow” by William Maxwell and “Stoner” by John Williams -- two really great novels. And “Fair and Tender Ladies” by Lee Smith.

DL: An impossible question, of course -- in recent years I’ve probably gone back to Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” more than any other book. I’m partial to the Market Garden menu, too. It works on so many levels.
MS:Weather” by Dave Lucas. It's my bathroom book.

What is the biggest struggle or hurdle you've had to overcome and how did you overcome it?

DL: I don’t know that I’d call it a struggle, but we Clevelanders have the wonderful problem in Cleveland these days of having so much going on, so many wonderful cultural events worthy of attention and attendance. Our continuing challenge is to demonstrate that our events are worth coming out on a Tuesday night, especially if that Tuesday night happens to be at the center of a polar vortex.

MS: I think the biggest hurdle continues to be ensuring we have a great turnout each month. We have been blessed with huge crowds in the past, such as for our anniversary where we had Connie Schultz and Michael Ruhlman. I think we had nearly 230 people and couldn't fit in another soul!

Can you share a funny experience with our readers?

DL: One of my favorite moments from the series occurred in October 2012, after our fourth reading, which featured poet George Bilgere and novelist and journalist Thrity Umrigar. A woman approached me, took my wrist in her hands, and said what a wonderful night she’d had. “I came because I’ve read all of Thrity’s books,” she said, “but I just fell in love with that poet!” If we can bring audiences into conversation with their favorite authors on the same night we introduce them to new favorite authors, we will be very proud indeed.

When are your next meetings, and who will you host?

DL: On Tuesday, April 1, at 7 p.m. we are celebrating National Poetry Month with Linda Gregerson and David Baker. On Tuesday, May 6 at 7 p.m. Cleveland's own Kristin Ohlson will read from her new book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” and debut author Ben Stroud reads from his acclaimed book of stories, “Byzantium.”
Photos Carissa Russell

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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