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Pailin longan winery tries to break through to the big time

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Pailin longan wine produced by Vouch Thuch, seen here with US ambassador W Patrick Murphy. SUPPLIED

Pailin longan winery tries to break through to the big time

Longan aren’t quite as glamorous as some fruits. They don’t have the star-power of mangos or generate the excitement of a pricey seasonal niche fruit like the pungent durian.

Unlike bananas or oranges, which are known and loved everywhere, longan remains a decidedly regional fruit as the primary growers and consumers of it are all countries in Southeast Asia – along with China – which is the world’s largest market for the fruit.

One thing that longan has going for it is versatility. It is used in a variety of different ways in Asian cuisines and now a young man from Pailin province has developed yet another use for them: He is bending all his efforts towards producing wine using juice extracted from longan.

Vouch Thuch is Cambodia’s first longan winemaker. He buys tonnes of longan in Pailin that would otherwise go to waste each year as he strives to create a new home-grown brand of wine for the Kingdom.

He described the taste of Pailin longan wine, saying that when you swallow it at first you immediately encounter a slightly bitter taste, then slightly sour and then very sweet, and each time you have that bitter-sour-sweet cycle occur again.

“Pailin’s longan does not smell like other ordinary longan. It is high in sugar content and we need to reduce its natural sweetness down to the lowest amount we can to use it for wine,” Thuch said.

According to Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon, Cambodian longan are grown mostly in Pailin, Battambang and parts of Preah Vihear province and by the end of 2020 the Kingdom’s longan harvest was approximately 200,000 tonnes.

Thuch told The Post that there is up to 30 per cent wastage due to fallen longan each season that was usually thrown away by plantation owners and he saw a business opportunity in the making due to the farmer’s production inefficiencies.

Thuch, 39, said that the kind of longan he was after was the kind of fruit that falls from the stalks with bruised skin, poor colouring and they are smaller in size. At every plantation this sort of longan are found abundantly as they fall from the trees prior to harvest and are considered of too poor a quality to be worth trying to sell conventionally.

Thuch has been gathering up these longan rejects and is trying to find a way to process Pailin’s signature fruit into a new product which can be sold at home and exported abroad.

“I had seen a lot of fallen longan being rejected by traders. So I wanted to process those fallen longan into some valuable product. Even though the fallen longan are not as good as the longan that are able to ripen before they are picked, I knew there had to be some good use for them,” Thuch told The Post.

Thuch recently welcomed a special guest who came to visit him in Pailin: US ambassador to Cambodia W Patrick Murphy stopped by Pailin Longan Wine Handicraft on July 15 and got a tour of the operation.

According to Thuch, Murphy was enthusiastic about the idea of processing Pailin longan into longan wine as it is well-known that in recent years Cambodia has dealt with a lack of demand for its agricultural products, especially during the pandemic.

“I had my first taste of longan wine today at the family-owned Pailin Longan Wine Handicraft. Congratulations to the young entrepreneur, Mr. Vouch Thuch, for getting this small business up and running,” Murphy tweeted after the visit.

However, creating something new isn’t easy or without struggles. Thuch presently lives and operates on rented farmland and is by no means wealthy at this stage of his career.

From 2004 to 2008, Thuch rented a parcel of farmland to grow crops such as corn and tapioca to feed his family and then between 2008 and 2013, he began studying how to produce wine from longan.

His first attempt to produce Pailin longan wine was back in 2008, with some investment capital to back him but they weren’t able to achieve a good enough result to continue with the project.

“In 2013, I met a Scottish man and I got some ideas from him. He taught me about grape wine production techniques. I was not interested in grape wine per se, but I was interested in Pailin longan wine. I was thinking that if I produced grape wine, I would need to spend a lot of capital on farmland for the plantation. But for longan we already have an abundance of it because about 65 per cent of the people in Pailin grow longan,” Thuch said.

He began using a grape wine recipe and set about adjusting it for longan in several stages of experimentation. Between 2013 and 2015, he was able to successfully produce Pailin longan wine but due to insufficient capital to mass produce the product and bring it to market he had to put his dreams on hold again until 2018.

After formally launching the business in 2018,Thuch and his wife decided to sell a piece of land to invest in Pailin Longan Wine Handicrafts to get it going – a decision that was widely met with mockery and derision from the other villagers.

“I sold one hectare of my family’s farmland and first started producing only 2,000 bottles of wine because I was living in impoverished conditions. I bought bottles for $5 per bottle, which cost me about $10,000 total.

“Once I had 2,000 bottles of longan wine on my hands, the villagers said I was crazy to sell my farmland and spend tens of thousands of dollars to make wine and some people even tried to convince my wife to divorce me,” he said.

Koh Kong provincial fair in 2018 is where Pailin longan wine made its debut for the first time and was met with strong support from the fair-goers who loved local products. The 2,000 bottles of longan wine were sold in just a few days, and the agriculture department suggested that his product be legally registered.

“At that time, I was short of capital, so I decided to sell my car for about $8,000 to increase production capacity,” Thuch said

In the second phase of production, he produced 4,000 bottles of wine, which were all sold within one month by posting on Facebook and bringing them to Cambodian products exhibitions, such as events at Koh Pich, Win-Win monument and a Siem Reap exhibition.

Cheat Sokheang, a teacher who lives in Borey Kour Srov 3, said that he loves Pailin longan wine. He bought some for his own consumption and also to sell to neighbours in the borey and give as gifts to family members.

“Because I don’t have much money to buy in big quantities I bought just a small quantity for my own consumption, and had a little left to sell to neighbours who wanted a taste. For me, the taste is really great but it’s just a little too low in alcohol content,” he said.

The production of Pailin longan wine under the PALOWIN brand name is done by hand mostly, but they are gradually changing some equipment out for mass production like getting a bottle capping machine.

Pailin longan wine has been tested by the Ministry of Industry multiple times and they’ve got a logo for the wine that was registered in 2018. In 2020, Thuch applied for intellectual property rights over the product’s name.

The next 15,000 bottles of longan wine will be sold in two stages. First, 5,000 bottles will go on sale this coming October and then remaining 10,000 bottles will be sold during March and April of next year.

“My plan is that from 2023 onward I want to produce 5,000 bottles per month. It is a kind of family business right now so I don’t have much staff, but when I begin to produce more, I will need between 20 to 30 employees just to peel the longans.

He said that one tonne of fallen longan can produce 500 bottles of wine, and if it’s good longan then one tonne can produce up to 1,000 bottles of wine.

Ros Bora is the owner of a wholesale and retail wine depot in Siem Reap near Pub Street. He said he thought longan wine was an interesting idea but he had some advice on tweaking the recipe.

“For Cambodians, sweet, sour and bitter tastes are acceptable. But for European consumers, they don’t like sour or bitter tastes much but they also don’t like wine that is sweeter than grape wine. If possible, he should lower the sweetness of it because Pailin longan is very sweet. Even though the alcohol content level is just 12 per cent by volume, that still means that Pailin longan wine is stronger than most grape wines, though it is much sweeter,” he said.

On the subject of his future ambitions, Thuch knew what his dream was but he’s still not sure if it’ll ever happen.

“I do not know if it is possible or not but my plan for 2027 is that I want to bring my products to the international market somewhere, somehow,” he said.

When the next batch of Pailin longan wine hits the market in October the price per bottle will increase from $12 to $15 or 60,000 riel.

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