Crafty busi­ness

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.

Good - - DRINKS - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy Carolyn Ent­ing

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.”

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