Sihanoukville’s Five Men brewery is one of the Kingdom’s precious few craft beer producers. It has been a bumpy ride for the German-trained brewmaster behind the ale, but the road looks smoother on the horizon
Armed with almost two decades of brewing experience in the Kingdom, one local brew master has ventured into the decidedly undeveloped market of Cambodian craft beer.
Ket Puthea, a Germany-trained brew master who previously worked for Angkor and Cambodia beers, prides himself on what he said is a “natural” alternative to the stalwart brands.
“My ingredients are only malt, hops, yeast and water – no added chemicals, no additives,” said Puthea, who started brewing Five Men beer at his Sihanoukville restaurant last year.
While the beer was initially only available in Sihanoukville, he began distributing it in Kampot, Kep and Phnom Penh in April.
The beer comes in both pale ale and stout varieties, though the former’s lightness has a lager-like flavour.
Unlike most breweries, which include separate tanks for fermentation and maturation, Puthea uses a single tank to produce Five Men, which results in reduced costs and a milder taste.
With the entire brewing process taking only about two weeks – it potentially ages more in the bottle than at the factory – its flavour is reminiscent of Vietnam’s ubiquitous Bia Hoi, though more refined and less sour.
Like its Vietnamese counterpart, which is brewed daily and delivered to street stands in plastic jugs, the emphasis is on freshness.
The concept, said Leng Chanta, who is in charge of distribution in Phnom Penh, has received mixed feedback.
In a market dominated by mass-produced lagers, with only a handful of microbrews available, Chanta said the beer had limited appeal among Cambodians.
“Most local people still don’t understand fresh beer,” said Chanta, adding that Five Men has been better received by Westerners in Cambodia.
“I hope in maybe another two or three years, they will get more knowledge about fresh beer.”
The beer also became notorious on expat websites in recent months when it emerged that Five Men bottles had an unfortunate tendency to explode both in transit and at points of sale.
The news led to a disruption in the supply chain as Puthea investigated the cause.
“This is my mistake because I bought a bottle that wasn’t thick enough,” admitted Puthea, adding that he is finding stronger bottles to handle the brew.
Chanta said the company planned to phase out bottling altogether and instead provide buyers with tanks to serve the beer on tap exclusively.
“Doing it in the tank is better – we want to improve more in terms of [having] artisanal beer,” he said.
Brewing operations would expand to Phnom Penh, said Puthea, where the beer is available at about 10 Western-orientated restaurants.
He has rented out space for a new restaurant and brewery near Tuol Sleng, he said, and was in the process of importing equipment from China for an opening later this year.
He said he was confident that the beer would take off due to the lack of similar options as local palates become increasingly sophisticated.
He even claimed, perhaps somewhat dubiously, that the beer spares drinkers from any regret the next morning.
“The strong point for my beer is that no matter how much you drink, you don’t have headaches or hangover,” he said.