Phnom Penh Coffee Wars 2013January 27, 2013
‘War’ might not be the right term. More like ‘rock festival’, or ‘termite invasion’, or something that implies hoards descending upon a location.
Over the last few months in the capital there’s been a rapid expansion of the existing big players on the scene: 14 Blue Pumpkins opened on a single block of BKK1 last week, and starting February 1st, all Phnom Penh residents will wake to find an outlet of Brown wedged into a corner of their kitchen.
Where does this coffee craze come from? Articles (in America at least) have been sounding the death knell for the corner pub, claiming that people are drinking less and looking to coffee chains instead to socialize and network. Coffee chains answered by implementing low lighting, couches and horrid music to make you feel like you were in your living room, or at least the living room of that annoying girl in college who organized fundraisers for PETA and costume theme-parties in the dorm.
But does that apply to Cambodia? On the Western front, residents have waited a long time for decent coffee (at least those that don’t favor the rich, oily local brew – definitely an acquired taste).
Locally, the growing middle class are looking for places that cater to them, and anything that displays wealth and status fits the bill. One college lecturer spoke to me about his well-off students coming to class with the large ‘BROWN’ logo proudly displayed on their cup and pastry bag. “That’s over $5 on breakfast right there. A take-away breakfast!” Another long-time resident who was involved in the first Fresco remembers when they were the new – and only – kid on the block. “Now it’s out of control. I look around BKK1 and I can’t believe it. Why?”
For one it reflects the region in general – Cambodia is playing catch-up to Thailand and Vietnam, where coffee chains have thrived for years. Another reason could be the Cambodian love of making copy-cat businesses, a beloved national past time right up there with badminton and public urination.
To shed some more light on the situation I spoke with a woman who works in the coffee industry here, and grew up and received her training in Switzerland. “Locals love the [chain] brands – they’re sexy and imply luxury, it’s a status thing. They actually hate the taste of coffee.”
She went on to explain that the European-style coffee does not appeal to local tastes, which favor sweet, sugary drinks, which is why all these places offer an abundance of beverages adulterated with all manner of caramel syrup, chocolate shots, whipped cream and excess sweeteners. “Look at Artillery or The Shop. Many Westerners like those places because they’re not a chain, and offer healthy, organic fare, but that doesn’t appeal to locals as much – there’s no logo or brand-association.” In general she welcomed the explosion of coffee houses in terms of offering more choices as well as employment opportunities.
However, she would like to see training and quality standards raised. “It’s important to maintain consistency – every time you order at Brown’s or Gloria Jean’s it should taste good, and the same – right now it’s all over the place. You have to learn how to steam milk without burning it. There is no one place offering high quality training, and the current crop of high-end coffee houses reflects that.”
At the risk of never sleeping again, I’ve sampled the biggest and the brightest of the new kids on the
Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf – Corner of St. 306 & 57
Upon entering, the staff screams ‘Welcome to Coffee Bean!’ at maximum volume, sweet if jarring. Floor to ceiling windows, so lots of light, and the tasteful furniture is all blond wood and dark brown leather.
Inoffensive pop music is kept at a low volume, a nice filler without being distracting. Good mix of expats and locals, and a very pleasant atmosphere.
They have a wide range of hot teas, and non-coffee shakes, and bottled juices. In addition to the usual cafe fare they offer a small menu with a few breakfast items, sandwiches and pasta dishes (all around $5). If you have breakfast before 11AM, coffee or tea is free.
They sell their own brand of coffee and tea for at-home use, and tea infusers and French Press machines for $50-$60 ($4-10 at Central market, though quality varies).
Huge portion, weak aroma, somewhat bitter and burnt tasting, but no richness. Bizarrely, it has a wonderful aftertaste. After taking my first disappointing sip, I put it down and continued writing, only to find a very pleasant, delicious flavor lingering on my tongue a minute later. Gets better as it cools down. Strange.
Small Americano $2.70 (portion size is huge)
have: non-fat milk, decaf, natural (turbinado) sugar, ice water, fresh milk, free WiFi
not have: soy milk, Equal
True – Corner of St. 310 & 51
In contrast to CB&TL’s manically happy greeting, the employees at True seemed terrified by the prospect of the customer. The group of 8 clustered around the register shrank back and refused to make eye contact.
I’ve encountered this a lot here: love the uniform, love coming to work and saying I work here, just please don’t ask me to, like, do stuff. However, once I broke the ice the staff was warm and helpful.
Horrible Khmer music plays at a loud volume, and the décor is clearly targeted towards locals with huge chandeliers strung along the ceiling. Floor to ceiling windows let in light but the walls and furniture are dark Black, Red, and Grey, so overall a bit gloomier than the others, but the wood tables and chairs and upholstered sofas are comfortable.
Less popular than the others, it was quiet, and the clientele was, not surprisingly, mostly local. They also offer sandwiches, cakes and baked goods, Green and black tea, fresh juices and Traditional Thai coffee, a nice option that I haven’t found elsewhere.
Aroma great, slightly bitter but not burnt tasting. Decent flavor but lacking richness and depth.
Small Americano $2.30
have: soy milk, free WiFi
not have: non-fat milk, Equal, natural sugar, decaf
Costa – Corner of St. 294 & 51
No music, so the din of conversation and screeching milk steamer is the only sound (though the latter was much quieter than places like Gloria Jean’s where it sounds like a flock of pterodactyls is strafing the joint every 30 seconds).
But the bright, cheery atmosphere didn’t feel like an impersonal chain, so overall a nice vibe. It was much more crowded, and the crowd was all local – I was the only foreigner in the hour I was there. Again floor to ceiling windows (seems to be a trend) and light colored wood furniture. Tons of seating, both indoor and outdoor, plus a large upstairs with its own small outdoor balcony. The staff was friendly and efficient and well-trained. They also offer sandwiches, salads, baked goods, and pastries.
Aroma incredible. Rich flavor, more full-bodied and few bitter notes. A smooth, solid drink with a nice finish. Small Americano $2.20
have: skim milk, soy milk, decaf, Equal, natural sugar, free WiFi
Kiriya – Corner St. 370 & 51
A joint Cambodian – Japanese venture, they seem to be trying to straddle the Western and local markets, and doing a good job. I visited early morning, and it was all foreigners and Japanese. This was the only place I was tempted to return to, not just for the cheap coffee but had the nicest, most mellow and warm atmosphere.
Standard big windows and wood furniture, lots of indoor and outdoor seating, all comfortable. The layout is broken up into smaller areas and allows for some privacy. White walls and minimal decorations make it bright, and there’s pleasant music playing at low volume. In breaking with their peers, they offer a few quirks: an upstairs ‘Japanese’ style lounge with seating on the floor and a small library, and a pool table.
They offer several types of tea, sweet blended non-coffee drinks, energy drinks, Western and Asian pastries (i.e. ones filled with chocolate and sugar, and ones filled with pork). Interesting menu: tacos, hotdogs, cheeseburgers, chicken fingers, and fried rice.
Smelled wonderful, but taste was slightly less than stellar. Strong and bitter, but the flavor itself wasn’t bad. Not the most enjoyable cup, but decent.
$1 for a giant mug of coffee, small Americano $2.25
have: Equal, natural sugar, decaf, skim milk, soy milk, free WiFi
Now read K440′s 2012 coffee shop update.
And if you enjoyed that, why not read Jeff Mudrick’s Another Cup of Coffee for the Phnom Penh Road?