Like a good cup of joe, Phnom Penh’s coffee scene is flavourful and deliciously complex. Natalie Phillips braves a caffeine high to seek out the baristas who are raising the bar. Photographed by Conor Wall.
The coffee bean is a classic example of transformation. To evolve from the withered green seed of the coffee plant to the shiny dark coffee “bean” coveted across the world, the seed must undergo trial by fire: the roast.
New Zealander Marc Adamson and Puerto Rican José A Rivera are the enthusiastic owners and roasting professionals of Feel Good Café and Coffee Roasters — an airy café off the riverfront serving tart ristrettos and rich long blacks — where a gleaming 10-kilo roaster imported from Turkey takes centre-stage.
When it comes to roasting in-house Adamson says that, for him, there are “two huge benefits: one I roast coffee that I like, and two, freshness. You wouldn’t vacuum pack a croissant!”
Adamson roasts “as needed” every few days to maintain fresh stock and though roasting at its core can be as simple as green beans in “a pot on top of a stove” according to Rivera, getting a uniform roast is considerably more challenging.
“I roast within 16 to 18 minutes to get the profile I want,” Adamson says. “You waste quite a bit of coffee just getting used to the temperature control, and it’s got to be cooled very quickly. If it’s darker roasted, it’s less caffeine. So lighter roasts — higher caffeine.”
Arabica beans make up 75 to 80 percent of the worldwide coffee market and are generally considered more flavourful, while Robusta beans – the variety produced in Cambodia — account for the remaining 20 to 25 percent and contain more caffeine.
“Mostly I’ve never roasted Robusta before,” Adamson says, describing the beans as volatile. “This has been a huge challenge for me, even after 22 years of roasting. But I’m roasting Robusta because I want to use the local product.“
Feel Good uses a blend of beans sourced from social enterprises such as the Rainforest Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Saffron Coffee in Laos, as well as from Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province. “This is business with a conscience,” Rivera says. “We want to invest in the young Cambodian people.”
Adamson beams when he describes the progress of his staff. “We’ve got one young guy who we’ve sort of pushed into specialising in roasting,” he says. “He’s shown a natural passion for it. He just did his first solid roast yesterday… it’s really cool.”
Feel Good Café, 79 Street 136, Phnom Penh. Tel: 017 497 583.
Best Iced Coffee
The joys of Best Iced Coffee are threefold. There’s the satisfaction of finally finding the stall buried deep in the heart of the Russian Market. There’s the coffee itself: thick, strong and not too sweet, served with an extra shot right as the ice starts to overtake the coffee.
And then there’s the owner: Ai Bounnareth, a charismatic Cambodian who has been serving his signature coffee at the Russian Market for 33 years. His smiling face is easy to spot, though it’s often obscured by the trinkets and warm notes from travellers that hang from the ceiling.
“I had no choice but to leave my family and serve coffee, for 33 years now,” says the former government worker, who struggled to support his mother and siblings on his meager government wages — equivalent to about $15 a month by today’s standards. “I’m like the geezer in this place.”
“The market has changed so much. Before there was no roof, just the sky,” he says. Tapping the wall behind him, he adds that “this wood is the only thing left from that era.”
The entrepreneur strongly supports homegrown products, referring to himself as a devoted patriot. “If I am going to serve coffee in Cambodia, it should be Cambodian coffee beans, roasted here,” he says. “I believe that if you grow something in a certain place, it has its own identity.”
Bounnareth believes that his iced coffee’s popularity lies not only in its taste, but also because he is true to himself, and he is striving to pass his knowledge down to a younger generation.
“Now I’m in the process of teaching my niece how to recognise the coffee bean — is it a good one, is it roasted right or is it too raw?” he says. “When the young are ready they can open their own place and spread the information and the knowledge.”
Best Iced Coffee, Shop 547, Russian Market, Phnom Penh.
Latte art is credited to the Italians, though it was American David Schomer of Seattle, Washington, who inspired a resurgence of interest in the craft in the 1980s and 1990s. The skill has migrated to Cambodia and is commonplace at popular coffee chain Brown.
Brown’s barista training leader, Sambath Bunsea, says that staff must master making coffee before they move onto art. He estimates that it takes about six months before staff start learning latte art, and a year before they have a good handle on it.
“Basically, you add the espresso shot and the steaming foam, then you pour the milk into the cup and use the stick to draw,” he says. Baristas also draw without a stick by flicking their wrists rapidly as they pour the milk, a technique often used to create the classic latte fern leaf.
“They might draw a dog, an elephant, a dragon… customers are very surprised… especially when they get a heart.”
Even though I know it’s coming, I am delighted when my latte arrives with a cheerful bear face in it. Watching the art morph as you drink is part of the appeal.
“When the customer gets it and he feels happy, I feel happy too,” adds Roem Sophary, the store manager of Brown Riverside, who was trained by Bunsea.
Brown, multiple locations throughout Phnom Penh, Browncoffee.com.kh