When Richard Emerson sold his small Dunedin brewery to national giant Lion four years ago it took him well out of his comfort zone.
He went from a humble brewer turning out some of New Zealand’s loved beers to a corporate-style ambassador for his brand, meeting and greeting a constant stream of new faces – not easy at the best of times but doubly difficult when you can’t hear what people are saying and struggle to make yourself understood.
“Most of the work is in the promotion of the beers, tastings and special events. They can be hard work, for me it can be tiring having to lip-read many strange lips and trying to work out what people are saying. Often people forget that I’m deaf.”
Emerson, whose speech pattern can be difficult to understand for those not familiar with his disability, has often joked that one of his unique selling points is the fact he’s New Zealand’s – and possibly the world’s – only deaf brewer.
The 52-year-old was born deaf after his mother, Ingrid, contracted rubella during her pregnancy.
“George and I had this dear little boy but he was a grizzly child,” Ingrid recalls. “But at nine and a half months it was confirmed he was severely, if not profoundly, deaf. It’s not a nice thing to hear and it was difficult for us because we didn’t know how to cope.”
The young Richard was given hearing aids for both ears which allowed him to register “directional” sound. Ingrid took on the arduous task of teaching her son to lip read, the pair of them learning as they went – as Ingrid found to her amusement when she struggled to teach him the word “mum”.
“He would loudly say `Bum! Where are you?’ Bum and mum look exactly the same but mum comes with a vibration in your nose … but we progressed.”
Both Ingrid and her late husband, George, were scientists and it was a sabbatical to Edinburgh for George, a lecturer at Otago University, that changed the family’s life – and with it beer scene in New Zealand.
As Ingrid recalled, her son joined the local boys brigade in Edinburgh and traipsed after the older officers when they went to local pub “where his mind was absolutely blown. He loved their beers and he loved their social attitude to drinking and I think at that stage, 18, he’d made up his mind – despite his loss of hearing and with his [compensatory] sensitivity to smell and taste, he found something he could do: brewing”.
Back in Dunedin, Emerson found work at the Gregg’s factory in Dunedin and experimented with home brewing in his spare time. Made redundant when Gregg’s was sold to Cerebos, he went on a global trek to discover the beers of Europe.
He came back with a recipe for what would be Emerson’s first brew, London Porter.
“My parents were really supportive, especially poor mum who was very patient about the mess in her kitchen. The quality control sessions with dad were a lot of fun, the feedback kept driving me to make the best possible beer through a combination of art, craft and especially science as both mum and dad majored in biochemistry.”
In 1992, George Emerson encouraged enough friends, colleagues at his biochemistry department and fellow Taieri Gorge railway enthusiasts – to put in just enough money for his son to start his brewery.
“Dad was a major influence in rounding up family members and friends to invest in my vision of setting up a craft brewery, he also put a large chunk of the family money in. It was risky and he kept a tight rein on the finance for many years which probably helped the business to survive the first five years.”
It took almost 20 years, and came some years after George passed away, but that investor vision realised a multi-million dollar return when Emerson’s was sold to Lion four years ago – the first takeover of a craft brewery in New Zealand since Lion bought Mac’s 20 years earlier.
Lion’s capital has allowed Emerson to move to his fourth and final location in Dunedin – a dream spot next to a railway line and featuring a small experimental brewery which allows him to indulge his two main loves: creating beer and watching trains.
Emerson inherited his father’s love of trains – and commemorates both his dad and the Taieri Gorge railway with an annual release known as Taieri George, which comes out on George’s birthday, March 6.
One of the things Emerson loves about the trains is the noise of them – some of which he hears in a limited fashion, but mostly which he feels.
His other passion, surprisingly, is music – he’s a huge supporter of the `Dunedin Sound’ bands and counts The Chills’ frontman and songwriter Martin Phillipps (correct) among his friends.
The pair were at school together at Logan Park High School in Dunedin and while not friends then, Phillipps was aware of the red-headed boy with hearing problems.
“Back in the 70s because he had hearing difficulties, they bunged him in the special class with kids who had much bigger problems,” Phillipps says with a note of disdain for the system.
“When I heard he was travelling overseas in the 80s discovering beer I was just so proud of him – I think he’s one of the most inspirational people in this town and I guess we’ve become mutual admirers.
“His support of the Dunedin music scene has been extraordinary and it’s something I still don’t fully understand – with his hearing difficulties I want to know what is he actually hearing. He talks about feeling the bass in his chest – which is something we all feel – but he can distinguish his favourite songs so it’s more complex than that.”
The mutual admiration saw The Chills play a gig for a small crowd at the official opening of the new brewery on June 21. It was the culmination of a “Dunedin” day featuring bagpipes, Robbie Burns, kilts and haggis.
“He put his foot down and said this was going to be Dunedin night,” Phillipps noted, “it wasn’t going to be taken over by corporates from Auckland and I love that side of him.”
To its credit, Lion, which is owned by Japanese giant Kirin, has done its utmost to let Emerson do his own thing with the brewery, giving him creative control and honouring the brand he’d developed.
Emerson’s definitely lost some supporters among the craft beer community when the brewery was sold, with many devotees pledging never again to drink beer now produced by a multinational.
Emerson admits he was initially worried about the public perception of the sale, but he was happy to let critics have their view because he knew that for every drinker he lost, Lion’s ownership would find him many more new customers. And the negativity was offset by a far greater pleasure of “being able to reward my shareholders for their 22 years of patience”.
They also delivered him his dream brewery “our permanent home, a proper spiritual home for the Emerson’s brand”.
“The location is great and closer to my other pleasure – trains. And I have the pleasure of having an authentic steam locomotive whistle to toot on special occasions. The land was a real eye-sore and now it’s a great showcase for Dunedin especially in the cruise ship season with trains and buses going pass.”
A small experimental brewery will also allow Emerson to test new recipes with customers and create a better “cellar door experience”.
Lion’s injection of funds and expertise – including in such arcane areas as work safety – as well their distribution network has allowed Emerson’s to grow to the point that they are churning out well 2.5 million litres of beer a year – which is huge by boutique standards. Or as Emerson puts it, they now make more in a day then they did in a year when he was starting out.
That is projected to grow to 8 million litres a year once the new brewery is at full capacity.
It’s an ambitious target but it’s one Emerson is convinced will be reached as New Zealanders continue to refine their beer-drinking.
“The public is slowly changing their attitude from swilling cheap beer towards drinking for pleasure, a little less but better quality.
“The drinking population that have been consuming mainstream beers will slowly migrate upwards towards more premium beers. Life is too short to drink cheap beer!”