Obituary: Morton W. Coutts

By Phoebe Falconer

By PHOEBE FALCONER

Brewer. Died aged 100.

Man has been making, and drinking, beer for centuries. Little had changed in the brewing methods until Morton Coutts, a founding director of DB Breweries, developed continuous fermentation in 1953.

Brewing was a family tradition as well as a business for Coutts. His Bavarian grandfather, Joseph Khutze, came to New Zealand in 1867 and managed a brewery in Clyde, supplying beer to goldminers. The family slowly moved north, running breweries in Dunedin, Palmerston North and finally Taihape. The family changed the German spelling of their name to Coutts during World War I. Morton Coutts' father was in charge by this time, but his poor health meant that 15-year-old Morton had to leave school to take over the Main Trunk Brewery.

In the late 1920s the family moved to Auckland and Morton Coutts started the Waitemata Brewery in Otahuhu, funded by the sale of the brewery in Taihape. Their first product was Waitemata Sparkling Ale.

"Father paid the bills and I made the beer," Coutts said later. "We made no progress financially. I had no idea of the commercial side of the world until I met up with Henry [later Sir Henry] Kelliher who took over as the sales agent."

Kelliher improved the finances, and then suggested that they float a public company, Dominion Breweries Ltd, now part of the DB Group.

Appointed head brewer, Coutts began to demonstrate his technical and innovative abilities. Although in the end he held 12 patents, the one he is best remembered for is the development of continuous fermentation, patented in 1956, as an alternative to the traditional batch brewing. The new system involved the continuous addition of wort, an infusion of malt or grain, to the fermenters, and the continuous withdrawal of fermented product. DB still uses the process, as does the Guinness company.

Coutts was also responsible for several other firsts, not all of them beer-related. In 1926, as a young man in Taihape, he started his own radio station, 2AQ, which broadcast from a hut on the top of a hill. The generator he bought was said to be so powerful that when he turned it on, all the lights in Taihape dimmed. He was the first to broadcast television signals in New Zealand, in 1940, and the first to send a shortwave radio message to Britain.

He was the first to produce carbonated beer in New Zealand, and the first to produce a lager.

Coutts was still developing new products when he retired from DB, aged 89. One of his last was barley wine, like a high-strength beer but without the hops. He patented a method of preparing the barley at low heat so that the nutrients would not be destroyed. Coutts, not unexpectedly, was a firm believer in the health-giving properties of barley, and drank barley extracts for most of his life.

Coutts's philosophy of innovation was quite simple.

"All I did every minute of every day was to think about improvements with fermentation. I wasn't happy until I had succeeded in producing something but as soon as I had invented it, I dropped it. The thrill was in the chase."

Morton Coutts was made an OBE in 1983. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and their two daughters.

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