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Cambodia’s coffee renaissance

From the September 2017 issue.

After decades of drinking low-quality coffee blends, Cambodian consumers are beginning to embrace a higher standard of coffee, giving hope that the nation’s producers might someday also lift their output.

Kim Davorn

Past the snake fruits and lychees on through the mufflers, shock absorbers, Buddha carvings and food stalls that vie for attention in Phnom Penh’s pulsing Russian Market, lies a tiny shop front with a novel offering – a real espresso machine.

Inside is Joe Astone, a Sicilian who moved to Melbourne half a century ago and is in Phnom Penh on a whirlwind romantic sojourn.

Joe, whose Sicilian heritage has left him with a delicate appreciation of good coffee, is gushing about a Phnom Penh café he visited earlier in the day.

“It’s a beautiful place. It’s absolutely beautiful coffee,” Joe says.

“They do filter, filter coffee. Beautiful. I never seen anything like it.”

Joe’s discerning tastes would have been left unfulfilled in the Phnom Penh of a decade ago, when almost all coffee was blended with soy or corn and served with ample sweetened condensed milk.

Coffee culture in this city has changed in a heartbeat and nobody better epitomises this shift than the woman frantically brewing in front of Joe, Kim Davorn.

“I want Cambodian people to drink good quality and good stuff that is pure original coffee, and not mixed coffee,” she says, ruing the practice of adding corn or soy to blends.

Her shiny shop, Bell Coffee & Fresh Juice, with its frappés, mochas and lattes, cuts a peculiar sight sitting next to rickety food stalls that offer dishes such quail egg and pork belly stew poured over rice with fish paste – cheap traditional street fare.

Davorn is taking sophisticated coffee to the common people.

She keeps the price of her organic and specialty blends down to about US$1 per cup by sourcing beans from Thailand, Laos and Modulkiri in Cambodia’s north-east.

“Our coffee is fresh and we all can see what we mix here is unlike the traditional coffee maker that we don’t know the source where the coffee comes from. It’s healthier. We have quality coffee bean, original taste, low sugar.”

Cambodians, Davorn says, are flocking to the selective blends she is serving up and while youth are still consumed by sweet choices such as frappes, elder Cambodians are embracing more sour coffee.

That observation led Davorn to devise different blends tailored to specific age groups. Her little market business is thriving and she expects to pay off a US$10,000 investment in just three years.

Swing across town to Phnom Penh’s upmarket Boeung Keng Kang 1 commune and you see the near polar opposite of coffee business philosophy in effect. Artfully decked out in faux industrial coffee warehouse chic, a soothing acoustic rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy gently resonates across the Brown Coffee and Bakery and its clientele of sophisticated looking business types, students and well-heeled families.

This isn’t so much bringing fine coffee to the people but rather bringing the people to the aspirational culture of sophisticated coffee, where selfies sing from every angle and talking shop feels very comfortable.

Brown Coffee

Brown Co-Founder Chhoung Liv, who manages the company’s operations and production, says his team of investors were inspired to create a new type of coffee shop in Cambodia by the rich cafe culture of Sydney – after one of them went to study there and was captivated.

“Each store is unique to its surrounding. We design, build each of our stores based on the environment surrounding it, its history, population, demography and its geography,” says Chhoung.

“We believe that each space must be a unique representation of our craft. Each of our locations tells its own story.”

While this concept of non-uniform branding has been perhaps the major key to their success, Brown is also serious about the quality of its coffee, with a huge roaster artfully placed in the background and elaborate cold press filters to testify.

The menu features items such as an alternate take on eggs Benedict with a béchamel sauce instead of hollandaise served on pita bread, a salmon tartine and potato gnocchi with egg and shrimp.

Natural light is always abundant yet soft in their 14 outlets, Wi-Fi is reliable and the décor is stylish. Design buildings to deftly harness existing environmental and architectural elements unique to each location.

Together, these details form what coffee expert Jen Green calls the concept of a “third space”.

“So that was how specialty coffee and coffee shops actually had their boom in the US was through this kind of like third space idea, that like a coffee shop can be this space that’s not home and not work or school where people can get together,” she says.

Unlike the US, however, Cambodia actually had an existing café culture – it was just one largely confined to men.

Open-air cafes around Phnom Penh serving sweet milk iced coffee, or Kaffee Dat Khoo Teuk Kor, have bubbled with customers chewing the fat for decades.

They’ve served as meeting points where journalists, police, civil servants, politicians and others go to exchange views and information. Sometimes, you have to be careful what you say in these places.

Brown’s “third space” revolution simply opened this realm to a much wider audience, including women, and has been particularly attractive to university students.

Fittingly, renowned young political blogger and analyst Ou Ritthy launched his gender diverse debate forum “Politikoffee” on the back of this reinvigorated cultural trend and is regularly found at Brown.

