Barrels, handpumps, porters and pils

Richard Emerson checks the clarity of one of his early brews. Photo: Geoff Griggs
Richard Emerson checks the clarity of one of his early brews. Photo: Geoff Griggs

Visiting England in 1990, Richard Emerson loved frequenting The Orange, a historic brewpub in London’s Pimlico, writes Michael Donaldson in the new biography Richard Emerson The Hopfather.

In this edited extract, Richard Emerson returns to Dunedin with the pub’s recipe for porter and makes it the basis for his own London Porter.

Richard had no qualms starting off with a borrowed recipe - noting that by the time he used the malts available to him in New Zealand, as well as local hops and Dunedin water, a completely different beer presented itself.

Richard designed his beers to deliver flavour and a unique drinking experience - he wanted to transport the drinker to those British pubs he had so enjoyed in Edinburgh as a teenager and then later on his beer-scouting expedition to Europe. He wanted people to appreciate a complex, tasty beer served at the right temperature and with the low level of carbonation associated with real ale as opposed to the standard-issue, fizzy, highly carbonated beers that were commonplace in New Zealand.

Shrewdly, he realised price and brand would come into the mix. He needed to do more than put a beer to market and trust that people would love it - in fact, he knew some people would hate it.

In the original business plan for Emerson's, Richard detailed the idea that branding could possibly carry more weight than flavour. He noted that people identified themselves with beer brands as a Speight's southern man or a Steinlager-type, and that they chose to project that image through their drinking. This is reinforced by the prolific use of beer brands on clothes, the business plan observed.

He recognised his beers would not be bought on rational grounds ... "I believe this is a game played on emotive rules and our objective is to create a certain market who perceive themselves to be "Emerson's drinkers" and in doing so they project a certain self-image.

The brand image will be created in spite of, or even because of, our higher price. Price does impute quality and a high price can be used to create an image on its own. We are trying to find a niche in a marketplace that is very sophisticated in its brand positioning and we must study the water very carefully before diving in."

And study it he did. Richard scoured bottle shops and supermarkets to look at pricing - he wanted his beer priced at a premium level well above that of Speight's and other mainstream beer brands. But, equally, he couldn't go so high as to be off-putting especially as the first beer he was trying to sell was a porter. The only comparable beer on the market was Guinness, so it became a benchmark for pricing, with Emerson's London Porter priced just under the imported Irish brew.

To launch his business with an arcane beer style, served in a fashion many Kiwis despised and openly mocked as warm and flat, begged the question - why?

In watching the Emerson's journey over a quarter-century, long-time beer writer and judge Geoff Griggs remains astonished the brand took off on the back of London Porter. As an Englishman, Griggs could well understand the allure of a creamy, chocolatey porter served at the right temperature and with low carbonation, but he couldn't imagine how Richard thought it would resonate with the New Zealand drinking public who had virtually no concept of what they were being served. Aside from the fact no-one was making craft beer and they certainly weren't calling it craft beer - let alone attempting to sell it in an unopen market - to launch your business with a porter when there were no other dark beers of note, except Guinness, was an incredibly brave or stupid thing to do.

London Porter has incrementally changed over the years, as Richard got access to new malts and different hops - but the fact it's been an award-winning flagship beer for over 25 years and remains relevant today is a testament to how far ahead of its time it was.

Why did you make London Porter your first beer - what were you thinking?

People ask me this a lot. There were several reasons for it.

First, there were not many dark beers on the market. Speight's had just brought out Old Dark but that didn't have enough flavour. Second, putting a porter in wooden barrels and serving it with a handpump to get a creamy head was unusual, a point of difference. And third, I couldn't afford a filter to make bright beer, it would have looked hazy. With London Porter being a dark beer you couldn't see that it wasn't a clear beer. Making a dark beer meant I could get away with poor clarity until I got more experienced in the techniques for brighter beer.

Richard won a trophy at the Australian International Neer Awards for his Weissbier, but was so...
Richard won a trophy at the Australian International Neer Awards for his Weissbier, but was so poor he needed sponsorship to fly to Melbourne for the awards and had to buy a second-hand suit.
All of Emerson's early beers had a classical theme. The second beer off the production line was a German Weissbier. Having fallen out of vogue slightly, the style of beer no longer holds its place at the Emerson's table, but back in the 1990s it stood out, even if it remained misunderstood. On one hand, it was an international award winner, and on the other, it was completely foreign to most punters in New Zealand.

I can recall being at a bar one day to launch my Weissbier and I was so happy to be pouring it with a big foamy head - just right - and I proudly handed it over to the customer who said, `What the hell is this? Why is there so much foam?'

