Brew Hui Meets: Richard Emerson

Dunedin’s Albar sits on Stuart Street, at the base of the bustling Octagon. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place, dwarfed by the cavernous pubs and restaurants that surround it – all of which appear nail-bitingly empty for Beer O’Clock on a Thursday. Entering Albar is like stepping onto a train carriage – it’s long and narrow, with booths along one side and a curving bar down the other. It’s instantly homely, with nothing out of place and everything as it should be; even the stack of chairs in the corner seem Just Right. It’s whatever the opposite of pretentious is – humble, I guess; humble and perfect.

Perhaps you’ve spotted the poorly-hidden metaphor – but for the not-really-paying-attention crowd, here it is in stark nudity: Albar’s character fits Richard Emerson like a proverbial glove.

Such is his nature, getting Richard to talk about himself is a reasonably momentous task. Meeting anyone for the first time requires – if only as a social formality – around two minutes of polite (but not-really-listening) enquiry as to the stranger’s vocation; with Richard, I spent the first twenty minutes of our hui fielding questions about what I do for a living. I mean, c’mon: Twenty Minutes? That just smacks of genuine caring and curiosity. Sitting across from him – and trying my best to convey just exactly what it is I do for a living – I struggled to understand why a poxy beer writer (with a day-job that he can’t properly explain) would hold such fascination with a man of his accomplishments.

I mean, doesn’t he realise He’s Richard Emerson?

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But here’s the thing: deflection of focus is Richard’s bread-and-butter. When we eventually started talking about him, he stated for the record that he hates being put on a pedestal – and all of a sudden, the first pint of our conversation made much more sense. He knows about himself, and what he’s done; so he’d much rather find out about you and what you’re up to. Simply put: he’s a thoroughly lovely chap with a common man’s touch.

As a result of prenatal exposure to rubella, Richard is – and always has been – profoundly deaf. Being an exceptional lip-reader, his deafness was no more a barrier to our conversation than Stu’s loud pants (or Jono’s smouldering good looks, for that matter); and besides, Richard would say that he never knew the difference, and we shouldn’t make a fuss about it. But from personal experience, I’ve learnt that overcoming daily (and never-ending) adversity has a way of instilling a certain drive – a sink-or-swim mentality, where success is Option 1 and little thought is given to Option 2.

Richard’s start in the world of brewing was typical, at least in its agreement with other legends of the trade: a Grandfather who homebrewed often; the early-acquisition of a Cooper’s kit; a series of early disasters in his Mum’s kitchen (which, following the last Brew Hui brew day, was a sheer delight to hear). His first commercial beer was Emerson’s London Porter – a drop which is still ranked as one of the finest in its class, even by spade-calling grenade-chuckers – but it was a one-off batch of a new-world Bitter called Bookbinder that put Emerson’s on the map in the all-important craft-beer-swilling Wellington market.

At the outset, Richard’s Five-Year Plan for his eponymous company was simple: Survive. He’d read somewhere that 95% of all start-up companies fail in their first five years; but being a survivor from way-back, Richard’s goal was to be in the 5%. When he got to five years – and the Emerson’s story was fast-becoming the stuff of legend – Richard felt lost. He genuinely hadn’t thought that far ahead. So he did what he does best: he just kept on keeping on, to the point where Emerson’s have now outgrown – for the third time – their current brewery. The imminent move to a bigger premise will feed the rapid expansion post-Lion sale, and help to ensure that Emerson’s production can remain in Dunedin for the foreseeable future.

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We didn’t actually touch on the Lion sale – everything that can be written about that has already been written, and it’s not where my interests in Richard lie at all – but I do want to take this opportunity to share a few not-entirely-original thoughts on the subject. One of the major coups of the acquisition by Lion is that Emerson’s now has access to an enormous distribution network; for example, I can now walk into my local Lion-tied pub and order a pint of Bookbinder – which for some may seem perfectly normal; but for a craft-starved East Aucklander, it’s a f**king big deal. And the beer is still as delicious as ever – no doubt assisted by Lion’s immense problem-solving resources.

To top it all off, one of the nicest human beings on the planet now has the opportunity to bask in the glow of his life’s work – and perhaps even begin to write a new chapter, without the burden of endless corporate meetings that are an inevitable consequence of expansion. Collectively, those things make the Lion sale fine by me; but really, my thoughts are of little consequence. Quite bluntly, Emerson’s was always whatever Richard – and his investors – said it was. It was theirs to sell, not ours.

For a New Zealand Beer Geek, I don’t think there’s any more pure experience than sitting down for a pint of Bookie with Richard Emerson. If I had a Bucket List, this would be on it; and the box next to it would be gleefully ticked. Oh, and another, too; since none-other than Ben Middlemiss – another member of New Zealand brewing’s aristocracy, and the subject of much discussion during my chat with his once-assistant brewer Luke Nicholas – just happened to wander into Albar for a pint with Richard.

I nearly drowned in my own geek juice.

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Not wanting to slip back into Fan Boy mode and overstay my welcome, I farewelled my host. Stepping into the crisp Dunedin evening, I was struck by a thought: namely, that the passion with which Richard speaks of his craft is proof positive that apathy is not inevitable. Richard is still a homebrewer at heart; he’s forever chasing flavour, and follows nocturnal visions whenever they present themselves. He’s not just a Brewer’s Brewer; he’s a Beer Drinker’s Brewer – and we’re all frightfully lucky to have him.

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