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The Beers of Cambodia

Samdech Akkeak Moha Senapakdei Decho Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, speaking at the opening ceremonies of Cambodia Beer’s brewery, recently requested Cambodians drink more to help the economy.  While I’m not sure of the nationwide economic merits of drinking more, I do agree Cambodia’s beers have something to offer.

Over the past four years I have studied the beers of Cambodia.  It was hard work, but I felt it needed to be done. You, dear reader, will benefit from my hours of grueling work.  I only ask that you stop reading right now, and go get your own cold barley pop.  This post is meant to be read with a drink in hand.

Like most developing countries, Cambodia is host to a series of bland developing-country lagers.  I get why;

Pencil's bright lights and endless beer isle.

Cambodia is hot 99% of the year.  During that 1% of days when it is cool outside, it is only cool if you are completely acclimated to Cambodian weather.  So while Cambodians may break out their wool hat and mittens, us barangs (translate: gringo) are likely to still be in short sleeves.  A light, uncomplicated beer is refreshing on a hot day, but also can be boring, especially when they all taste the same.

Quantity over quality
When I arrived to Cambodia in 2008, the scene was dominated by the big three developing-country lagers: Tiger, Angkor, and Anchor (to differentiate, Cambodians pronounce Anchor “ann chore”).  While there are subtle differences between the three, tasted side-by-side-by-side, you really have to stick your nose in the beer to tell them apart.  My personal preference in a blind taste test went exactly along with the general opinion; Tiger was better, then Angkor, then Anchor. But they all basically taste the same and, as my good friend (and
the only certified brew master I know) RM Karr says, “There is no such thing as a bad beer, just some are made better than others.”

Tiger and Anchor are made by Cambodia Brewery Limited, in a factory half owned by Heineken and located just outside of Phnom Penh.  Interestingly, this brewery only cans and kegs, so every bottle of Tiger drank in Cambodia is actually imported from Singapore.  Even more interesting, these bottles are sold for less money in Cambodia than they are in Singapore because taxes there are so high.  The pristine wood-lined taproom in the brewery has the only “Twin Ice” tap in Cambodia.  Twin Ice is a Tiger invention, and when the tap is pulled, it acts like a normal beer dispenser, but when pushed, frozen beer ice crystals emerge.  Brilliant!  Great for keeping your beer cold without watering it down with regular ice cubes, which is what they do at 100% of the weddings here in Cambodia. Tiger is marketed as a “premium” brand, while its bastard cousin Anchor is brewed to give to your cousins in the provinces who don’t know any better.  When I first got here, I heard rumors that Anchor was made with formaldehyde.  This isn’t true.  Cambodia Brewery limited also makes the unremarkable Crown Gold and ABC Stout.  On a tour of the brewery, one of the brewers claimed that after a long night of drinking Tigers, if you drink an ABC Stout as your final drink of the night, you will not be hung over the next morning.  I have a hard time getting past the over-burnt malts to even finish an ABC, so I have not tested this theory.

Angkor, with the “My Country, My Beer,” slogan is brewed by CamBrew, based in Sihanoukville, and is touted as the “national beer” of Cambodia.  It does sell the highest volume of beer in the country, and the brewery cranks out beer almost 24/7.  CamBrew is also 50% owned by Carlsberg.  Aside from Angkor, Cambrew also makes the lackluster Bayon Beer, Klang Beer, Black Panther stout and Angkor Extra Stout. None of these are worth your time.  As with the aforementioned ABC, both Black Panther and Angkor Extra are over burnt and lack any sort of nuanced flavor.  The stouts are all 8% alcohol, compared with 5% in almost all of the other beers, so they are solely trying to make a beer with an extra kick.  Plus, Black Panther is fun to order, especially if you use an Anchorman voice.

Aside from the big three, a recent newcomer to the mass-produced beer in Cambodia is Cambodia Beer.  Trying to capitalize on Angkor’s “national beer” model, their marketing person brilliantly observed, “Nothing says Cambodia more than Cambodia Beer.”  I also love their t-shirts, which in big bold letters say, “I Y CAMBODIA,” and then lower in smaller font it says “beer.” Cambodia Beer is making a big push for market share, and their product may be able to give them a boost.  The beer is slightly bitterer than the big three, with a little more robust carbonation.  In a blind taste test, it stands out. Maybe not as better than the others, but it is different. And that counts for something.

