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Richard Emerson: The Hopfather by Michael Donaldson

As a child, Richard Emerson struggled with a disability that would challenge even the most stoic. As an adult, he established a celebrated brewery with a cult following and after two decades of immense work was a self-made millionare. The Hopfather is the story of a Kiwi legend – the man who overcame adversity to build something great, Dunedin’s Emerson’s Brewery.

I am not a beer drinker. I can’t stand the stuff. However, Richard Emerson: The Hopfather instantly appealed to me. Emerson’s is a favourite haunt of ours and a its foreboding brick exterior is a huge asset to Dunedin.

The book begins with Richard’s birth and his mother Ingrid’s immense dedication to teaching her profoundly deaf little boy how to survive in the world.

The story traverses Richard’s early life, and documents his father George’s authoritarian approach to life. Together George and Richard share a love of trains and the insight into this passion was lovely to read. The dominance of trains runs through all parts of Richard’s life. It was fascinating to read about how that love of trains now shows through in the design of the current brewery.

The story is not without heartbreak, with the death of George to cancer just as the business was beginning to take off covered. So too is the demise of Richard’s first marriage.

Author Michael Donaldson traces Richard’s life as a brewer from his very first homebrew, through working massive 12-hour days brewing, bottling, labelling and delivering beer to hotels and bars in the early days. It was interesting too to read about Emerson’s approach to drinking, an interesting viewpoint in light of New Zealand’s alcohol culture.

Emerson’s is now owned by multinational brewing giant Lion. The lead up, and aftermath, of that sale is well documented in the book. Richard, perhaps naively, didn’t think the sale would have such an impact on the public’s perception. The Hopfather is a way for him to put his side to the public. On reading the book, it is hard to argue with Richard’s choice.

The story is told in a dynamic way – Donaldson uses first-person (Richard) and third-person (the author) voice, mixed with comments and asides from people throughout Richard’s life. Ingrid in particular is an incredible woman, who would almost warrant a book all to herself. Her determination, passion and belief in her son is inspirational.

Donaldson is a journalist who specialises in beer and is the editor of a specialist beer magazine. His love for the liquid is obvious, as to is his admiration of Richard.

However, he is impartial and matter of fact. He doesn’t shy away from covering the difficult moments or asking the hard questions.

With plenty of pictures as well, The Hopfather is an interesting story about the man, and his family, who built the modern beer scene in New Zealand. Despite being all about beer, the book will appeal to a wide range of readers whether they like a tipple or not.

Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser

Penguin NZ, RRP $45


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