A founder of the craft beer movement in New Zealand, Richard Emerson has seen his dream played out with the establishment of a tap room and restaurant at the Dunedin brewery.
T he first time I tasted Emerson’s was at the BrewNZ 2008 awards in Wellington and it was my introduction to the world of craft beer. The brewery won so many awards that night it was impossible not to take note that something truly exciting was coming out of Dunedin. Emerson’s has been making craft beer in the deep south since 1992. Back then, when founder Richard Emerson first started, there were only 50 of his ilk in New Zealand – today there are almost 200.
There’s no doubt many brewers around the country were inspired by this young brewer whose keenly honed palate led him to start making beer in his mother’s Dunedin kitchen.
It was a trip to Edinburgh with his parents at age 18 that exposed Emerson to the world of hops and different flavours. “At the time the legal drinking age in New Zealand was 20 but in Edinburgh it was 18 and it was like a beer paradise for me trying out all the different beers and going to the pubs,” he says.
Returning to New Zealand he was disappointed to discover the beer available here was not as flavoursome. “It was bland, watery with hardly any hop aroma and I wanted to change that,” says Emerson.
He admits that as an 18-year-old having an awareness of hop aroma might be considered unusual but he puts that down to being born deaf. “If you lose one sense, you gain influence in other areas. Flavour has always been a passion of mine in food and drinks, so it’s natural for me to be enamoured by the flavour rather than just listen to people,” he says.
Bookbinder was Emerson’s first successful brew that he “exported overseas to Wellington”. Notable for its sweet, perfumey, malt and hop aroma Bookbinder ale is both full flavoured and refreshing. “Wellington is probably one of the reasons that Emerson’s grew because we took a foothold [there],” Emerson says. “Bookbinder became the Wellington beer until the craft beer market expanded. That’s how I got a foothold in the early days.”
Bookbinder won a gold at the 2008 awards and is still a top seller in Emerson’s core range alongside London Porter, Bird Dog, Pilsner, 1812, Dare Devil and Hop Wops. Over the past 25 years, Emerson has steadily built up the business, pouring profits back in to make more beer to keep up with demand, and moving premises four times.
Today, as founder, Emerson leaves the beer making to the company’s six brewers. “It’s good for the boys to take up the reins and inspire their creativity. If I’m in the way, the creativity might not be as good,” he says. “I’m proud of what they do and by the way they pick up the Emerson’s philosophy, the way we do beers and how we approach the flavours.”
Flavour, balance and drinkability are the three pillars of the brewery’s philosophy and while Emerson’s is committed to producing its core range, the brewers continue to play around and experiment with small batch brews. “It’s what makes craft brewing so much fun,” he says.
Recent examples include a sour beer with Japanese plums in it; and a 2.5 per cent low alcohol hoppy pale ale called Moderation.
Being bought by Lion in 2012 has made the company stronger and it enabled one of Emerson’s long-held goals to finally come to fruition – the opening of a tap room and restaurant at the brewery in June 2016. A postcard penned to his grandmother in 1990 (which outlines his desire to one day own a brewpub) proudly hangs in the foyer of the new brewery on Anzac Ave.
Part of the conditions for Lion buying Emerson’s was that the brewery stayed in Dunedin. It also enabled him to pay out all of the original investors (mostly friends and family) who supported him along the way. As well as the “one-shot opportunity” to make a tasting room and restaurant happen.
“We are actually in a better position to have a big brand company behind us,” says Emerson. “They leave us to be totally independent but with a financial backing.”
Emerson is proud of the buzzing tap room and restaurant. It’s a culture he fell in love with on that first trip to Edinburgh and what he believes is the beauty of beer – bringing people from all walks of life together with great food and conversation.
All the beers are still produced on site and Emerson’s is still winning awards. Its beer label refresh took home the Best Packaging Award at the Brewers Guild of NZ Awards in 2017.
And Emerson thinks New Zealand’s current booming craft beer scene is “fantastic”. “It’s wonderful that people around the country are making great beers and we really enjoy having a beer from those breweries,” Emerson says. “At the end of the day every brewer has to look after their own market and prove themselves in the marketplace. What we do the most of is just try and keep up with the demand of what we do.”