By Michael Donaldson on Tuesday, June 20th, 2017 in News.
Every June, Emerson’s Brewery in Dunedin releases ‘JP’, a limited release Belgian-style ale.
Like many special beer releases, it is snapped up by ardent beer drinkers, spurred on by the lure of something new and different, and the stamp collector mentality of “gotta try them all”.
But there’s more to the story behind this beer, as well as the man who inspired it – more than can fit on the scant real estate of a beer label.
The label will tell you the ‘JP’ stands for Jean-Pierre.
In 1995, professor Jean Pierre Dufour, a Belgian academic, became chair of food science at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
At around this same time, Richard Emerson, founder of Emerson’s Brewery in Dunedin, was three years into his brewing career. Meanwhile, Kelly Ryan, now head brewer of Fork Brewing in Wellington, was another infant of sorts: studying at Otago University, making the tentative move from medical science to microbiology and food science.
Though neither Richard nor Kelly knew one another at the time, JP was instrumental in fanning the flames, knowledge and trajectory of both of their burgeoning brewing careers.
As a mentor and friend to Richard, JP was often a sounding board and font of knowledge at a time when you could swing a cat without hitting a pint of craft beer. As Kelly’s food science lecturer, JP pushed Kelly towards brewing when he was precariously close to joining dairy industry.
Now, 22 years later, the story has reached full circle with the release of the 10th anniversary JP brew, which pays homage to the man on with a release on his June 2 birthday.
Emerson’s collaborated with Kelly to create this year’s JP and current Otago University professor of food science, Phil Bremer, popped by to deliver the lactic acid bacteria that the department had cultivated, and was used to sour the ale.
The only person missing was JP himself.
Sadly, this thoughtful academic who so readily shared his vast knowledge and passion for the science of beer, passed away in 2007, aged 54.
“Sometimes we drink to remember,” reads the label on the bottle of the 2017 JP release, a bolshie 10% Belgian Tart Quadrupel Ale.
And his legacy lives on not only in this annual brew and a scholarship bestowed in his name to Otago University students studying food science, but in the careers of some of New Zealand’s best brewers.
Richard Emerson the ‘Godfather of New Zealand Beer’, started brewing at a time when the selection was either NZ draught or NZ draught.
“In late 1996, JP wanted to supply a local beer for his Inaugural Professorial Lecture, ‘Thank You, Louis Pasteur: 120 Years of Brewing Science’, and asked whether Emerson’s would like to do so. I was more than happy to assist with beery refreshments!” says Richard.
“The lecture was outstanding. I remember it well, and still have the original book covering the lecture topic.
“From there, JP was very interested in what Emerson’s brewed and often gave me a lot of technical advice and helped with laboratory test results, which really helped in the early days of the business.
“His penchant for Belgian beers really showed once we’d started talking about Duvel, Chimay, La Chouffe and other small Belgian breweries. His knowledge of Belgian beers amazed us, the flavours, types of yeast and the brewery; it was always interesting to listen to JP,” says Richard.
Down the line, JP’s involvement with Emerson’s continued, enabling students from the Food Science Department to spend a brew day at Emerson’s Brewery to assist the understanding of brewing process and carry out some practical tests.
When Richard started producing a Belgian Beer Trial experiment with a 14HL brew split into eight fermenters containing a different Belgian yeast strain, “JP was more than keen to be involved in the tastings!” he says.
JP passed away while he was overseas in Nigeria at a brewing conference.
“When we heard the bad news of JP’s sudden passing, I was devastated and almost immediately decided to commemorate his contribution to the New Zealand brewing industry,” says Richard.
“We achieved this by using the results from the Emerson’s Belgian Beer Trial.”
Not only has JP been immortalised in the beer released once a year in his name, Emerson’s also established the JP Dufour Scholarship in 2014 for students studying at the Food Science Department at Otago University, undertaking a degree with research related to the technical, social or economic issues within the brewing industry.
Since the inaugural release of the JP Brew, Emerson’s has placed funds from the sales of the beer in trust to support the JP Dufour Scholarship.
It may surprise some beer people that Kelly Ryan – who has brewed at DB, Scotland’s Fyne Ales, England’s Thornbridge, Epic and Good George – didn’t really care much for beer when he was student.
“Like any student, I really started drinking beer at university. I’d sort of drunk it beforehand but it wasn’t really my thing. Whatever was cheapest was best,” he says.
That all changed in his third year at university when he made the move from to microbiology and food science.
He assumed that this field of study would take him in the direction of dairy but it all changed when he met “this impeccably dressed Belgian with a passion for yeast and brewing”.
“He had this childish excitement when it came to beer and yeast and how it all worked,” says Kelly.
