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Have Camera, Will Travel

What’s Brewing Autobiography: A Global Quest For Craft

Featured image: Brian with a LIQ beer after a long Rice Terraces hike: China, 2010

How one photographer’s search for adventure has unlocked unique exbeeriences around the world

Global thirst montage

My passion for photography has taken me all over the world. But I have also always been fascinated with beer, which harkens back to an early time when my Dad would let me try his Lucky Lager and Old Style—the industrial beers of my childhood. I knew the beer my dad drank tasted awful, so I was destined at an early age to search for beers that suited my palate.

I learned about “hair of the dog” at a young age. My dad would leave an uncapped stubby on the table overnight. Downing it before breakfast the next day would make everything okay, with no hangover. These lessons came in handy later in my teen/adult life.


The first record my father purchased for our beautiful new hi-fi console was “The Lonely Bull” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. At five years old, I dreamed of visiting Mexico. Through my teens, the romantic trumpet songs from south of the border grew album by album in my collection. Who can forget Alpert’s “Whipped Cream and Other Delights?” Beautiful señoritas, whipped cream, photography, and beer became my focuses in life.

After graduating from Langara College’s professional photography program at 19, I travelled to Mexico. The trip was only two weeks long, but I made friends, saw incredible pyramids and colonial towns, and ate lots of tacos. I also was introduced to Mexican beers—Negra Modelo, Sol, Dos Equis Dark and Cuauhtémoc— whose roots come from the Austro-German brewmasters who arrived in Mexico during the nineteenth century. On this first trip there were lagers and dark beers. All seemed very delicious and I wanted more. European-style beer was first produced in Mexico in the 1540s, making it the first in North America. Fate perhaps? During later travels in Mexico and Central America I continued to explore the local offerings. Gallo (rooster) Lager battled the humidity but was like a Guatemalan version of Molson Canadian. I remember saving a wet label off a bottle in the back of my passport. When I checked a few days later it was solidly stuck… Oops! I peeled it away, doing considerable damage to the page. I was asked what happened to my passport as I entered back into Canada and took the truthful route. The immigration officer shook his head and advised me to leave the labels on the bottles!


When I was around twenty-one I quit my job to go on the traditional rite of passage: a three-month Eurail/youth hostel backpacking trip around Europe and the British Isles. My first stop was the Heineken factory tour in Amsterdam. After two hours of quaffing a half dozen or so six-ounce glasses of Dutch lager, I stumbled around the city’s art galleries looking at Rembrandt and Van Gogh masterpieces till the late afternoon. In Denmark, I discovered how a half dozen or so Carlsberg Elephant Beers (style: bock) can deliver a sledgehammer to the skull the day after. I got to drink some great pilsners and lagers in Germany and Austria. But it wasn’t till I arrived in Ireland that the magic happened. In a pub in Dublin I ordered a pint of Guinness. The bartender drew a Shamrock on the thick creamy head. He told me it would still be there at the bottom of the glass, and it was!

From there I decamped to Scotland, a country with a 5,000-year history of brewing. In the UK I got to taste traditional Burton, Younger, and McEwan ales. After the sparkling lagers of Canada, these gasless ales seemed strange. It certainly was easy to down a pint in less than a minute, though! I hitchhiked from Edinburgh to the far northern tip of Scotland to visit the Orkney Islands. There I learned about mixing scotch and beer. A group of visiting sailors treated me to pints with a fifth of scotch to enhance the experience.

The next day was a disaster. I went to see the stack column called the Old Man of Hoy (449 feet). My vision was so blurry and my stomach so upset from the night before that it was hard to tell where I was going as I stumbled along the trail to the vantage point. With my hangover in full effect, I stumbled back through the knee-high heather, looking for a shortcut down to the valley bottom and the trail that would lead me back to the shuttle boat. Little did I know I was traversing a nesting ground for Arctic Terns. Halfway across, they started dive bombing me from all angles, wings clipping my head and shoulders—it was like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. This was the closest I had ever come to a battlefield! Travels to Greece and Egypt followed a few years later, sadly without any outstanding beers. The mostly-German mass-produced styles satisfied the tourists who overpopulated Athenian restaurants in the early 1980s.


When Expo arrived in False Creek in the late spring of 1986, there was a surprise. The British Pavilion featured a pub like those in the English town of King’s Lynn, original home of Captain Vancouver, with the largest selection of draught beer ever provided in one establishment in the province. For the first time in BC history, kegged beer from outside the country could be served. Most of my 60 visits to Expo finished up in this pavilion.

In the early/mid 1990s, I did three trips to Four Corners in the American southwest. Beer was always part of the late afternoon/ early evening. I arrived in Zion National Park on an extremely hot mid-September afternoon. I had picked up a few micro beers at the Chevron gas station. I popped the top off an ice-cold Louisiana Snake Bite lager. The chili in the beer was overwhelming—an extreme hot/cold experience! A few days later I arrived in Moab, Utah. I found Eddie McStiff’s pub, where I had my first ever blueberry stout. At the time (1993), it was the only craft brewery in Utah. I would return twice more to Four Corners and seek out strange and wonderful beers to enjoy around the campfire.

