“You ever brewed beer before?”
“Nope,” I said, as I gathered together a pile of airlocks and gaskets to fit on the fermentation tanks.
What was I doing in Kampot, trying to brew an IPA for Cambodia’s burgeoning craft beer market?
We’d just left Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I’d discovered Red Truck IPA – the heavenly creation of the Chiang Mai Beer Company. A good IPA was something I’d been missing since we left the U.S., as Southeast Asian beer (and Cambodia’s beer in particular) isn’t known for being high quality.
In most of Southeast Asia, the big breweries make a watery beer that costs around $1 and is vaguely drinkable when served ice cold. For most tourists, that’s enough. They’ll go home and laugh about the inexpensive swill that assisted them in forgetting so many nights of their trip. But as a digital nomad trekking across this region month after month, I’d been craving something with a little more flavor.Who knew Cambodia had so many micro-breweries? Here’s the best and worst of each! Click To Tweet
Fortunately for us, Cambodia is starting to come into its own when it comes to craft beer. In the past several years, as demand for quality beer has skyrocketed in the U.S., craft breweries have been popping up around the world, including here in the Kingdom.
The industry is still in its infancy, so it was relatively easy to visit all of Cambodia’s breweries (there’s six) as I made my way across the country and ultimately to the experience of being a brewing assistant.
Five Men Fresh Beer – Sihanoukville
Sihanoukville is home to the Cambrew Beer Factory (really, what could be less appetizing than a “beer factory?”), maker of Cambodia’s national brew, Angkor beer. The city’s famous Ochheuteal Beach conjures up images, for those familiar with it, of drunken partygoers with their hearts set on consuming every drop the Factory can produce before they pass out on the garbage-strewn sand.
Five Men Fresh Beer is one of the town’s few bright spots trying to change that image, and they’ve fittingly situated themselves far from the beach debauchery. The brewery is housed in a cavernous sheet metal building that I would describe as looking like a shabby but charming pizza shop. Family portraits on the wall, roughed-up vinyl booths, tables with red plastic chairs – it feels like I should be ordering a slice of greasy thin crust. There’s even a strangely out-of-place fish tank filled with dirty brown water, from which some large specimens can eye the customers.
The brewing equipment is located behind glass windows, allowing visitors to watch the process when it’s taking place. Unfortunately, it was very quiet the day of my visit.
The brewmaster at Five Men refers to his creations as “fresh beer” because no chemicals or preservatives are added to them, which also means they spoil rather quickly. Not to worry though, because all three brews cost between $0.50 and $1 (the same price as Angkor beer), and at those prices, the product is flying out the door (or rather, into the customers’ mouths).
Brews made here include Gold, Stout and Strong, which roughly correspond to lager, stout (obviously), and pale ale. The Gold is a step up from Angkor, but not shockingly different in flavor profile. The Stout has hints of chocolate, though the body is disappointingly light for a stout. The Strong was probably my favorite, less malty and with much stronger hops flavors than the others. Admittedly, anyone expecting Western craft beer quality is going to be disappointed, but Five Men’s brews are a big improvement over the mass-market Cambodian beer options and not any more expensive.
I visited the brewery alone, but it would be a really fun and affordable place to spend an evening out with friends, especially if you can snag a booth. The service was also excellent. The waitress came to ask if I wanted another beer the second I finished the last sip of my first – a level of attention that’s rare in Southeast Asia.
Himawari Microbrewery – Phnom Penh
Tell your tuk-tuk driver you want a ride to Himawari, and watch their eyes light up – and the fare skyrocket. This luxury hotel on the capital city’s riverside is a popular spot for Western and Chinese high rollers to spend the night after liberating money from their wallets at the nearby casinos. In addition to their posh accommodations, the hotel also started one of Cambodia’s first craft beer operations.
The brewery and bar are located at the far end of Himawari’s palatial lobby, so don’t dress like a slob. I don’t think they’d kick you out, but I’m betting people who look like dirty backpackers don’t get great service at a place like this.
I really enjoyed the hotel’s quiet atmosphere, with jazz music playing lightly in the background. It was an interesting contrast to the usual party atmosphere of bars in Cambodia. If the weather is clear, the back patio makes an even better hangout, with its impressive views of the riverside.
