Cheers

Don Kavanagh is the editor of Hospitality magazine.

Don Kavanagh: Selling up or selling out?

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The takeover of a well-known craft brewery is not all bad, notes Don Kavanagh.

Emerson's Brewery's general manager Bob King (left) and founder Richard Emerson. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Emerson's Brewery's general manager Bob King (left) and founder Richard Emerson. Photo / Otago Daily Times

The news that Lion has bought Dunedin's Emerson's Brewery caused no small amount of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over the past week or two, and I suppose it's only to be expected.

Emerson's has been a beacon of quality, innovation and, yes, love for two decades and its sublime Bookbinder Ale was a real eye-opener to me when I first tasted it in the late 90s. Here was an ale that was every bit as good as any English bitter, and it was made right here in Godzone.

The Pilsner, Weissbier and London Porter were also sublime beers with a stamp of class about them and they contained what I consider to be the definition of craft brewing - they were fresh, natural products made over time and with real care.

I wasn't alone. Emerson's made a huge impact on many beer-lovers and other brewers, too. So it wasn't surprising to see a clear divide among the craft community when the news broke that Lion had bought the brewery.

But the harsh reality is that Emerson's was in need of investment and the best offer came from a major brewery. There is no great shame in accepting an offer that secures the future of the company, for the foreseeable future at least.

The Emerson's team will still be at work producing great beers, but now it will have more outlets and more people can enjoy the glorious work of Richard and brewer Chris O'Leary.

Sadly, there will always be a few people who think that any brewery that makes mainstream beer is anathema and an abomination, but personally I take the wait-and-see attitude. Lion's purchase of the Mac's brand back in 1999 saw a marked change in the flavour of those beers as the brand evolved to meet the needs of its new owners. For me, it didn't really work, although you can't fault Lion for its development of the range, bringing new styles on to the market at regular intervals. But the Mac's brand is financially stronger now than when it was sold.

And that's what it all comes down to. The stark truth is that brewers launch their beers on to the market in order to make money. Whether they are making organic, super-hopped IPAs infused with saffron and grated street urchin, or simply making a pleasant lager, the aim is to sell.

Time will tell whether Lion has the good sense to keep Emerson's as a craft brewery, but I really hope it does, for everyone's sake.

- Herald on Sunday

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