A red thumbprint: A brewer discovers what happens when airport officials confuse hops with weed

Society & Culture

Carl Setzer, owner of Great Leap Brewing in Beijing, was stopped at Taipei’s international airport on the suspicion of carrying 24 pounds of marijuana. At least they were polite about it.

I’m a beer brewer in Beijing, owner of Great Leap Brewing. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. But that doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about a funny thing that happened to me on my way to a collaboration beer in January this year.

Usually when you do a collaboration — “collab” in industry-speak (we’re a creative bunch) — it’s not in China. Sometimes it is, but most of the time, it’s an excuse to travel, take pictures in front of stuff, humblebrag, etc. So, the good people at Taihu Brewing in Taipei decided it’d be cool to do a collaboration beer in Taiwan that they could ship to Beijing for an international beer festival that we run. Simple enough.

When you do a collab, it’s basically a couple of questions, some ideas, and then you’re good to go. Simple stuff. The conversation might go something like this:

Person 1: So, what do you want to brew?

Person 2: Let’s brew X!

Person 1: I love X! X is the best!

Persons 1 and 2: High five!

Person 1: What Y should we use in X?

Person 2: This Y is the best Y that has ever Y’d

Person 1: I concur!

Persons 1 and 2: High five!

Person 2: What about Z?

Person 1: We use this Z, it’s totes the best!

Persons 1 and 2: High five!

Person 1: What temperature should X be H’d at?

Person 2: All of the temperatures!

It goes on like that for a while, but all in all, it takes about 10 minutes. It’s so awesome, your hands hurt from the high-fiving. I volunteered to bring the hops to Taiwan from our stock of Hop Head Farms varietals. We had some Chinook, some Polaris, and some experimental German goodness.

Per tradition with a collaboration brew, you put your hops in a suitcase and hit the road. I flew from Beijing to Taipei and arrived at 5:15 p.m. This is the best time to fly into Taoyuan Airport, because little do a lot of people know, one of the best restaurants in all of Taiwan is in the basement of Terminal 2. It’s called the food court. It’s amazing. Just go — right now if you can — and enjoy the best selection of corporate brands under one roof.


I grabbed my suitcase and walked to the exit.

My lovely wife was waiting for me.

I was listening to the Beach Boys’ “I’m Waiting for the Day.”

In four hours, that song would become super-ironic.


It’s the first — and hopefully last — time in my life when I actually wished the people I was meeting would say the phrase, “Oh! You’re a brewer? Me too! I brew at home!”


Now, when transporting hops into another country, you have the choice to be a super-good global citizen and declare your cargo, OR you can be like the rest of the world and just risk it and walk through with confidence. For six years, I have always done the latter, under the pretense that “I’m awesome and nothing will ever happen to me.”

Then reality reared its awkwardly polite Taiwanese bureaucratic head.

“Excuse me, sir, can you step over here?”

That’s the moment when, for a split second, you think about pulling the 2005 China habit of ignoring the request as if you don’t understand Chinese and just marching through. Instead, I remembered where I was, and followed the request. The agent asked me if I had anything, and I said, “Yeah, I’ve got about 11 kilos of hops that I didn’t declare.” The young man and his colleague continued to be polite, and asked me to open my bag. They took a sample from each of the three bags, then put them in the obligatory “this guy is transporting 11 kilos of weed” reactive crack pack. They asked me to explain the use of these plants; at this time, my Beach Boys was on “Sloop John B,” and I realized I needed to take out my remaining ear bud and prepare for a long wait.

The first crack pack changed color a bit, but not a lot. On the third test, the color was still a nice light green. At that point, the agent told me that they needed to talk to their leader and do some research before they could let me go. Cool. Food court. He came back with a middle-aged woman and an older gentleman. They had a pleasant conversation on the unlikelihood that a white dude would be bringing 11 kilos of marijuana from mainland China into Taiwan in such an odd, overly processed state. I wanted to agree, but, you know, I just wanted to get a curry and laugh about this with Liu Fang. So, they deliberated. Super pleasant. They concluded that whatever it is, I’m only allowed to bring in seven kilos of it, so I had to surrender four kilos and sign some paperwork.