In 1998, I went to Afghanistan as a photojournalist, covering earthquake relief with a colleague. We got stuck in Islamabad, waiting to get a visa to enter Afghanistan. This took many days, as the Taliban embassy (official embassy for Afghanistan) was in no hurry to help two independents. The temperature was a stifling 48 degrees Celsius. One day we went into a grocery store looking for beer, but that’s not easy in a Muslim country! We found a lime beer shandy; it was disgusting. But in that store, the owner of the largest tour company in Islamabad invited us to dinner. At his home, we were greeted by the sight of a cabinet full of 500-ml cans of Grolsch beer, whiskey, gin and vodka. In a country where alcohol is not allowed, this was a godsend. I was sent home with a dozen beers! But still not real craft.


During the last return trip from Four Corners in the 1990s, I had driven up the California coast. Two memorable finds were Lost Coast Brewery and Rogue Ales in Oregon. In the meantime, annual craft beer festivals had commenced at the Plaza of Nations in Vancouver. The craft beer scene was slowly taking root, first on Granville Island then to the East side with Storm Brewing and R&B Brewing. I made sure to get to know all the brewers and supported them with photos of events.

In 2004, I joined CAMRA Vancouver, and participated in my first CAMRA-organized trip, to the Oregon Beer Festival in Portland, Oregon. I had never experienced anything like it; the new millennium was looking promising! I wondered if Vancouver could ever approach Portland’s level of craft beer awareness. We had a larger population, but we also had a much more resistant government.


At the start of my explorations into China in 2006-2007, there was Snow and Tsingtao beer. China is the largest consumer of beer in the world, so their rice-based, hop-deficient beers were abundant, but disappointing. Next up was a trip to Myanmar around 2008. One national beer that surprised me there was DAGON Extra Strong Beer. Myanmar Lager was also very satisfying!

My travels became more focused on Asia as the years went by, resulting in a business partnership with travel (and beer) writer Rick Green in 2009, called Adventurocity. Our website with the slogan “Why take a trip when you can have an adventure” has served as a great resource on Asian culture, lifestyle, food and beer. It also provided me a wonderful motivation to continue to explore Asia. Our travels to countries both separately and together have yielded many resources for our stories that cover a wide range of interests. At the core of most of our current exploration is a passion to find out what is happening in the craft beer scene in Asia. During my travels in China over the past five years, I have focused on independent craft breweries. I have had the pleasure to get to know owners and brewers at places like Great Leap, Slow Boat and Jing A, just a few of the new kids in the bustling capital of Beijing. In large city Xi’an my good friend Jon Therrian is brewer and partner at Xian Brewing. The quality of beer being produced rivals that on this side of the Pacific.

China’s neighbour Taiwan has seen craft breweries popping up in the capital of Taipei, and I witnessed this in 2017. Then, in a Spring 2018 What’s Brewing article I talked about the challenges facing Thailand’s underground craft brewers. Yet to be explored is Vietnam, where my contact John Pemberton is producing “class A” beers at his Heart of Darkness Brewery. With 16 breweries in full production by the end of this year in Saigon, John and others welcome a new age of craft brewing to Mekong Delta.


I’ve noticed that the craft beer revolution is spreading around the world. As has been demonstrated here at home, craft breweries are gathering places that can act as positive community forces, even in formerly run-down and challenged neighbourhoods. What if this happens worldwide? What if we get to know all our neighbours and become sociable on a global scale? This thought motivates me to keep going.

Today, along with What’s Brewing contributors Rick Green and Dave Smith, I am an accredited member of the British Columbia Association of Travel Writers (BCATW). I also belong to the Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC) and have a new position as instructor in Educational Travel at Langara College. I want to use my experiences to help spread good will to neighbours near and far. Sitting down at the end of the day and enjoying a fine craft beer together, no matter the language, should be a priority for good health in mind, body and spirit!

Experiencing new cultures, eating delicious local food, viewing exotic vistas and ending the day with new friends enjoying a pint together is a driving motivation behind my lifetime of travel. I look forward to sharing many more stories in the future as beer culture continues to grow in influence worldwide. We have lots of great craft beers on the West Coast, but maybe this article will spark your desire to get out your passport and explore.


Author’s recent travels have unearthed BC beers in China and Southeast Asia.


Brian K. Smith

Brian K. Smith, MPA is an accredited member of the BC Association of Travel Writers. He is a member of Professional Photographers of Canada with a Master of Photographic Arts designation. Brian writes the Have Camera, Will Travel column and is Chief Photographer for What's Brewing.

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