There’s more to the Phnom Penh beer scene than an Angkor served on ice. Bridget Di Certo lifts the lid on an emerging trend for boutique beers in the capital. Photography by Conor Wall.

It’s more than the taste. It’s the texture, the feel of the liquid in your mouth. Then there is the temperature, the vintage and delicate hints of something vivid — a cherry, honey or a cigar. Would the drink work well with a slow-cooked stew, rich in earthy vegetables and meat, or better with a zesty salad, spiced with bitter vinaigrette with citrus flavours?

But this isn’t fine wine being swirled in a crystal glass by an elderly man in a smoky, oak panelled room. There is a new generation of restaurateurs in Phnom Penh whose beverage of choice is beer.

With the local scene saturated with mass-produced commercial products, most based on a typical lager format with more complex wheat or darker beers almost absent, a new wave of boutique beer is brewing in Cambodia.

“The movement of craft beer is making its wave to Southeast Asia. More developed countries are already seeing the boom in this scene,” says Neo Say Wee, the master brewer behind the new microbrewery at Phnom Penh’s Himawari hotel.

“Lager is always the ‘preferred choice’ as consumers are very much influenced by marketing bombarded by major breweries that produce for the mass market,” adds the Singapore-based brewer. “Discerning consumers are more receptive to different beer styles and open to try new tastes”

Such customers were the target for a boutique beer festival held in the capital last year at Tepui and GastroBar Botanico.

“It’s about balance,” says Antonio Lopez de Haro, manager of the two restaurants, where 52 brews imported from the UK, Europe, Australia, Mexico and Japan, were paired with a special food menu.  “You don’t want a beer so strong that you can’t taste the food, but you also don’t want a heavy dish so that you can’t taste the beer.”

Pairing boutique beer with a degustation menu was a novel concept for the Venezuelan restaurateur, who is now planning a future festival that will hopefully feature 100 varieties, but it brought the opportunity to enhance demand for exclusive international beers in Phnom Penh.

Coupling brews with dishes is not necessarily a risky concept, agrees Himawari marketing manager Richard Stanton, who is overseeing the hotel’s microbrewery and an accompanying food menu. From staples like beer battered fish and chips to geographical exclusives such as Cambodian mussels cooked in beer, it has been designed to accompany the three kinds of drink made on the premises.

“People in Cambodia are really getting to be connoisseurs,” Stanton says. “Like a fine wine or a whiskey, there is a benefit to freshly produced beer.”

Highlights at the brewery include a light larger, The Nelson Blonde, the more bitter Gem & Jade and the Honey Sap, which is brewed with Mondulkiri honey. The repertoire is destined for expansion.

“At the moment we are producing and selling at capacity, but maybe that can be expanded in the future,” Stanton says. “A cider would be great, especially for the ladies. It is light and can be drunk with ice, perfect for Cambodia. We’ve been speaking about expanding to that already.”

Moves are also being made to put brewing skills in local hands. Neo is contracted to oversee the launch of the microbrewery but is slowly devolving responsibility for the brewing to the Cambodia staff on premise.

“There is professional education from different universities that equip a person with the knowledge of brewing. However, [it’s] only with hands on experience that a brewer will understand how to put this knowledge from books into practise,” he says.

Retailers say that the market is still small but demand is increasing, though there can be trouble guaranteeing shipments in time to meet demand.

“The logistics of supplying international beers to Cambodia can be difficult,” says Lopez de Haro.

But, given the success of microbreweries like Munich German Beer House on Sothearos Boulevard and Himawari, and the demand for specialty beers offered as part of the Tepui’s Birre Festival, the future for specialty beers in the Kingdom is promising.