I told them the foam was an integral part of the beer. He looked at me with suspicion, but eventually took a sip and said, `Not bad' ... and walked off. I often felt like I was trying to educate bogans.

Richard had less trouble selling the 1812 Pale Ale. The 1812 has continued to sell well since its inception more than 25 years ago although it has changed its garb from a traditional British-style pale ale to having a more American-influenced spin in keeping with the trends of recent years.

After London Porter I wanted to stick to a Victorian theme and the name 1812 suited that. People also made the association with Beethoven's 1812 Overture, but the real reason for that name was our phone number at the brewery 477-1812!

Dad and I thought the name had a good ring to it. Ring to it. Get it? And if anyone mentioned the 1812 Overture, I said, Yes, an overture of hops.

While London Porter launched Emerson's, the beer that applied the afterburners to the growth of the business came in the form of another highly original, distinctive and enduring creation - a 3.7% English-style bitter, distinguished by the use of New Zealand hops, all created from a recipe scribbled on the back of an envelope.

Richard had created a presence for himself in Oamaru, with the Criterion Hotel being the first pub to take his beer. The city also has a distinctive Victorian charm that seemed to align nicely with the Emerson's brand. There Richard found a friend and devout supporter in Michael O'Brien, now a brewer himself as part of Oamaru's Craftwork Brewery with his partner Lee-Ann Scotti.

Emerson's beers found such success in Oamaru, O'Brien urged Richard to relocate the brewery north of the Waitaki River. For Richard to move from Dunedin didn't bear thinking about. I wasn't prepared to completely change my lifestyle to move up there, he said.

Richard had already committed to pouring two of his beers - London Porter and 1812 - at a Victorian fete in Oamaru, and he thought it would be great to have a third beer on tap.

I wanted to make a four-pinter beer, low in alcohol compared with London Porter and 1812. I wrote the recipe on the back of an envelope the night before I made it. I wanted it juicy and refreshing. I used a touch of black malt to change the pH and the colour. I used some New Zealand hops and it was just what I was looking for. But what do I call it? I knew Michael O'Brien was a bookbinder in Oamaru, and my friend David Stedman was also a bookbinder in Dunedin. That was it: Bookbinder. It went down really well.

Bookie, as the beer became affectionately known, took Wellington by storm in the mid-nineties and helped push Emerson's profile in the beer-centric capital.

If Bookie stole punters' hearts, Emerson's Pilsner changed their minds and turned the brewing industry on its head. That revolutionary brew set Richard Emerson apart and gave him a place in global brewing history.

Created in 1995, Emerson's Pilsner was so far ahead of its time, it took another decade or more for the rest of the industry to catch up. Completely different to anything else in the world at the time, it redefined what New Zealand beer could be - no exaggeration.

A product of a unique set of circumstances, Emerson's Pilsner spurred a specific style category now recognised around the world as New Zealand Pilsner. The brewing and beer judging world recognises more than 100 styles, some dating back hundreds of years. New Zealand Pilsner recently joined those ranks and beer competitions around the world have categories dedicated to the unique Kiwi creation.

Richard's contribution to that cannot be understated. He was the first brewer to successfully take a classic European beer and give it an idiosyncratic New Zealand twist with the use of Nelson-grown hops, which were bouncing with tropical fruit characters.

"Emerson's Pilsner is legendary," says Pete Gillespie, the extraordinarily creative brewer and co-founder at Wellington's Garage Project. "It's a beer that created a style and you don't get those very often. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is an example of a beer that created a style and that's what Richard did with Emerson's Pilsner."

"Emerson's Pilsner turned New Zealand brewing on its head," adds Kelly Ryan, of Fork Brewcorp in Wellington. "It's so far-reaching in terms of what he's given to the brewing world."

Richard at the Criterion Hotel in Oamaru.
Richard at the Criterion Hotel in Oamaru.
Richard's quantum leap came when representatives of the organic industry approached him to make an organic beer for them.

I wanted to make a lager completely different to all other lagers and, wow, it had a unique flavour. I told myself at the time that this was the sauvignon blanc of beers. I've always wanted to put Dunedin on the beer map. Dunedin water is very similar to the water they use to make Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic. People tend to knock Dunedin and I wanted to turn that around and be able to say we've got world-class beer here.

The beer started out as New Zealand BioGrains Pride of the Plains Pilsner, but grew so popular Richard decided to put it out under his own label while keeping the original imagery of the Canterbury Plains backed by the Southern Alps. Now known as Emerson's Pilsner, it is the company's flagship beer, and a gateway beer for countless craft converts.