“I think that having a space like this that’s cool, where you can meet people, where you can do work, be on the internet. [Taking] selfies actually is an important part of it, having the social media aspect,” Green says.

A lawyer by trade who came to Cambodia in 2012 on a sabbatical to do human rights work, Green discovered a passion for the industry and has since become an instrumental player in its development.

The daughter of a chef, she grew up with culinary arts running through her veins and is captivated by food science – observing the rise of Cambodia’s cafe culture in intimate detail.

“It’s incredibly interesting, the sensory side, and we’re still just learning about it,” says Green, who trained as a barista and master roaster in Melbourne.

One fascinating discovery Green made in Cambodia while teaching local staff is a certain natural aptitude for coffee tasting derived from flavour distinctions in the country’s culinary cultural heritage.

“Essentially in the West a lot of people confuse sour and bitter because a lot of the foods that we eat that are bitter and also sour,” she says.

“Lemon juice is sour but lemon peel is bitter and we just have this association that bitter and sour go together so a lot of people get very confused about the difference between bitter and sour. Cambodian baristas have no problem distinguishing between bitter flavours and sour flavours.”

From this basic distinction there is still a long way to go to an appreciation of some of the complex flavour profiles associated with specialty coffees – such as blackberry, pineapple and caramel.

Luckily, Green says, of all our senses taste is the one we have the greatest capacity to improve as our mind catalogues an ever-growing library of subtle, compound variations built off the five core tastes – sour, bitter, sweet, salty and umami.

“You’d have to relate it to something that your brain already has catalogued. But because of that ... it’s the most trainable sense that we have. You can increase your ability to taste flavours by something like 10 times. It’s a huge improvement you can make,” she says.

In the coffee space, Cambodian consumers are going through this precise process.

The bitter and sour distinction is already there thanks to the separation of these core tastes in the local cuisine in dishes such as a widely devoured sour soup with many incarnations called M’chou or the popular fruit M’reah – a bitter melon.

But as more complex coffees are introduced, consumers have to adapt their palates and catalogue what they are tasting with new memory associations before they can appreciate the subtle variations in good quality coffees.

Phan Sophorn

Sophorn Phann, General Manager of what is perhaps Phnom Penh’s premium roaster – Feel Good Coffee – is leading this charge to elevate the palates of Khmer consumers.

The 29-year-old has trained in almost every aspect of the coffee business – blending, roasting, machine installation and management. As a barista, he has won national and international competitions while training a raft of apprentices to score similar accolades in their craft.

Coffee appreciation is still pretty rudimentary in Phnom Penh according to Phann, though it is changing in the right direction and he credits businesses like Brown for helping kick-start this process, even if he’s not particularly fond of their roasting style.

“There’s no good background for them to catch up on the coffee thing. Mostly they know sour bitter and some sweetness.

“But if they go to Starbucks or Brown or Amazon, they will think that it is good coffee,” he says.

Phann laments the damage that was done both to the consumption and production of coffee in Cambodia by Vietnamese exporters, who dumped huge volumes of low cost, badly regulated product on the market in the 1990s, impacting the reputation of the whole region’s growers.

“Vietnamese coffee was always imported to Cambodia and it was like a flood import, so much coffee imported to Cambodia, and they import a cheaper one that Cambodian people could afford,” he says. “And they’ve been drinking it so many years so it kind of creates a coffee drinking culture as you know like ice coffee sweet milk and some of them know what is cappuccino or latte or an espresso but some of them still don’t know what a flat white is.”

National barista competitions funded by industry with professional judges are helping develop the country’s coffee culture, he says, while coffee farming techniques are beginning to improve.

Unfortunately there is still a long way to go on this front.

As we speak, Phann’s  staff is spending hours hand sorting locally sourced beans to remove rocks and other matter in there that is not actually coffee.

And thanks to Cambodia’s lack of temperate climates, the quality of local produce will always be limited to the hardy but low quality robusta variety that is grown here. To make the kind of top notch blends that have helped Feel Good become the supplier for almost 100 clients it will always be necessary, in the very least, to blend Cambodian coffee with higher quality imports.

Green says it’s taking time for Cambodian farmers to overcome their memory of the 1990s, when Vietnam’s flooding of the market decimated the commodity value. “So a lot of coffee farmers in Modulkiri actually stopped growing coffee at that time.
They ripped up their coffee trees,” she says. “And of course coffee isn’t rice – you can’t eat it if you don’t sell it.”

As a range of quality, reliable buyers emerge, from Davorn’s little shop front in the market to the growing empires of Brown and Feel Good, farmers out in the provinces are slowly warming back to a more responsible, diversified and stable market.

And in Phnom Penh’s cafés, Cambodian consumers are slowly abandoning their sweet tooth in favour of something more in line with what Joe Astone calls coffee – slowly.

“I think the trend is changing now. But there is still a lot of effort needed to educate our customers on quality coffee,” Brown’s Chhoung says. GCR

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