You’re not from around here, are you?
Additionally, there have always been a handful of imports available in Phnom Penh, and some of them with increasing regularity.  European brands like Leffe, Hoegaarden, Chimay, and Erdinger are available at shops like Pencil, Veggies, and Super Cheap.  What is missing, (in your author’s most humble opinion), is the hop-filled ales from the West Coast of the United States.  Tsk! Tsk! (That’s why I brew my own.)  Without spending too much time on imports, I want to give two important shout outs.  First, AusKhmer’s shop The Pantry regularly has James Squire Amber Ale (Cambodia’s 2nd best beer), Cooper’s Pale Ale, and Newcastle Brown Ale.  Pricey, but delicious.  Second, Pencil regularly stocks Beer Lao Dark.  Since Laos shares a boarder Cambodia, I feel justified in giving Beer Lao Dark props here, even though it isn’t brewed in Cambodia.  The head brewer from Beer Laos was sent to Czechoslovakia to learn how to make beer. And those guys know how to make beer; they’ve been doing it for centuries. She came back (yup, the head brewer is a “she” in Laos, pretty bad-ass), and used grains and hops exported from Europe to support their comrades in S.E. Asia. After the fall of communism, they switched to rice as the main ingredient to keep the costs down (can’t blame them… after all, look around), but still brewed using the Czech techniques.  Beer Lao lager is fairly similar to your developing-country lager, though toward the tastier end of the spectrum.  But Beer Lao Dark… oh Beer Lao Dark, you are sublime.  Brewed more like a dunkel than a stout, it has distinct roasted malt flavor, but without being over-burnt.  It is smooth and thirst quenching, but also stands out in its ability to balance bitterness and sweet. For the price-point, this is the best buy in Cambodia, hands down.

Microbrews, all the craze
There were, until recently, three microbrews in Phnom Penh.  Munich Beer Restaurant just shut its doors, and I say good riddance.  Their two brews, dark and light, were OK if the beer was fresh. Unfortunately, because of their over-zealous menu and reputation for stale beer, no one went there, the turnover on the tanks was too slow, and most of the time it was just awful.  The other well established microbrew is the Chinese-based Man Han Lou.  South on Monivong Blvd, this brewery combines with a restaurant that serves decent dim sum and a large number of other Chinese dishes.  They have four different beers: the Gold (think developing-country lager), the Green (tastes just like the Gold, but made with seaweed, so it gives the beer an emerald hue, great for St. Patty’s Day!), the Red (my personal favorite, sort of like a sweetened red ale, but if it were made in Asia, which it is), and the Black, (their attempt at a stout, which I must admit, might be my favorite stout in the country, but far from my favorite beer to drink).  Man Han Lou is a great place to spend an afternoon, trying every beer and every dish on the limited dim sum menu.

The real champion of Cambodia’s brewery scene is Kingdom Breweries.  Opened in 2010 with a German master brewer, the company took close aim at Tiger’s “premium” beer market.  They came out with a German-style Clouded Leopard Pilsner that was spot on.  Unfortunately, in test-marketing they realized that Cambodians thought it was too bitter, and changed the recipe to lower the BPU to make it less bitter than Tiger.  In essence, they made it just like every other beer in Cambodia, except they are using more expensive ingredients, so they charge three times as much.  Yes, the Kingdom Pilsner is slightly better than Tiger in a blind taste test, but for the price, it just isn’t worth it.  However, in 2011 Kingdom came out with the Kingdom Dark.  Similar in color and texture to Beer Lao Dark, but made here in Cambodia, Kingdom Dark is a great beer: flavorful, rich, full of texture, and still refreshing.  However, in a blind taste test, Beer Lao Dark comes out ahead. It has more flavor, more texture, and just tastesbetter. Beer Lao Dark is also about $8 cheaper per case.

But don’t count Kingdom out.  Their best beer is their Bitter. Similar to an English-style bitter ale, the brewery made a small test batch, and they nailed it.  Hoppy, dense, full-flavored, this is by far the best beer made in Cambodia.  The Bitter was made especially for Dan Meats butcher shop on Street 214 (I know this because it says right on the bottle “Brewed especially for Dan Meats”), and if you sweet talk the butcher a little, you can still buy some of their dwindling stock.  It will not last long.  Hopefully Kingdom will make another batch soon.

So there you have it. Four years of beer drinking condensed into 1600 words. Your beer should be almost finished, so go ahead and get another. Chul Muy!

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