Okay. Food court. This is looking good. Crack packs are still light green. We’re talking solutions. This is almost done.

Then a guy with a tactical belt comes out of nowhere, picks up the samples material that is on a white napkin, holds it up to his nose, and says, “Oh, that’s definitely weed.”


No food court.

I’ve never liked guys with tactical belts. I worked at a security and risk mitigation firm for three years, and there was an asshole there who wore a tactical belt every day. To an office job. Where he sat at a computer and read Heritage Foundation papers about North Korean info-warfare. Fuck that guy and fuck tactical belts. Pointless projection of power.

I was then taken into an investigations office. Next step was to search all of my luggage and personal effects. I’m thinking that this has to be a joke. It’s the first — and hopefully last — time in my life when I actually wished the people I was meeting would say the phrase, “Oh! You’re a brewer? Me too! I brew at home!” I just needed one home-brewing customs agent to take a look at those T90 pellets and laugh and say, “Guys, come on! Those are hops!” But apparently, home brewing isn’t as popular as the Taiwan Homebrewers Association would lead you to believe…


Is there an international conspiracy in which a conglomerate of drug smugglers are nefariously transporting weed through unwitting bearded and tattooed couriers under the guise of collaboration brewing?


The rest of my luggage yielded nothing, just three giant foil bags filled with alpha acid and dank oily goodness. The shift manager then began to write the words “suspected marijuana” on the checked-in evidence whiteboard. I immediately protested, as, from logic and a couple of seasons of Law and Order, I knew that they were going to take a picture of me in front of that whiteboard with the contraband in the foreground. Narcos, Season 1: Never leave any mug shots. I told the duty manager that suspected marijuana was a bit harsh, and asked that they write “probable hops” instead. Being Taiwan, where people are super polite, she agreed. She also admitted that I didn’t need to be in the picture. That was nice. It was also at this point that they asked me to stop using my phone. But not before I snapped this beauty:

That’s my name on the whiteboard!

The next two hours were clerical whatnot. Taking my statement, negotiating the content of the official record, and calling my wife, Liu Fang, from the office phone and asking her not to worry. The entire time they kept telling me that another official would want to talk to me before I could be released, and to be patient. We finished the official statement, I did the red thumbprint and signature to verify I was not coerced and that I agreed with the content of the statement. Then I sat. They moved me around the room as various other smugglers were processed. There was the guy with WAYYYYY too much Clinique and then another guy and his mom who had a hard time justifying their four suitcases filled with Gucci bags. The entire time I sat and thought, “Man, I’m the lamest smuggler in the room.” After about three and a half hours with customs, the other official that needed to “chat” with me finally arrived.

This is when, for the first time in my life, I heard a law enforcement officer tell me to place my hands behind my back because I was under arrest. An agent from the Taiwanese federal bureau of investigation was the “official” I had been waiting to have a chat with, and the chat was going to happen at their field office inspections lab for narcotics.

I was mortified. For the first time in Asia, I felt afraid. Keep in mind, any of you who are familiar with our brand story, Liu Fang and I were investigated by the China National Quality and Technology Bureau in 2011. Those threats felt manageable. I never felt like anything worse than a deportation and a fine would result from that experience. This was being accused of narcotics smuggling in a place that is, at the same time, both super polite and super serious about drug smuggling. I looked at both the agents and told them that they couldn’t arrest me, I couldn’t have that on my record. I asked/begged for time to think. They allowed me five minutes. After I caught my thoughts, I asked them why I couldn’t go voluntarily. The special agent responded that it was better for my long-term rights to be under arrest so I could appeal for legal counsel; my international rights would be respected and a rep from the AIT could be sent to advocate. I told both agents that I understood all of that, but I also understood that what they suspected was 100 percent a misunderstanding and that as long as they could test for THC at their inspections lab, they would know that this was just a mistake.

After a short powwow, the senior agent said I had to understand that at any point, if the findings came back positive for marijuana, I would face a tougher penalty for not being arrested at the point of entry into Taiwan. I told them that was fine and I understood. They then took me through the airport’s backchannel pathways for official use. I was seated in the back of a Honda Accord when they allowed me to call Liu Fang. The agent next to me was polite enough to explain the situation and told her where we were going and that she was welcome to come and wait with me (and him, and his colleagues) for the results.