What set Emerson's Pilsner apart from anything else being done at the time? Traditional Pilsner - born in the Czech Republic and tweaked in Germany - is best understood via the likes of Heineken, Stella Artois or Carlsberg. It's a snappy lager style with hops that deliver a grassy, herbal or earthy bite. Most people know the flavour profile - its almost ubiquitous in green-bottled international lagers.

Richard Emerson The Hopfather, by Michael Donaldson, Penguin NZ, RRP$45
Richard Emerson The Hopfather, by Michael Donaldson, Penguin NZ, RRP$45
Richard took the classic pilsner base and overlaid it with New Zealand hops, specifically a hop variety known in those early days as Saaz-D, later to be renamed as what we now refer to as Riwaka. It's not a particularly bitter hop, but it packs strong fruit character, including notes of grapefruit and passionfruit.

These days Kiwi brewers have stretched and tweaked New Zealand Pilsner, further accentuating the hops, and many have moved a long way from the jumping-off point created by Emerson's, but all those beers owe their existence to Richard's determination to create something with a wow factor.

Old 95 has also stayed in commission since the early days of the brewery. A barley-wine-style beer made annually and aged to be perfectly smooth and rich for Christmas-time drinking, the first two versions carried the monikers Old 93 and Old 94.

"In the first year I made an Old Ale - designed as a Christmas Ale - and very similar to Old 95, I put them in half-size Champagne bottles with a plastic cork. But because an Old Ale is not highly carbonated, people struggled to get the cork out of the bottle. Some people brought them to the brewery and said, `I can't open this.' I'd grab the bottle and `pop', the cork would come out. But that's because I had such strong hands from all the hand-bottling and lifting I'd done!"

While Richard enjoyed the first iterations of that beer, he also struggled to nail the exact flavour he wanted. He soon realised that trying to make an English-style ale with malt designed for New Zealand lagers meant it lacked the depth and character he sought. But in 1995, fellow comic-book enthusiast David Cryer started his malt business, Cryermalt, and began importing specialist malts from Britain and Germany

What a revelation! Suddenly I got the flavour I wanted. That was in 1995 and that's why the Old Ale has been permanently named Old 95.

David Cryer was also a godsend for us. Bringing in the malt we wanted and getting us out of plastic bottles at the same time. David helped me track down a glass-bottle supplier in the UK, so I was able to make a transition from plastic to glass, which was a better image for us.

I was too small-fry for bottle manufacturers in New Zealand to deal with - and I didn't want to go to 330ml bottles as it was just too difficult to make money off them. I didn't want to go to 750ml because they were seen as bogan bottles. And I liked 500ml because that was like having a pint. David brought in the 500ml glass bottles from the UK with containers of malt. It was a little bit more expensive for us, but it was important for our image.

Eventually, we went to a German supplier and now the bottles are done by a New Zealand manufacturer, but we had to change the shape slightly to avoid copyright infringement. This became the mainstay of our packaging and we never considered 330ml bottles until we moved into Anzac Ave - by the time we got there the whole market had changed and now we've even got cans.

Emerson's Pilsner

Emerson's Pilsner is a landmark beer in New Zealand history. Just as Steinlager changed the beer landscape when it launched in the 1950s, so Emerson's Pilsner created a ripple effect with the way it showcased New Zealand hops in 1995. Richard set out to create a unique beer, and by taking a classical recipe and replacing herbal, spicy hops with the tropical fruit qualities of New Zealand hops, he conjured up a style of beer that has slowly gained acceptance around the world as a definitive Kiwi beer. Emerson's Pilsner literally changed brewing in New Zealand, brought attention to the quality of Nelson-grown hops and created a flavour profile that was replicated the length and breadth of the country. It's fruity, zesty, crisp and refreshing.

Emerson's 1812

The 1812 Hoppy Pale Ale took its name from the last four digits of the Emerson's Brewery phone number. But Richard also liked the reference to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, a reference British beer writer Michael Jackson riffed off when describing 1812 as having an ``overture of hops''. At one stage, Jackson featured 1812 as one of his top 500 beers in the world. The original recipe for 1812 was quite malty, and the beer was more a British-style pale ale with hints of caramel and marmalade. It evolved over the years to keep pace with the changing tastes and the changing nature of pale ale, and is now more American-influenced, with a slightly leaner, cleaner malt base. It is the very definition of a sessionable pale ale, with loads of flavour and great drinkability.


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