“I still find it amazing when I look back through my old notes from his classes, and remember how he could actually make hardcore molecular biochemistry quite interesting and palatable!
“It’s that classic thing with an applied science: you might talk about the ins and outs of it – you can talk about it until you’re blue in the face – but when you’re drinking a pint, and you know a little bit about the science, then you can try and find that in the beer. And that’s kind of where I really began to make that connection.”
Kelly says it wasn’t unusual to show up at a lab and find the class presented with a line-up of beautiful imported Belgian beers, “the likes of which none of us probably had ever seen before”.
“JP often admitted that he had quietly poached these bottles of Duvel and Chimay from his wife for lab sessions!” says Kelly.
Three out of JP’s 12 post grad students in Kelly’s year went on careers within the brewing industry, which says a lot about their mentor when you consider that none of them went in with any plans of brewing as a career.
“So, 18 odd years ago when we were studying all of this, I tried my first NZ craft beer, which weirdly happened to be an Emerson’s Bookbinder at Inch Bar in Dunedin. And I thought, hey, I could kind of get into this,” says Kelly.
He kind of did get into it. From there he’s had a career that has taken him around the world in roles as a brewer, beer judge and brewery consultant.
And it means a lot to him to be able to brew this beer for JP.
“When I started working at smaller breweries after DB, and was brewing at Thornbridge in England, I had this moment of realisation at the beginning of 2007. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get hold of JP and let him know what I’m doing’. And I never sent that email, and I’ll always have a bit of regret about that.
“Not that brewing the JP Brew makes up for that, but to be a brewer that’s still brewing who studied under him, it’s pretty special to be involved in a beer that pays its respects to him every year,” he says.
Did he ever manage to enjoy a beer with JP outside of uni hours?
“I don’t think I did, but to enjoy a beer with him in class was cool enough.”
Phil Bremer worked with JP for 10 years in Otago University’s Food Science Department, and stepped into the role of Head of Department after JP passed away.
The lactic acid bacteria for the beer was cultivated by the Food Science Department, which also cares for a collection of yeast strains that were collected by JP over the years.
“We still have that collection of yeast strains, and have put in quite a bit of effort to keep them going. Our staff here reculture the yeast every six months or so to keep it living, and continue JP’s work,” says Phil.
“That yeast has been shared with breweries, such as Emerson’s, to use in their beers.
“JP was very passionate about what he did, and worked long hours on his research, which specialised in analytical techniques developing new methods of flavour in beer.
“He also spent many hours setting up and playing around on new equipment to test this out which was quite unusual for a Head of Department, as they often immerse themselves in paperwork!
“JP always amused us whenever we tried a new beer; he’d look at it and taste it. If he particularly enjoyed it, he’d always say the same thing: ‘No obvious defects’.
“It was the highest praise from JP.”
Mason Pratt was the brewer who led this year’s JP Brew. He says it was personally a bit nerve-wracking to take up the reins for the famous beer, let alone the 10th anniversary edition.
“It was the first time I’d ever brewed a JP beer. I never knew JP, and had only really heard about him second hand through Richard and Chris [O’Leary, Emerson’s Brewery Manager], and they’ve always had good stories, great things to say about him,” he says.
“I knew about the beers before I started working for Emerson’s, and always used to buy them when they were released. It was a real privilege to brew it knowing the backstory, knowing he was such a big influence on Richard and Kelly, and a few others in the beer industry.”
He says the JP Brew is always a Belgian-style Ale in a nod to JP’s heritage.
Unlike Germans with their reinheitsgebot (or purity law), the Belgians have few rules as to what ingredients go into what beer; it may be raw wheat, wild yeast, fruit, or the use of unusual brewing or maturation techniques.
“We had a big beer in mind, so we went with a Belgian Quad, a big fruity ale with layers of complexity and flavour thanks to the yeast combinations, amongst other things,” says Mason.
This beer was brewed with 175 kilos of candi sugar syrup – the majority of it handmade by Mason to get the quantities he needed. (“It was an eight-hour process. Just standing outside out back, melting it over a pot.”)
A load of yeast play that would make JP proud was involved in this beer, with a combination of strains used in the brew and kettle soured with lactic acid bacteria to create some added complexity and fruity layers of flavour, which will especially show itself as the beer changes over time. Tart cherry concentrate was also added to further boost the fruit profile.
Mason says it’s the kind of beer made to age for another 10 years.
“Belgian Quads typically age quite well, and the flavour in this one will continue to evolve thanks to the chosen yeast strains,” he says.
“As the 10th anniversary beer, it is the strongest JP Brew to date, though hitting the 10% ABV was a bit of a serendipitous twist.”
Perhaps JP was about in the brewery after all.
Main photo: Mason Pratt and Kelly Ryan plan their brew.