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Brewing rice wine is a way of life – until it turns deadly

In much of rural Cambodia, rice wine is an everyday part of village life. But when disaster strikes – like when a bad batch killed 15 in Kampong Chhnang province last December – determining who is to blame is no easy task.

A vendor in Phnom Penh pours rice wine into a bottle. Pha Lina

When the police came there was little Chheurng Ing could do but watch. First they took away her wine – made from rice that the 48-year-old had cultivated herself in Kampong Chhnang’s Teuk Phos district.

A few days later the police came to confiscate her materials – the yeast and bowls and jars she used to brew and distil the liquor under her wooden roof for more than 15 years.

Finally, they arrested her husband – a man named Phan Vy, 50, who prosecutors later claimed had added methanol to his wife’s wine in an attempt to make it more alcoholic, sickening more than 90 people in the commune in a mass poisoning last December that left 15 dead.

“I came to live with my mother-in-law after the incident,” said Ing. “I’m scared to live by myself now, especially at night. So many people died.”

Chheurng Ing, whose husband Phan Vy was arrested for allegedly adding methanol to a batch of rice wine, at her home in Dam Nak Ampel village. Pha Lina

Commonly drunk at village celebrations, rice wine is an enlivening feature of rural life, but one that comes with risk.

In March, three people in Mondulkiri province died after buying contaminated rice wine from a local grocery store. The year before, three villagers in Tbong Khmum province died in a similar incident. In Kratie in 2015, officials ordered an emergency ban on the production of the beverage after 17 people died from tainted rice wine.

Villagers in Dam Nak Ampel had heard these stories, but it still came as a shock when, last December, after a series of funerals, the residents of Kdol Senchey commune began falling ill.

Ambulances criss-crossed the commune for days as the symptoms – headaches, difficulty breathing, vomiting, blindness – hit one villager after another.

By mid-December, 15 people had died, Ing’s husband was in jail, and rice wine in the commune had been effectively banned – all the materials confiscated and the rest of the villagers too scared to drink it.

Officials and health experts say the deaths are due to toxic levels of methanol in the liquor, which they suspect is added by unscrupulous dealers who are trying to stretch one jug of wine into five by increasing the alcohol content. The brewers Post Weekend interviewed said they had heard anecdotes of chemicals being added but had never seen it themselves.

Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is widely available in Cambodia at pharmacies and is often used in varnish, antifreeze and fuel. When ingested, it is converted into formaldehyde and then formic acid, which builds up in the blood and causes blindness, brain damage and death.

A vat used to boil and distill rice wine at the home of Long Khim. Pha Lina

According to researchers with the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders, these mass poisonings are widespread in the developing world but likely undercounted.

“Thousands of people die without ever getting the correct diagnosis,” said Knut Erik Hovda, a clinical toxicologist with the University of Oslo who studies methanol poisoning in developing countries.

“The symptoms are very similar to other, more common diseases,” Hovda said. “Also, it often affects the poorest of the poor, and there are much fewer people standing up for them.”

A missed opportunity?
Although the additions of toxic materials are a problem, some experts say the government should actually be nurturing the rice wine industry – not shutting it down – because of the economic opportunity it represents for rural farmers. In Dam Nak Ampel village, many said they turned to the production of rice wine as a second source of income in their poor rural area.

But now the machines for brewing have been hauled away, and a man sits in jail who many villagers doubt was the culprit at all.

“I’m angry,” said Mil Yen, 55, whose husband died after drinking toxic wine. “But I don’t know who I should be angry at.”

Mil Yen, whose husband died from poisoning. Pha Lina

Yen’s husband, strong and hardworking even at 65, had gone to a villager’s funeral that afternoon. That evening, he began complaining about shortness of breath and blurry vision. Hours later, he was dead.

So were many others. Ith Thorn, 49-year-old father of five, went to the same funeral and died a day later. Pich Channa, 30, was ourned by his mother, who left her construction job in Thailand to return to the village when she found out. Four of the deceased were women. All had been drinking rice wine that week, and within days they were dead.

Hamano Mitsuru, a University of Japan researcher who has worked for years to improve the quality of traditional Khmer rice liquor, said more oversight of the industry could make it a boon for rural people.

He sees small-scale agricultural processing – from pickled vegetables to processed fish to rice wine, or sraa sar – as having the potential to supplement incomes for poor farmers.

“In Cambodia, sraa sar is one of the most important alcoholic beverages from the viewpoint of culture, food, and as an income resource for farmers,” Mitsuru said in an email.

“If the quality and safety of the traditional beverages are improved, those products can attract consumers again,” he added. “That has happened in Japan.”

Mitsuru believes that a few small changes to production methods – such as using clean well water instead of dirty pond water and an overall focus on hygiene – could improve the quality and taste of homebrewed rice wine enough for it to be commercially viable.

But that work will have to involve the government, which so far has shown little interest in regulating and growing the rice wine industry.

A vendor at a roadside stand in Phnom Penh sells rice wine. Pha Lina

“We have thought about that, but it all takes time and money,” said Lam Khim Leng, a general department director of small-to-medium enterprises at the Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts. “We have a limited budget, and it’s based on priority and need.”

Leng said he is trying to train local authorities to keep a closer eye on rice wine producers in their communes, but they ultimately do so at their own discretion.

A contested conviction
Long Kim, 37, a former rice wine producer in the village, said he would start distilling again if the authorities would let him.

He began making rice wine under the eaves of his wooden home after working for three years at a rice wine maker in town, and says he’s careful to measure the alcohol content of his wine before taking it to sell.

“People always look for strong wine,” he said. “People complain that my wine is too weak.”

With his wife’s help, he produces one or two jugs per day and sells them for about $5 each. Their profit is minimal, but it helps them buy food and clothing. The leftover mash can also be used to feed the family’s pigs.

Long Kim, with his family, at his home. Pha Lina

“It was very difficult to lose that earning,” Long said.

For the most part, the village remains mystified about whose rice wine ultimately killed so many of their family and friends.

Soon after reports of the deaths began trickling in, health officials in Kampong Chhnang sent two doctors and three investigators to the village. They tested eight rice wine samples and found that three contained toxic levels of methanol – one of them nearly 10 times the safe amount – and arrested three villagers.

But police this month couldn’t say why only Ing’s husband was ultimately tried and convicted in August of manslaughter and given a sentence of one year in prison.

Chhuon Sivin, provincial administrative chief, told Post Weekend that Ing’s husband was convicted because his rice wine had tested for double the safe level of methanol.

But Sivin said he wasn’t sure whether that wine came from Phan himself or from a seller who bought it from him. Khem Vibol, deputy district police chief, said he wasn’t sure why Phan had been charged and the other two suspects released.

“I cannot judge who is wrong and who is right,” Vibol said. “It’s the court that decides it.”

The confusion has been so widespread that family members of all 15 victims signed a letter to send to the court asking for Ing’s husband’s release.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Yen, who received $130 and 100 kilograms of rice from authorities as compensation for her husband’s death. “Many, many people died, but we don’t know what specifically about the rice wine caused it or what should be done.”

For her part, Ing insists that her husband took the charge to protect her. A lover of strong rice wine, Ing says she always takes a swig of her own stock before selling it to vendors to prove that her brew is safe.

Without her husband to plough the fields this year, the family has missed the rice harvest and she has since moved in with in-laws for food and shelter.

But despite her financial situation, she won’t go back to rice wine.

“I don’t want to go back to that business anymore,” she said. “I have no more courage to do it.”