Once in the car, I calmed down. Liu Fang told me that my best friend Quentin Yeh was already on the phone with Taiwan’s best criminal defender and they would take care of everything if the results were not in my favor. At this point I began to wonder if I really was smuggling weed. Is there an international conspiracy in which a conglomerate of drug smugglers are nefariously transporting weed through unwitting bearded and tattooed couriers under the guise of collaboration brewing? Yeah, I was going nuts. This shit was bananas.


I told the duty manager that “suspected marijuana” was a bit harsh, and asked that they write “probable hops” instead.


We arrived at the inspections center for the Taoyuan area. It was a fortress. We drove into the underground parking garage and they took me up through the employee elevator. It’s about 11:30 at night. You ever been to an FBI field office at 11:30 at night? We can share notes later, but the vibe I got was that there were more suspects in this place than agents and support staff. They reiterated that the lab would be able to get results in 90 minutes. Until then, I was asked to sit in an interrogation room, uninhibited but properly looked after by curious on-duty agents and one skeptical admin. “He doesn’t look like a drug smuggler,” she said. That was nice of her.

The entire experience, minus the words “We’re going to place you under arrest, please stand up and put your hands behind your back,” was all in Mandarin, which is a common experience that I’ve had over the last 12 years going back and forth to Taiwan. These agents all had better English than my Chinese, but out of curiosity, Taiwanese people always entertain your Mandarin. So polite. After five minutes I started to, oddly enough, relax a bit. The older agent chaperoning me — we can call him Kuo — asked me casual questions about the brewing industry in China and in Taiwan. He sat at a computer terminal near the recording equipment and his fingers tapped away. He asked me about our brand and about my experience. He said, “You are on a technical committee in Berlin? My daughter lives in Berlin.” (Taiwan, amirite?) I said, “Yeah.” He then joked that this was probably the first time a member of my committee has been investigated for marijuana smuggling. I laughed for the first time in an hour or so and agreed.

After another couple of minutes of small talk, I heard the sound of Liu Fang’s voice and felt relief. How a mainland Chinese woman was going to save me wasn’t the point — I just didn’t feel alone anymore. Kuo welcomed her and reassured her I wasn’t under arrest and that he was confident this was a mistake. She sat next to me and we held hands as he attempted to calm us down by telling us stories of cross-straits law enforcement coordination he had worked on and how much he liked people from Shandong Province. He then said, “There are 10 minutes left, this is almost over, I’m going to go and talk to the lab director and I’ll come back with the results, please don’t worry, everything is almost over.” It was an ominous thing to say in light of my uncertainty, but Liu Fang told me everything was going to be fine.

Kuo left us in the charge of a younger agent who was completely uninterested in beer or people or words. We sat in silence and I watched the clock. The entire time I kept hearing jovial chitchat from the next room. A male voice said he needed to use the bathroom. The response to that statement was, “This isn’t the first time you’ve been here, you know where it is.” The guy who walked down the hall was handcuffed in the front and was trailed by a junior agent. I looked at Liu Fang and she looked at our young stoic agent and he looked at us and said, “Loan shark, attempted murder,” and went back to reading the computer screen.

Kuo came thundering back into the room. “What a waste of time, sign here, you are free to go.”

I looked at him and he smiled and said he knew I wasn’t smuggling drugs, but procedure is procedure. I expected to look down and see a piece of paper that forbade me from saying what took place or made me sign away my right to sue if any aspects of their investigation caused any irreparable harm to my life in Taiwan or ability to travel internationally, but all it was was a declaration that I understood that if at any time I was injured during the transportation or investigation of my person or belongings, I had the right to seek legal action. So polite.

Liu Fang and I left the office without our hops, as they needed to be released by the customs agents back at the airport. We called an Uber and went straight to a snack market for a late-night dinner. What an odd experience, all for the sake of collaboration.

And that’s the lesson, boys and girls: When traveling internationally, declare your agricultural products, and always remember that being polite never hurt anyone.

POSTSCRIPT: The beer that came out of this was represented in our Beijing taprooms as the Red Thumb Indian Pale Lager: