How a Business Major from God's Country Became Saigon's Most Interesting Brewer

The day I visit the brewery, Carl is waiting for a shipment of jackfruit for their wheat ale, and he has to figure out how to clean rambutans out of a holding tank (answer: a dustpan tied to the end of some scrap metal).

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Jun 11 2015, 8:00pm

In Saigon, beers are available in green or red, and the biggest difference between the two is the color of the label. Americans here also generally come in two flavors: backpacker or English teacher, and there's a lot of overlap there, too. The first time I met a brewer in Ho Chi Minh City was the first time I had an IPA in Asia. Carl Cross is from God's Country—North Carolina—and looks like Jesus.

Because I'm an English teacher and we have a lot of time to kill, I asked for a field-trip to his brewery expecting some free beer and wound up hearing the story of the next Most Interesting Man in the World. With four continents and a handful of nearly ruinous decisions behind him, Carl is starting to hit his stride.

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"Everyone and their mother's trying to figure out what we're doing here, so it's better not to say where we are exactly." Photos by Luke Neville.

Six days a week, Carl rides his motorbike through Ho Chi Minh City's sprawl to an unassuming warehouse filled with tanks of passionfruit- and pandan-leaf-infused beers. Though this is where all of Pasteur Street Brewing Company's beers are made, the process begins for Carl with tasting street food and wandering markets looking for weird fruits and spices. "A lot of what I taste here is new to me, which is a dream opportunity for someone in my position," he tells me. "I get to use my creativity everyday."

The day I visit the brewery, Carl is waiting for a shipment of jackfruit for their wheat ale, and he has to figure out how to clean rambutans out of a holding tank (answer: a dustpan tied to the end of some scrap metal). I'm put to work pressurizing kegs with CO2, then kegging beer, and then dragging full kegs to the freezer. I linger in the freezer because it's 100 degrees and my arms are sore.

Carl's sitting at a desk with a notepad figuring out a new recipe's boiling times and grain ratios. At one point, he fills a beaker with a sour mash and spins some kind of glass accoutrement in it. He's calculating the batch's alcohol content, and I have a flashback to failing high school chemistry. Then it's time to move beer between tanks. I struggle to follow simple directions and trip over the tubes crisscrossing the warehouse. When the jackfruit arrives, he drops everything to load kegs onto a truck headed for the taproom.

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"They're always inviting me to go out to dinner or watch a cockfight with them. I'm going to have to take them up on it one day."
saigon-beer-1 "They said do what you love, and I always said that I loved drinking beer."

In the afternoon, the neighbors visit. A big white guy with long hair and a beard working next door every day has not gone unnoticed. Carl says that sometimes they bring him beer, but today he fills a measuring cups from a few tanks for them to pass around. They aren't fans of the coffee brown ale (with coffee beans sourced from Dalat), but they approve of the passion fruit.

Throughout the day, Carl moves seamlessly from the most mindless tasks to those that require immense creativity and chemistry know-how. Checking his work means tasting delicious beer, and at the end of the day, he's turned piles of grains and strange tropical fruits into brews unlike anything else in the world.

Carl Cross is in the NFL of home-brewing. His job is a hobby, and he works in a tropical paradise raking in the dongs (the Vietnamese currency—really). And no one is more appreciative of this than Carl himself, because the best beer and sweetest gig didn't happen by accident. It was that winning combination of luck and pluck, and working his ass off for free, that eventually got this guy a dream job on the other side of the world.

It's only been two years since Carl, as a senior business major at Clemson, turned down a step on the corporate ladder for a fierce flow and a shot at the good life. He didn't have anything specific in mind, but he did love drinking beer. In fact, he'd been making it since he was 20 in his dorm because "it's illegal to buy beer as a minor, but you can still buy everything you need to make it."

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"I was one of twelve Americans in Egypt that day. Ten worked at the embassy."
lager expecial

So as graduation approached, he decided to take his brewing game to the next level. "I got the thirteenth spot of a 12-student brew school in England," and he spent his summer studying with the masters in the country that gave American brewing its roots. "The English tradition appealed to me," Carl said of his choice to go abroad over any one of the brew schools state-side, but admitted that he also just likes to be different.

Maybe inspired by a , as a college junior Carl visited Cairo on the day of Egypt's first democratic elections against all government advisories. He had a free weekend while studying abroad in Spain and wanted to see the pyramids.

But back from his training in England, Carl struggled to find a job in his native North Carolina. Brewing is apparently not exempt from the experience trap. "Everyone wanted two years of experience, but I just started, so ..." Carl considered himself lucky to get a job working for free doing manual labor in a local brewery. He later got a raise to below minimum wage.

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"I sent out 50 resumes in three days—didn't hear back from 45 of them."
saigon-beer-2 "It could've gotten shut down before I landed- and there'd be no going back to Colorado."

After eight months, he decided that was enough. "Three weeks later, my car was packed and I was headed to Colorado." Despite the growing brewing scene in Denver, things weren't much better. Two months passed without work, and he thought he might have to repack his car. "I had $88 left in my bank account one week. Then I met a girl at a festival and got a job manually canning beer—68 cases a day. And cleaning tanks. I was happy to be doing it." He was putting his time in, and then it all paid off.

He got his dream job in Boulder, Colorado. For the first time since his dorm room days, Carl would be brewing again, for Upslope Brewery. Upslope's head brewer, Alex Violette, had just left to start a business in Vietnam, and Carl helped pick up the slack in his absence. He was finally getting paid in more than just mad respect from his roommates. By any standards, he had made it, but wouldn't be able to enjoy it for long.

"Around Christmas, Alex called me from Vietnam and offered me the job. He said 'I need you ASAP. You have four days to decide.'"

If he took the job and it didn't work out, it would mean going back to cleaning tanks—if he was lucky. It was a huge risk, but this is the same guy who turned down a lucrative office job to make beer, who went to brew school in England because Why not?, and who risked his life to see the pyramids. "I landed in Saigon on February 2, got an apartment that day, and started working on the third."

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"Originally I agreed to one year, now I can see myself staying here two or three or five. "
Sài Gòn Xanh

Carl worked every day for the first month he was here and things still aren't perfect: repairmen walk away from half-finished jobs, replacement parts are hard to come by, and his business degree isn't much help with the chemistry and engineering of brewing. He admits that he's still figuring it out, but this 24-year-old is singlehandedly responsible for brewing what might be the only American-style craft beer in the country, because, as he says, "I want that for the people of this beautiful country."

Not that and Ðỏ won't always have their place.