Story and photos by Michael Donaldson
To see Richard Emerson at home in his new brewery is he definition of “kid in a lolly shop”.
The brewpub is Emerson’s dream “final” venue after previously occupying three other sites around Dunedin over 24 years.
Emerson describes it as his “spiritual home” and not just because his bosses at Lion allowed him to put in a 1200 litre experimental brewery. It’s the location – next to the railway line – and the tastefully done train theme inside (with ‘tracks’ and ‘sleepers’ embedded in the stone floor) to the old steam whistle outside which Emerson says he’ll use whenever a new beer is produced.
For Emerson, the journey to this place comes after two decades of hard work which culminated in the sale to Lion – a move well worthwhile as it’s doubtful Emerson’s in its old form could have invested the $25 million needed to build the new brewery.
When Emerson started out, it was with the backing of his dad George, mother Ingrid, and the handful of investors George convinced to come along or the ride – friends in his biochemistry department at Otago University, fellow train enthusiasts, family
George kept a tight hold on the brewery chequebook – wanting to ensure, first and foremost, the brewery stayed in business.
“Dad was a major influence in rounding up family members and friends to invest in my vision of setting up a craft brewery, he also put a large chunk of the family money in,” Emerson recalls.
“It was risky and he kept a tight rein on the finances for many years which probably helped the business to survive the first five years. This constraint made life difficult for me though, I was unpaid and under-resourced, but it also made me more determined to get around those tough conditions with creative use of equipment.”
An example of his creativity was the fact that back then he owned just two 1200L fermenters. When he wanted to introduce his weissbier there was no money for another fermenter of the specific shape needed for the top fermenting nature of the specialist weissbier yeast.
“I organised the production so the weissbier was the last brew of the week and therefore the mash tun could be well cleaned and sanitised to receive the wort back from the kettle, then fermented for five days and removed into a bottling tank. This was the sort of thinking I had to do, find ways of increasing sales without spending more money.”
It’s that kind of thinking – around business sense, innovation, and the understanding of beer – that has made Emerson so influential. Any brewer who has come to him asking for advice or a way to solve a problem has found an open and receptive font of knowledge.
In a competitive environment it’s unusual to help rivals so willingly but Emerson’s logic is simple: the more he helps others, the better the New Zealand beer scene.
“We will end up drinking better beer and see less bad beer around. I, however draw the line on the recipes but I’m happy to give advice on things like how to maximise your assets, brewery designs and advice on what works well, like wet floor coatings.”
It’s no surprise that other brewers love this godfather of beer.
“Richard Emerson transformed my way of thinking about what beer can be – first through the beers he made and then as a friend and mentor,” says Stu McKinlay of Yeastie Boys.
“His enthusiasm is unbounded and infectious. He is a beer lover and brewer, first and foremost, and became a pretty savvy businessman – something that was essential for Emerson’s Brewery to survive, and then thrive, in a market that was very different to what it is 20 years on.
“Above all things, I’ve never met someone who loves flavour like Richard. John Irving wrote, in Hotel New Hampshire, that ‘You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.’ Richard personifies this idea to me. He fell in love with beer at an early age and we were all lucky enough to benefit from his obsession.
“I truly believe that no one has changed the landscape of beer in New Zealand – for the better – like Richard Emerson has.”
Steve Nally, of Invercargill Brewery, was on hand for the official opening and embraced Emerson with a huge bear hug on arrival, a testimony to the friend Emerson has become.
Nally recalls returning to New Zealand from Europe and getting a job in the freezing works in Invercargill while hankering for another life. “I looked at wine-making but I met a wine-maker up in Central Otago and he was an asshole. I thought ‘I don’t want to be in an industry where these are the types of people’.
“I was making home brew at the time and started to see these new beers coming along so I went to talk to Richard Emerson about being a brewer and he was the guy who said ‘yeah, get into it’. He’s always been encouraging.
“He cracks the worst jokes ever but he’s lovable and he’s a shining light in this industry because of his positivity – he genuinely wants people to succeed.
“He’s been through pain and hurt over the years and there have been people who have taken him for granted or used him for their own ends, but he’s come through all that with that big smile and the dumb jokes and he’s remained a great man and a great leader.
“He makes consistently high quality products, he has a great palate, he understands the ingredients, he’s an expert. And if you want to know something about brewing you say ‘I’ll ask Richard’.”
One stand-out quality of all of Emerson’s beers is the balance and refined nature – something he’s never compromised on.
“Right from the start, we were determined to keep the beer in the premium category, competing with the imported beer by being priced slightly below that but still well above the mainstream beers – we never wanted to cheapen ourselves. We did struggle for the first five years until the public slowly changed their attitude from drinking cheap beer towards drinking a little less and a lot better.
“Constant beer education has slowly helped customers move up towards premium beers … and since 2000, the wider choice of craft beers and the new drink driving rules have further changed the public mindset. Beer has become the new wine.”
With a quarter of a century in the business, Emerson has seen seismic shifts in the industry, yet his first beer, London Porter, remains a popular testament to simple goodness while the long-loved Bookbinder and Pilsner are stamped with his philosophy of “flavour, balance and drinking pleasure”.
Looking ahead, Emerson sees more changes coming to the industry, forecasting “a shake-up among the contract brewers as the host breweries start to run out of production capacity”.
He also believes quality and consistency will become far more important as customers become even more knowledgeable. “If they experience some sub-standard beers they will stick with brands known for quality.”
On a personal note, he can’t wait to get started on his little experimental brewery.
“There was no point in becoming a bigger brewery and losing our small batch size flexibility, so we were able to convince Lion to invest in a new 1200 litre brew house that mimics the 50 hectalitre brewery – this means we can create new ‘workshop’ beers and trial recipes and ingredients.”
And whatever he brews, Emerson will put his incredible palate and sense of smell to the test. Because he was born deaf, Emerson has a highly-tuned, compensatory sense of taste.
“I love the smell of the mash – that lovely bready aroma, then the hop additions in the kettle. But most of my pleasure is derived from the yeast interaction with the malt and hops. Most people tend to overlook the importance of the yeast’s role in the beer flavour. There are a lot of delicate flavour nuances that yeast imparts to the beer – I love finding the right yeast that highlights the ingredients that we want to showcase.”
And because he’s so sensitive to tastes, he knows when a beer is out of balance.
“There are not many flavours I don’t like, it’s usually the sickly cloying flavours that make it hard to drink a beer or badly-balanced beers. What I cannot cope with is the extreme beers: over this, over that and over-done… A well balanced beer is a simple pleasure to drink.”