Several of Himawari’s beers are on tap, but I headed straight for the Centennial IPA, yearning to get back to the hoppy bliss I found in Chiang Mai. I was not disappointed, as it had plenty of hops flavor, though it was somewhat lacking in the IPA aroma. I love the intense floral and piney scent of a good IPA, the kind with a smell that becomes just as much a part of the experience as the bitter taste that lingers on your tongue.
That’s not to say I was completely satisfied; a pint of Himawari’s IPA costs $7.25 – around the same amount I would have paid in Boston. That sort of pricing is criminal in Cambodia, though it’s a couple bucks cheaper during happy hour. While I enjoyed their flavorful IPA, there are less expensive places in Phnom Penh. Save this one for a date night when you’re trying to impress someone with the luxurious setting.
Tawandang German Brewery – Phnom Penh
As an “entertainment complex,” this one was an interesting experience. It’s located near the Russian Market, far from the touristy hotels and restaurants that dot Phnom Penh’s riverside. While they do brew their own beer, it’s predominantly known as a live music venue, with performances starting around 6:30 every night.
Tawandang prides itself on using traditional German brewing techniques. Though I haven’t spent much time in Germany, I did drink a few beers at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, and I don’t see how they could be using any of the same techniques.
I tried the lager, weizen, and dunkel, which roughly correspond to a light lager, a hefeweizen, and a porter. Honestly, the lager tasted just like an Angkor beer, but cost four times more.
The weizen, true to its name, had some wheat flavors and a bit of the yeasty-ness you’d expect from a beer like this. But it was just enough to leave you wanting more, and it was a disappointment to know it could have been much better if they hadn’t skimped on the wheat in the malting stage. Nevertheless, it was the best of the bunch. The dunkel was by far the worst of the three, as it was sickeningly sweet and the malt flavors tasted artificial. I have to wonder if they used some sort of additives to give it a dark color and notes of chocolate.
Unfortunately, the food at Tawandang wasn’t much better than the beer. The Thai dishes (their specialty) are nothing to write home about, and selling Pad Thai for $5 seems nuts to anyone who’s been in Thailand.
Despite the disappointing brews and food, the show made it all worth it – and this place is more of an entertainment venue, after all. The live music was great, and the whole experience was entertaining and full of local flavor. I was one of the only Westerners in the cavernous bar, and even though less than half the tables were full when I left, I could see it becoming a happening place later in the evening.
Botanico – Phnom Penh
You’ll have to really go looking for Phnom Penh’s third brewery; it’s located down an unassuming alley not far from the Independence Monument, where you’re unlikely to come upon it by chance.
You’ll be glad you sought it out, though, as it opens up to a beautiful shaded beer garden that looks like a backyard BBQ in the States. Perhaps that’s because it’s run by Texas native Erich Phillips, who’s trying to bring the fun atmosphere of American microbreweries to the Cambodian capital. When he’s not brewing, he comes around to chat with visitors, and if you’re unsure of your itinerary, he’s got plenty of great ideas for having fun in the city.
While many of Cambodia’s other microbreweries top out at three brews, Botanico soars past them with eight to ten options, all priced at $3.50. Yes, you could buy several Angkor beers for that cost, but you’re paying for quality here. You can also rationalize that it’s still just half of what Himawari charges…
Unlike the other Cambodian breweries, which focus on stocking tried-and-true flavors, Botanico has a rotating menu of brews, so you’ll find something new on each visit. I tried the IPA and pale ale, both of which were excellent and had strong flavor profiles designed to appeal to fans of those styles of beer, rather than to be agreeable to the masses. Of all the Cambodian beer I’ve tried, these came the closest to tasting like the craft beer found at home.
The food is also reportedly top-notch, but when I visited, most of the staff was on holiday and the menu was limited to snacks. Erich was quick to bring me some delicious and free curry-flavored peanuts while I sipped my beers though, so I can’t complain.
Ultimately, this was my favorite brewery in Cambodia. Not only because it had the best IPA, but because Erich has brought to Cambodia the friendly and inviting atmosphere that I love about breweries back home.
