While staple beer brands such as Cambodia and Angkor may dominate the billboards around Phnom Penh, in the tucked-away corners of the capital craft beer has slowly been gaining a foothold in the market.
Craft beer, long seen to belong to the realms of hipsterdom in Melbourne, Australia, or Portland, Oregon in the US, has now seeped into beer taps at mainstream bars around the world.
Tuol Tom Poung’s Long After Dark is showcasing international brews in their second Small Batch Craft Beer Festival this weekend, with co-owner Brendan McCarthy describing Phnom Penh as a microcosm of the industry.
“Not only are we seeing more and more craft breweries doing interesting things but there also seems to be a shift in the way that new and existing venues are embracing craft beer,” he said.
“I think with the way things are going at the moment we’ll definitely be seeing a bigger craft beer presence on the hospitality landscape in Cambodia and that’s something we’re really excited about.”
The love of craft beer is following a similar trajectory to Cambodia’s mainstream beers, on a much smaller scale, according to Bernd Kirsh, brewery and beverage consultant at Hops Brewery and Craft Beer Garden.
“The market in Cambodia, it’s an interesting development to see. When I started six years ago, consumption per capita was nine litres of beer a year, now it’s almost 40 because they like beers so much,” he said.
Kirsh started in the industry in Germany in the 1980s before growing tired of making what he described as “TV Beers”, wanting more room for experimentation in his brewing.
When he arrived in Cambodia, Kirsch founded Beer Pro, a brewing consultancy company, and oversaw the installation of brewing equipment at Hops.
He said it was important for Phnom Penh’s nine craft breweries to ride the wave of success that their mainstream counterparts are enjoying.
However, he emphasised the beer needs to maintain its quality status when there are so many cheaper alternatives on the market. His own small batches take three to four weeks to brew.
“Craft is meant to be something better than TV beer,” he said on Monday. “For $30 they can buy three cartons of beer from Angkor or Tiger. I want to make sure they don’t go home and say ‘next time I’m going to buy three cartons and I’ll stay at home’.”
While $30 is relatively easy money to splash around for an expat, the status of craft beer as a luxury item means the majority of Cambodians are simply priced out of the market, according to Erich Phillips, founder and brewer of Cervisia Craft Brewhouse at Botanico.
“The biggest challenge is that it’s mostly an expat product,” he said. “As a brewery you need to meet the market where it’s at.”
Texas-born Phillips arrived in Cambodia four years ago. He first worked as a contract brewer for Himawari Microbrewery before collaborating with other brewers to form the Craft Beer Association Cambodia as a way for breweries to collaborate.
“We can’t survive if we fight against each other. It’s too small an industry,” he said.
“It’s a way to try and build the community up,” he said, adding that its goal is eventually to train Cambodians how to brew.
Phillips said the industry would remain small until Cambodians begin to push the demand for craft beer, and that breweries need to start developing craft beers unique to Cambodia, rather than transplanting brews from Western countries.
“If we only focus on one market, we’ll only stay there,” he said. “When Cambodians start brewing themselves, that’s when it’s going to change.”
Kirsch noted other challenges to the Cambodian industry, such as that many people have tried but failed to set up craft breweries in the Kingdom due to poor-quality equipment imported within the region, as well a general lack of knowledge.
“You need a big venue so there’s rent that goes with that and then there’s the brewing itself. You need to know some substantial things about microbiology and then they lose interest, and then they make a coffee shop,” he said with a laugh.
“[They need to] inform themselves properly that they know what will come, location, what do I need to buy in order to make good beer… because if they don’t, our image might go down.”
Despite the challenges, Kirsch shared McCarthy’s optimism about the growing popularity of craft beer, adding that as long as the quality image of Cambodian craft beer is maintained, the customers will follow.
“We have to give beer a stage to show how good it is… they have to know about the products,” he said.
Phillips noted that with Phnom Penh’s rising middle class who have more disposable income, premium products will become more affordable.
“All the boats will rise with the tide,” he said.
Small Batch Craft Beer Vol. 2 will be held during August 25-26 at Long After Dark, #86, Street 450.