Boasting everything from specialty roasts to Starbucks, the capital has received a serious shot of caffeine in recent years. Writer Joanna Mayhew delves into the city’s roaring coffee trade. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Enter any of Phnom Penh’s many Brown cafés, and it’s immediately evident how sophisticated the country’s coffee scene has become. Filled out with plush leather couches, chic wooden furniture and old-fashioned grinders, the well-designed and efficiently run shops serve up a variety of caffeine-laden drinks – consistent in taste at each outlet – to a steady flow of customers.
Started in 2009, Brown has been instrumental in introducing espresso-based coffees to the Cambodian market, and has paved the way for an influx of international brands, including Costa Coffee, Gloria Jean’s, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and True Coffee, to name a few.
Most notably, Starbucks – the world’s biggest coffee house chain – entered the country last year, starting in Phnom Penh’s airport and opening at Aeon Mall in May.
“The scene has definitely changed,” says Jen Green, interim CEO at Feel Good Coffee. “There are multiple times the number of coffee shops here that there were five years ago, and that’s clearly demand driven.”
Much of this demand is fuelled by a growing café culture, in which coffee shops have become a popular place to see and be seen, particularly among young people. Brown, started by five young Khmers, successfully predicted these trends and set up in university hotspots, gathering a loyal following among the country’s future leaders. The chain now boasts a whopping 11 stores in Phnom Penh, with a twelfth having opened last month, and sells merchandise ranging from mugs and tote bags to KeepCups and straw tumblers.
While many Cambodians still opt for Brown’s sweeter offerings, such as the mocha chip crème frappe, Green contends that a growing interest to spend time at cafés naturally leads to an interest in coffee itself, benefitting all coffee providers – and further transforming the city’s java scene.
Feel Good, which has two coffee shops in Phnom Penh and one in Battambang, is on the leading edge of the Kingdom’s independent cafés focusing on the coffee craft.
At its central outlet, the shop is a hub of activity, with the steady sound of beans being roasted in the background. Feel Good also supplies to many local cafés in the capital, including Kettlebell, The Shop, Java, Lot 369 and Tini. Last year, it roasted more than 16 tonnes of beans.
Though many of these cafés’ offerings appear standard, taking in flat whites and cappuccinos, the business of doing coffee well is complex. Ranging from floral or fruity to sugary or medicinal, coffee has more than 1,000 detectable flavours, according to Green, who has completed tasting courses and roasting trainings in the US and Australia. This flavour can be influenced by myriad factors, encompassing coffee bean variety, environmental conditions, processing, roasting and brewing.
Traditional Cambodian coffee – a colonial remnant – is darkly roasted and finely ground, before being served iced atop sweetened and condensed milk.
Professional equipment, barista training, and access to freshly roasted beans are critical to stand out from the growing crowd, says Green. Flavours can be volatile, particularly for specialty coffees, and get stale as coffee oxidizes. “Like a bouquet of flowers, it doesn’t last forever.”
“To serve good coffee, you need good coffee,” adds Tini co-owner Daniel Mattes, noting he often sees cafés with $10,000 Italian espresso machines using oily beans from industrial farms. “To let it all down with cheap beans seems like such a waste. Yes, get a nice machine but please, first, source some quality coffee beans. Otherwise, what is really the point?”
To set itself apart, Tini developed its own espresso blend from Feel Good. The blend is half from Dalat, Vietnam, with acidity and fruity notes, and half from Chiang Mai, Thailand, with a chocolate, earthy flavour, says Mattes. Tini is one of the only shops in town to provide a menu of offerings using a Chemex single-drip pitcher, to showcase speciality beans from Southeast Asia, as well as countries such as Korea and Burundi. The café also incorporates coffee into its cocktail offerings, with a coffee-style caipirinha.
Boutique cafés are also prioritising ethical sourcing. While Cambodia produces its own robusta coffee, traceability is limited as the country has few coffee mills, so beans are often processed elsewhere. Neighbouring Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have much more mature industries, but these are still largely underrepresented in the global market.
Feel Good sources its coffee regionally to enable direct relationships with producers, who they visit yearly. “We realise that you can’t make good coffee without acknowledging where it comes from,” says Green.
This approach has allowed for uninterrupted supply, as beans can be transported by land. It also helps with industry viability, as the closer beans are produced to home, the more consumers can empathise with farmers’ needs and are willing to support them, Green adds.
Since Cambodia does not currently have any certification system for cafés or coffee importers, the onus is on consumers to do their research, and shop owners hope that as the scene expands, so too will a demand for responsible supply chains.
“People should understand that a coffee bean does not magically appear in a vacuum-sealed bag,” says Mattes. “The individual or the café have the responsibility to ask the questions to ensure their product pays respect to the many hands that have nursed that bean all along the way.”