Siem Reap Brewpub – Siem Reap
Who doesn’t want a refreshing beer after a long, hot day of exploring temples? While you can find a $0.50 Angkor beer pretty much anywhere on Pub Street, the Siem Reap Brewpub has the big flavor you’re really craving after an exhausting day.
To differentiate themselves from the numerous backpacker bars around town, Brewpub has chosen to go upscale. The outdoor dining area is full of inviting plush chairs and white tablecloths, all under expansive umbrellas to shade you from the city’s oppressive heat. It’s a peaceful, classy place in a city that has become overcrowded with tourists and rowdy backpacker bars.
The brewmaster, Neo, is a pioneer in the Southeast Asian beer scene, opening Singapore’s first homebrew store. He then formed the country’s first homebrew club to help other aspiring brewers hone their craft, and started leading tours of the area’s breweries.
I tried the IPA (they also offer a honey weiss and saison ale), and was happy to find a high level of bitterness and a pleasant floral aroma. It was the kind of craft beer I’d expect back home, and it only cost $3. This was the last brewery I visited, so I was admittedly, perhaps unfairly, less impressed than I was with my first IPA at Himawari.
An unexpectedly good find here was the beer cocktails. Normally, I’d be completely opposed to diluting craft beer with juice, soda, and spices, but after a long day exploring the temples, I can appreciate the need for a drink that has a little less alcohol but is still packed with flavor. I ordered the IPA mixed with orange juice, ginger ale, and bitters, and the wonderfully hoppy taste still shone through.
The Brewpub is an excellent place to spend an hour or two in Siem Reap, in between all the other activities the city offers. It’s certainly more interesting than a night out on Pub Street, and you won’t have a thousand touts bothering you to check out their store or take a ride in their tuk-tuk.
Flowers Homebrew – Kampot
So, back to that story of how I became a brewing assistant in Kampot. We recently spent six weeks there while Jen was teaching yoga, so I was on the hunt for interesting things to do in town. After that delicious beer in Chiang Mai, I thought it was worth seeing if there were any breweries in Kampot (even though it was an unlikely prospect).
What I found was Flowers Homebrew, Cambodia’s smallest commercial brewing operation. Run out of the owner’s house, they brew 100-liter batches every few weeks, enough to fill a couple hundred bottles and several mini kegs.
Just after we arrived, the owner, Yuki, posted on Facebook that he was looking for someone to help with bottling – who would be rewarded with two free bottles of beer. I got in touch, and ended up not only bottling, but also getting to help with the brewing.
It was a two-day process that involved sanitizing all the equipment on the afternoon before the brew, along with long periods of waiting on the second day as the beer was cooked, transferred, and cooled in a variety of vessels. The most important thing I learned from the experience is how critical cleanliness is. It takes only a small amount of bacteria or errant yeast strain to ruin a batch of beer. Conscientiousness is key to a successful brew.
So, how does Flowers’s beer stack up (I promise there’s no bias, the batch I brewed wasn’t even ready by the time we left)? Both the steam beer, a brew made with lager yeast at warm temperatures, and the pale ale were delicious. They’re not quite as aggressively flavored as Botanico’s brews, but are very enjoyable and easily worth the $2 price tag on each bottle.
Not to settle for the title of being the sole craft brewer in Kampot, Japan-born Yuki is also the town’s only sushi chef. Flowers serves a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian rolls that are a great accompaniment to the flavorful beers.
If you’re going to be sticking around Kampot for a while, send Yuki a Facebook message a week or so in advance and see if there’s any brewing or bottling happening during your visit. You can learn how the proverbial sausage is made, and pretend you’re a brewmaster for the day.
Cambodia’s Beer Market
While it’s been slow going, Cambodian beer is changing, and the country is starting to come into its own in terms of the craft beer market. While Cambodia’s beer sales have long been dominated by a few big companies making a cheap but sub-par product, the market is diversifying.
Foreign tourists are certainly the catalyst for this, as they’re starting to demand the same great tastes they can find back home. But maybe these new breweries will also alter the preferences of wealthier Cambodians who are curious to try new things. Hopefully, it will eventually result in not only more variety, but also more small businesses. The craft beer movement helps keep more money in the community instead of in the hands of large corporations. We can all drink to that!
Where have you tried interesting craft beer during your travels?