There was a time when Richard Emerson used to make beer and then deliver it in his Mini.
By removing the passenger seat he found he could get 16 crates of old-fashioned quart bottles inside, and another two in the boot.
But that was almost a quarter of a century ago; these days Emerson's Brewery is owned by Lion, New Zealand's largest brewer, and produces well over a million litres of beer each year.
Although Richard still spends some time in the brewhouse, his main job is to travel around the country extolling the virtues of the beers that bear his name. He even has a new job title; brand development manager.
Having worked at breweries overseas during his OE, Richard's first attempts at brewing were in his parents' house and his quality-control panel consisted of close friends and family. As his hobby progressed he shifted production to a friend's garage, before finally renting a building next to Stewart's coffee roasting business in central Dunedin in late 1992.
The first commercial beer, 1200 litres of London Porter, emerged from 4 Grange St in March 1993.
Thanks to the foresight of Grant Jones, of Wellington's Regional Wines & Spirits, small quantities of Emerson's beers were soon available in the capital.
An independent retailer with a passion for flavour and an appreciation for quality food and drink, Grant believed that "craft beers" (as we now know them) deserved a place alongside the fine wines and spirits that drew similar-minded people to the Basin Reserve store.
My earliest memories of the shop are of bare wooden trestle tables weighed down with cases and plastic riggers of beers from the likes of Brofords (of Henderson), Strongcroft (Petone), Anchor (Porirua), Sunshine (Gisborne), Pink Elephant (then Nelson) and, of course, Emerson's.
In those early days selling any beer other than the mainstream brands was a mighty tough proposition.
Undeterred, Grant had started running regular tutored beer tasting evenings at the store and soon after my arrival from the United Kingdom in 1995 he invited me to present them.
The tastings would generally be themed around beers of a particular style, or by country of origin and when possible invite brewers would come along and present their own beers. These evenings soon proved to be popular.
Richard Emerson was always keen to support Regional Wines, and each year he would come along to present a range of his latest beers.
Despite his profound deafness, Richard's innovative beers, infectious enthusiasm and immense passion for all things flavoursome meant his annual tasting evenings were always booked out weeks in advance.
Richard's tasting evenings have continued to be some of the most eagerly anticipated on the Regional Wines' beer-tasting calendar and, despite Emerson's new corporate ownership, this year's were no exception.
Last week, on three successive nights, Richard demonstrated beer's potential for cellaring with a series of vintage-dated stouts, porters and strong ales.
After a vote at all three tastings, the most preferred beer was the oldest sampled - a trial batch of Belgian-style tripel from 2006. Belgian tripels are seldom considered for long-term cellaring and although over the seven years, the beer had lost most of its malt and hop character and fermentation-derived spiciness, it had developed a luxurious silky, creamy mouthfeel and a luscious sweet fruity complexity reminiscent of stonefruit and pineapple.
It was interesting to note that, as one of eight trial brews, this particular version of the beer, fermented with a yeast from the Canadian brewer Unibroue, did not make the final commercial release. Another version of the beer, fermented with the Belgian Chimay Trappist abbey yeast, was deemed superior and went on to became the inaugural (2007) release of Emerson's JP. Proof that even in the case of beer, time can be a great healer.
To commemorate Emerson's 20th anniversary as a commercial brewery, Richard presented a trio of new beers that he had brewed himself.
Sold under the Deafinition brand name, the beers are in 750ml wine bottles, complete with cork and wire closure. All three have been brewed with cellaring in mind, are neither fined or filtered and received considerable warm conditioning at the brewery prior to their release.
Modelled on an English-style strong ale, Deafinition Old Ale (7.6 per cent) has much in common with one of the brewery's previous beers, Emerson's Old 95. Brewed in October 2012 the new beer's resiny hop bitterness and toffeeish malt character are starting to soften as the familiar tangy, dried fruit (apricot?) esters emerge.
Given the close relationship with Old 95, I expect this new beer to have similar cellaring potential so I would be looking for it to mature gracefully for around five years. Young or old, I expect it to be a wonderful match for Stilton or any other English blue cheese.
The second beer is Deafinition Imperial Porter (10.5 per cent). An all-new beer brewed in October 2011, it is comparatively austere in body, with plenty of alcoholic warmth alongside tannic dark chocolate and raisiny fruit notes leading to a lingering bitter finish. As this heady brew heads towards its second birthday and beyond, it still has plenty of potential for softening and mellowing.
I would put it away for at leastthree years and would be interested to try it after 10.
I must admit to having some misgivings about the cellaring potential of the third beer, Deafinition Barley Wine (10.5 per cent). Brewed in October 2011 in the style of an intensely hopped American barleywine - think Sierra Nevada Bigfoot - the beer was steeped on a bed of American Simcoe and Columbus hops for 11 months prior to bottling.
At last week's tastings I enjoyed the way the piney, resiny hops almost jumped out of the glass and outgunned the beer's mighty, chewy, caramelised malt base, but I know that the intensity of both the malt and the hops will diminish with age.
That said, Bigfoot hangs together very well for several years as it becomes more winelike, so it will be interesting to see how Emerson's beer evolves.
Emerson's has brewed a total of 1000 bottles of the Deafinition series beers and they are available only direct from the Dunedin brewery or from Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington. The retail price for a 750 ml bottle is about $20.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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