Emerson’s continues Dunedin’s thirst for first

Dunedin is New Zealand’s city of firsts – first city, first university... turns out, it’s also the place to work up a thirst.

Quirky, Gaelic-infused Dunedin is New Zealand’s city of firsts – first city, first newspaper, first university... turns out, it’s also the place to work up a thirst.

From kitchen experiments to a friend’s garage and award-winning brews, New Zealand craft brewer Richard Emerson is brewing up to open New Zealand’s newest craft beer destination – a shiny new brewery and visitor centre in central Dunedin.

In New Zealand’s short European history, the Scots-founded South Island city of Dunedin has a proud history of pioneering firsts - first city (proclaimed in 1868), first main centre with a daily newspaper (The Otago Daily Times, 1861), first southern hemisphere city to receive live fish eggs from England (salmon ova, 1868), and that was just the beginning. 

Meanwhile, almost 150 years on, the pipes still sound, the newspaper prints, the salmon bite and Dunedin’s appetite and enthusiasm for creating firsts hasn’t waned – step up Emerson’s, one of New Zealand’s first and most successful, independent breweries, soon to celebrate its 23rd anniversary and make its next big move in mid-2016. 

Emerson’s Brewery has been turning out consistently awarding-winning stouts, lagers, ales and more since 1993, and is soon to move into big new premises designed to let beer enthusiasts get up close and personal with their favourite tipple, and the people who make it.

The brewery and the beers are the creation of Richard Emerson, food technician turned brewmeister, who started out making beer in his downtime at work and then in the family kitchen, before moving into a friend’s garage in 1988.

While his parents may have been happy to get the kitchen back, they were also very supportive in those early days, as Richard mastered the art of brewing, becoming a master brewer in the process. It always was, he says, a labour of love, and still is. 

“I love beer, though it was the multi-facet aspect of brewing that got really me hooked. The art, craft, science and the social connection of beer that brings people together – all those things make beer an interesting subject.” Even now, Richard is surprised – and pleased – there are still things to learn. 

In fact, he’s often said he’s on a search for the “Holy Grail of Ale”, with presumably no shortage of would-be knights to accompany him. Richard travels widely in the course of his work and says that while some beers he’s sampled have come close, there’s been no “perfect 10”, not even of his own invention. And yet he makes it sound easy:  “The vision I have is a simple honest 4% golden ale that has the right yeast flavour and juicy hop combination yet drinks like a good four-pinter!” 

In the meantime there are plenty of stars coming off the bottling line, winning fans, accolades and medals along the way. There’s a stable of regulars – from the sessionable Bookbinder, best sellers Pilsner and 1812 Pale Ale, through to the heftier Taieri George Porter, named for Richard’s father George and released every year on 6 March.

Another annual release is the JP range, named in honour of Jean-Pierre Dufour, formerly Dean of Food Sciences at the University of Otago, an icon in the international brewing industry and a valued friend of Richard and his company. Every year the JP is different – in 2015 it’s a Belgian Specialty Strong Ale, described in the notes as having a “candy shop aroma with a delicate rich body and fruity caramel- toffee finish: enjoy with a spicy tagine or apple pie”.

Matching food and drink is something usually associated with wine, but it’s just as appropriate with different styles of beer, Richard says, and it gives him an excuse for not naming his favourite. 

“After all those years, no one gives me a break with that question,” he laughs. “What I try to explain is that I don’t have a favourite beer but chose the beer to match my mood, the occasion, the time of the day or even with the whisky that I want to enjoy … heck, there’s an excuse for a beer any time.”

Such as moving into a new building. The brewery is in the process of shifting again, the fourth time since opening – although this time, it’s purpose built. In 2012, Richard and the other shareholders sold the brewery to Lion Nathan, one of New Zealand’s largest brewing companies, but he has stayed on the payroll to lead the 12-strong team and look to the future. 

“It’s been two years in the planning, which may seem a long time but it is worth it as we want to get it right,” he says of the complex taking shape just across the railway lines. “It’s going to enable us to do more things that we had never been able to do before – there’ll be more space, a retail area, a bar for visitors; somewhere that people can touch, smell, taste and experience more about Emerson’s -exciting days ahead!”

Emerson’s new “spiritual home” at 80 Anzac Ave is progressing rapidly with the new taproom and restaurant on schedule to open in July. Large windows will allow visitors to the brewery to watch the brew crew ply their trade while enjoying lunch with views of the Dunedin cityscape. The new cellar door will be an enhanced experience and the long awaited tours will become a highlight of the new premises. 

In the meantime lucky locals can also find the full range of Emerson’s beers at selected outlets throughout the country. There are not plans to export overseas just yet, Richard says. “We’ve been busy looking after the local market first to make sure that everyone we supply doesn’t run out - especially our keg beers, because there’s nothing worse than a dry tap at the bar.”

Richard Emerson’s top things to do in Dunedin:

  • Dunedin is spoilt for choice - firstly, on the waterfront, Starfish at St Clair is a lovely place to wash the salt breeze from your mouth after a walk on the beach, perhaps a relaxing drive to Carey’s Bay Historic Hotel, just beyond Port Chalmers, for a delicious seafood lunch and a pint of Emerson’s Pilsner. 
  • On the way back, drop into the Portsider for tasty tapas with the fine range of beers. Inchbar, at the Gardens traffic lights, is one of Emerson’s oldest customers and an eclectic bar where you’re bound to end up chatting with the locals. 
  • A train ride up the Taieri Gorge is an excellent choice. A relaxing trip as you can enjoy a few bottles of Emerson’s beer while watching the scenery roll by.
  • Once you’re off the train, walk up Stuart Street into Albar for a few pints of hand-pumped beers and a whisky to match. If it’s cold outside you can ask for a hot water bottle. Fancy a beer and pizza? Stroll into the exchange area to Zucchini Bros (zucchinibros.co.nz).
  • And of course from mid-2016, the Emerson’s Taproom and Restaurant at 80 Anzac Ave.

Travel Tips

Dunedin is located almost at the bottom of the South Island, 360km from Christchurch down State Highway 1. The airport has several flights a day from major New Zealand airports including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The Southern Scenic Route travels north from Invercargill to Dunedin via the spectacular Catlins Coast.

While Dunedin itself is a vibrant small city, within a short drive of the city there’s a lot to do, including the world-renowned albatross colony on the Otago Peninsula. The winter resort of Queenstown is a 3.5-hour drive, while the historic delights of Oamaru are just an hour north of Dunedin.