Q & A

Guided by Taste

Richard Emerson's sweet success has brought life and lovely, lovely beer to his hometown, Dunedin

In a noisy bar, Richard Emerson has a distinct advantage over a hearing person. He's also taking a gun to a knife fight when it comes to funny. A wry leg-puller, apart from needing to be on the look-out for the conversational equivalent of tartan paint, interviewing him is no hardship, especially over a pint of Emersons' Clam Stout (dark and chocolatey) – served with a nip of Arran single malt. “All we need are some fresh bluff oysters or buckwheat blinis topped with clam meat,” says Richard, who's all about food matching at the moment, as he dreams up the world's most delicious beer, food and whisky combinations for Emersons' new brewery, restaurant and tasting room ̶  the construction of which is currently changing Dunedin's harbourside skyline for the better.

'Keen' is an understatement for the slavering, nose-pressed-against-car-window level of local anticipation. When will it open? “We'd like to have it ready by tomorrow,” kids the kidder; actually, the brew crew are hoping to have the first beer there in April 2016, doors properly thrown open at the end of June, just in time for the first All Blacks’ test match at nearby Forsyth Barr stadium.

The new brewery will be five times bigger than the current premises; large enough that they never need to move again, fingers crossed. Because, like a teenage boy whose parents can't keep him in shoes, Emersons has outgrown every building that's housed it since the days Richard brewed beer in the family kitchen (his mum got fed up with the mess) and delivered it around town in his Mini.

Born profoundly deaf, Richard's parents didn't think a lack of hearing should be a barrier to a fantastic life. He grew up fearless, a daredevil, a child who could lip-read like a demon. As a young man, due to his heightened senses of taste and smell, he discovered an immense passion for all things flavoursome, and a great social equaliser in the form of beer. He loves the informality, the conviviality. “I can't imagine people from all walks of life coming together to talk over wine,” he says. (Not many people know this, but Richard Emerson is extremely sarcastic.)

Working in breweries on his OE, he fell in love with European-style beer, returning home disenchanted with the limitations of New Zealand ales. So, aged 27, raising $90,000 by borrowing from everyone he could think of and some he hadn't, Richard set up a small concern at 4 Grange Street. Only able to afford a single secondhand pump, the first commercial offering was 1200 litres of London Porter, released in March 1993. In that first year he sold 10,000 litres. “Now we do that in a couple of days.” It was two years before he could employ a part-timer who wasn't his dad. Being told that over 90 per cent of new businesses don't make their first five years only made him more determined.

The fantastically drinkable Bookbinder was the first real hit and the first time the company exported overseas ... to Wellington. After which Emersons quickly got too big for its britches and moved across the road to No. 9. Hulking out of that building in December 2005 and relocating to 14 Wickliffe Street, Richard said “Great, we'll never have to move again. ‘This is it’, I thought, ‘A million litres,' now we're doing a million and a half, have so many tanks squeezed in we can't add anymore and tours are impossible. We've had people come into the office to ask for a beer.” In other words, she cannae take anymore, Cap'n.

Enter Lion, who bought Emersons in 2013 for $8 million, the proceeds from the sale divided between about 20 shareholders. Last year, Lion purchased the Anzac Ave site of the new brewery. They're very hands off, says Richard, and stay in the background taking care of red tape and bureaucracy. “Otherwise we would spend hours doing the boring stuff. Leaving us alone, independent, they are fantastic, and love what we do.” What they do is eight year-round beers and three seasonal, having built a reputation for innovative blends and brewing ingenuity. Prize winning, yes, they have them coming out their ears, yet the company's enduring popularity has more to do with personality and Richard's infectious enthusiasm.

What makes this brand special? “It’s not gimmicky. Not hipster,” says Richard. “We aren't trying to be one thing to everybody and I'm proud of the fact that we have a diverse range – people love to discover the flavours for themselves.” Does he have a favourite beer? A fair answer: “That's such an unfair question. If I had a favourite beer it would put all the other beers to shame. Beer lends itself to so many different occasions and seasons; you can't choose just one.”

As the last of next year's autumn leaves flutter and winter starts to say hello, Richard will be saying the same to customers coming in to try beers in a half pint ('I want this, and this, and this...') before they buy bottles or fill flagons, go to the bar or have a coffee. “If they're lucky they might get dragged in to stir the mash.” The new brewery will be a destination speaking to the deep pleasure and satisfaction the company takes in the fact they make world-class beers right here in Dunedin. Celebrating something the city can be proud of, a business grown from an acorn, the little brewery that could. Double the capacity at three million litres, I put it to Richard that, soon, the whole world will be drinking Emersons. “Who knows?” he says, and with a raised glass and a wink, it’s time for some serious quality control.

Here's to you, Mr Emerson.

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