Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cambodia Cold Ones

Ah, southeast Asia.  Where "beer" is synonymous with "whatever taste-free, industrially-produced malt beverage you happen to have in the freezer at the moment."  It's hot here, damned hot, and sometimes you just need a drink of cold water.  Or pop.  Or macro light lager.

Unfortunately, you're going to have a tough time finding much else.  The big guys run the show, and there's not much demand for other types of beer.  Southeast Asians (Thais especially) don't enjoy extra-bitter beverages, and they have a sweet tooth; developing a light and refreshing but non-bitter and over-sweetened beer... well, seems a bit like chasing your tail.  No wonder this is where vodka-and-Red Bull originated.

You can sometimes find overpriced Belgian beer at tourist restaurants, but do you really want an 11% quadrupel when it's 40 C and humidity is high?  Given the long, hot shipping and storage conditions for foreign beer, I wouldn't recommend trying other styles either.

Cambodian Beer Sampling

I thought I should at least have a quick look around before packing it in and writing off the whole region, beer-wise.  And to add an extra exotic twist, I'd do it in Phnom Penh, Cambodia!

Ooo, Angkor beer, named for the ancient empire centered in Cambodia (builders of the famed Angkor Wat temples and ancient cities).  A suitably exotic brand name.  Left to right we have the standard light lager, followed by an Angkor Extra Stout and an ABC Extra Stout.  Both stouts are 8%.

Cool - the Angkor light lager ($0.60 US) greets you with an old school pull-off tab.  The contents... well, pretty much the same as Singha, Tiger, Leo and Chang in Thailand, Beer Lao in Laos and Myanmar Beer in Myanmar.  (If you have a choice, Leo is the lesser of evils.)  Next.

Oh my, that's not a good sign, Angkor Extra Stout.  A tacky-looking beer ring on the inside of the cap seal, which has bubbled and stretched itself apart from the cap.  It looks almost like the beer was boiled inside the bottle!  Maybe this one got stuck in the pasteurizer?  It did provide an impossible-to-miss lesson on how oxidized dark beers taste.  Like sherry and red wine, stale chocolate, old canned cherries, molasses, hints of black liquorice.  Bleah.

However, the ABC Extra Stout... came through with flying colours!  Tasted cold, it was actually a pleasant little brew, more like a fortified milk stout than a foreign extra stout.  Slightly banana-y aroma, flavours of coffee, milk chocolate, subtle ripe banana, lots of residual sweetness and medium hop bitterness.  Not something I'm going to take to the beach with me, but perfectly passable nonetheless.

Munich Fresh Beer Microbrewery

Walking home from the waterfront one night, I spied a sign for the Munich Fresh Beer Microbrewery.  In previous times, my heart would have skipped a beat in joyful anticipation.  However, this year I had already experienced many places around the world that capitalize on tourist fads by providing the trappings of something desirable at a high price, while ludicrously under-delivering.  (I'm looking at you, Turkish "brewpub".)

Despite the branding and messaging and faux-dirndl uniforms of the female wait staff and visible (though questionably operative) brewing equipment, this was really a very busy and popular family soup restaurant/private box karaoke venue.  Despite the signage, beer was secondary.

(Substandard) live music in the main indoor room

The beer list: "gold" and "stout".  Clearly not the correct German terms - what they meant was "light" and "dark".

The Hoplog Global Golden Rule of Brewpub/Microbrewery/Unknown Small Beer Producer Drinking:
If such a brewer offers only two beers, and they are named "light" and "dark" or  equivalent names, walk away and do not look back.
Sigh.  I didn't obey my own rule.  So as expected, here is the "Gold" beer I ordered:

Cloudy and yeasty and weirdly fruity and undrinkable - I was 100% certain this was the crap I would be served.  Yet my faith in humanity prevailed and I took a chance.  Sigh.

Kingdom Breweries

Not ready to give up yet, I did a spot of internet research, and it appeared there was an actual bottle-production craft brewery in Phnom Penh, just a few kilometres north of the downtown ferry jetty.  No one answered the phone, and no business hours were available (other than in online reviews), so I blindly piled into a tuk-tuk and was dropped off at their last known address, at the time I figured their office would open (1:00 pm).

Success!  Kingdom (as in the "Kingdom Of Cambodia") has some decent-sized financial backers, and therefore has pretty nice digs and (until recently) a European-trained brewer.  There's even a view of the mighty Mekong River across the street from the tasting room.

The brewery is in a former Nestle factory, and is therefore massive.  Plenty of room to expand, and the equipment is all shiny and new and decently large for such a small brewery.

Cases of bottles behind the bottling machine

The brewhouse has many tanks - hot liquor tank, cold liquor tank, mash tun, lauter tun, boil kettle, rice cooker (for the "Gold" which uses rice), etc.  Lots of pushbutton control, too.  Fancy!

So how was the beer, served in a frozen mug (traditional in these parts)?  In a word... meh.  All the beer except the Gold (aka typical light lager) is 100% malt, and the brewery has gotten some good press - but apparently all of it from teetotaler journalists.  The Gold is passable, but is the same as every other beer in the region (possibly a bit sweeter).  The pilsner, which I was really looking forward to, was... the lowlight.  It tasted like a typically premature, unfinished "cloudy pilsner" sold by unskilled brewpubs in hot-climate countries, but run through a filter (for clarity) and a pasteurizer (for flavour stability).  It tasted fruity and yeasty, and not in a particularly good way.  Maybe local palettes like this better than I do, but I'm skeptical.

But there's hope - their "dark" beer is an inoffensive beer along the lines of a mild or a mass-market English brown.  There's a bit of caramel malt in there, not too much bitterness, restrained sweetness, and most importantly no unbridled yeast problems.  Served cold, it's fine.  (Except that it costs twice as much as a light lager.)

The tour cost a few dollars, but our guide was very nice and answered our questions as best she could.  (For instance, there is no refrigeration room for the conditioning tanks - or for the fermenters.  According to our guide they use CO2 jackets for cooling these tanks, and the CO2 is purchased from the Coca-Cola factory down the road.  This seems odd and expensive to me, and some of the beer tastes like it was fermented too warm, but what do I know?)

FYI, there's apparently a "pub night" every second Friday or so at the brewery, which online reviews indicate is a lot of fun.


Kudos to Kingdom for making a go of it in a difficult brewing environment.  However, I've lost any hope that there could be a decent microbrewery in southeast Asia, so I'm going to stop investigating and just enjoy the last few weeks of my travel.  Until I return to sweet Vancouver in late April - land of barley, hops and good brewers - I guess it's watery Leo beer for me.

NB - Ever wonder why some breweries pasteurize their beer?  In this region, it's pretty much essential.  The above shop is across the street from Kingdom Breweries.  Those are boxes of beer stacked under the 2:00 pm Phnom Penh sun in the middle of hot season.  Imagine what your west coast IPA would taste like after that kind of treatment?  At least these beers don't have much flavour to begin with.

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