Cambodian Beer

Part three in a series on Southeast Asian beer.

By the time we flew into Siem Reap, Cambodia, after five days at a teetotaling Malaysian resort I had developed a bit of craving. And there’s nothing like a craving to help me appreciate something I might otherwise pass on. I.e., cheap and easy lager.

The temples at Angkor Wat are endlessly stunning, and if I'm honest, put most of South America's ancient sites to shame.

The temples at Angkor Wat are endlessly stunning, and if I’m honest, put most of South America’s ancient sites to shame.

Siem Reap is town that runs on the tourism associated with Angkor Wat and the dozens of other temples located in the area. The drive from the airport takes you past numerous massive luxury hotels with six or seven huge buses parked outside each of them, for kilometers. As gaudy as it could be–and I’m sure anyone who went to Siem Reap 10+ years ago laments the expansion–it’s an engine for jobs as well. The town itself is an experience; plenty of obvious foreigners to be found walking around, but the center is packed full of them, with drinking, dining, massage, and shopping options to go along with it.

Myriad well-established night markets open up after dark along what were nondescript streets during the day, hawking all sorts of wares and foods. The crepes and juices are delicious, and I let myself be talked into a bag of fried larvae and a cricket. I couldn’t quite bring myself to try the snack on a stick, but I’ll be in Beijing soon enough and surely it will be there. The center of all tourist activity is Pub Street. Our guide from 2010 listed something like three restaurants on it, but the packed-to-the-gills growth outward and upward would suggest that the pace of development has been hectic in the past five years.

Dinner on Pub Street offers myriad options for food and the baseline price for a draught beer is U$ 0.50, or U$ 2.00 a pitcher. Of course, what comes in that pitcher is one of Anchor (no relation to the San Francisco brewery), Angkor, or Cambodia lagers; but again, absence makes the heart grow fonder and heat makes the body thirstier for something light. So it was with much fondness when that first pint of Anchor was set down in front of me. Draught beer was still such a novelty in Bolivia that coming across a tap handle anywhere still gets me bit giddy, although that will surely wear off shortly.

Angkor Lager, ubiquitous in Siem Reap.

Angkor Lager, ubiquitous in Siem Reap.

But either I was really craving some or it was a brilliantly fresh keg, because that lager was everything you’d want over a sweaty outdoor dinner underneath the fans in the lovely heat: bready, even a tad toasty, and graced with a just notable noble hop overlay (which I’m sure someone would roll their eyes at and insist I imagined). But there’s a time and a place for everything, and an evening on a frenetically busy Cambodian street corner with sweet pork ribs is most certainly one of those occasions.

Coming from Bolivia–which is my obvious point of comparison after years of living there–Cambodia is wonderfully comfortable on many points, albeit so much more full of people. Whereas Bolivia has a glut of sleepy rural towns and even cities that would qualify for the descriptor, people and motorcycles and tuk-tuks and bikes are everywhere in Cambodia. It feels full, busy, never stark.

But signs of familiarity also emerge: plastic tables and chairs set up on street corners before dawn to serve breakfast, abundant juice sellers, polite and friendly hawkers, and lots of meat grilled on a stick. Obviously that’s all aesthetic at best and leaves much to understand and learn. Five days mostly spent exploring ruins and night markets capped off with reflexology says little of Cambodian life, although it speaks well of being a tourist here.

I think there's definitely a market out there in Eastern Bolivia for a hammock bar.

I think there’s definitely a market out there in Eastern Bolivia for a hammock bar.

The recent-ness of Bolivia again colors my perceptions as I encountered Cambodian beer, namely expressed in my astonishment towards the breadth of just how many stouts are produced regionally. There’s Angkor Extra Stout (8% and a bit sweet), Black Panther Foreign Extra Stout (8%, inky black and overly sweet), Archipelago Brewing Company Foreign Extra Stout from Singapore (7%, dry, chocolatey, sufficiently bitter and very satisfying), as well as a stout from the Cambodia Brewery and a dark lager from Beerlao. They are spoiled for choice in this department. It piques my interest as to just why Stout is such an understood and in-demand category.

One would suspect Guinness exerts influence over that question given the ubiquitousness with which it is available, the prevalence of “Foreign” and “Extra” in the names and attendant strengths hovering around 7-8%. Likewise, given the presence of a huge Tamil diaspora through Southeast Asia, it seems fair to think that perhaps Lion Stout might have a historical influence as well (n.b. “Black Panther” certainly invokes similar imagery). It could be that the historical connections between England, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore laid a foundation for demand, but Cambodia was decidedly French during the colonial era. And these are not the sweet tropical stouts of the Caribbean. So, why is it that stout is apparently is such demand in Southeast Asia?

ABC Stout on the Singapore Airlines flight.

ABC Stout on the Singapore Airlines flight to Siem Reap.

That ought to be enough of a prompt for the budding beer historian to take on next time they find themselves traversing Southeast Asia.

Finally, as best I could tell there is one brewery in Malaysia invoking the “craft” name, and that is Phnom Penh’s Kingdom Breweries. However, these were not easily tracked down in the restaurants and bars, although I did come across the Pilsener and Dunkel in a grocery store. The Kingdom Pilsener was overwhelmed by the tagine I drank it with, but it had a lovely billowy head, tasted of bread dough and left a lingering bitterness–it almost felt acidic–along the tongue. Different from the macro norm, but honestly not enough so that I’d go too far out of my way to track it down.

I left Cambodia satiated, a craving satisfied and ready to try something in China.

Bamboo + old beer bottles.

Bamboo + old beer bottles.