Reporting by Kimmo Hakala,
Phnom Penh Bureau Chief and Editor of Cambodian Craft Beers
The craft beer scene in Cambodia is finally waking up. Whereas Vietnam, Thailand, and The Philippines have had fast-growing craft beer markets for a while, Cambodia has been on the back burner.
We met up with a few interesting characters that are trying to push the craft beer in Cambodia to new levels.
One of them is Andrew Strugnell, co-founder of Riel Brewing & Distilling in Phnom Penh.
According to Andy, as he is widely known, Riel has been struggling to sell their beer for years and being forced to spend a lot of time on marketing it.
However, in 2019, everything’s changing: the craft beer market in Cambodia is finally coming to life.
Now, Riel are having trouble keeping up with the demand and are planning to expand their brewery in the coming months.
We asked Andy a few questions about the brewery…
How did you decide to set up a brewery in Cambodia out of all places?
Well, the inception of the brewery and how we met goes something like this.
I knew Seabird (one of the founders) from a very young age. I met Tyler, another co-founder, in 2012.
We all wanted to stay in Cambodia, but none of us wanted to teach English like so many expats in the country do.
It was while we were brainstorming ideas that we realised that there wasn’t really any good beer in Cambodia.
I had a history in brewing, and both Tyler and Seabird seemed keen on the idea.
We all went back to our respective countries to earn and save money for the new brewery. Just before we came back to Cambodia we ordered all the brewing equipment from Portland, Oregon. We also bought fermenters from Texas and sent it by ship to Cambodia.
The funny thing was that Cambodia’s General Department of Customs and Excise didn’t release our brewing equipment for two months because they thought it was for a meth lab.
Eventually, we managed to convince Customs that we were about to brew beer – and certainly were not seeking to make methamphetamine!
How did it go?
We started by building the systems and make some awesome recipes. Apart from that, another big part was of course to create a craft beer market, which at the time simply didn’t exist at all.
How to get all these people to drink $2-4 beers when most venues were selling local commercially produced lagers for a dollar or even less.
Four years later, in 2019, the craft beer market in Cambodia is finally starting to show some signs of life.
Are there any amusing stories behind Riel’s beers?
Actually, we don’t have that many stories behind our beers. Even the name Riel comes from our beer being real beer without any gimmicks or fancy designs.
We have been contemplating naming our beers, because currently they are named by their styles, like IPA, Coffee Milk Stout, and Honey Blonde.
Our IPA with and ABV of 7.1%, however, is informally called “The Fat Cunt”.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had (or anticipate) and how have you overcome them?
Basically just to convince people to drink better beer. Also to try to have enough time in a day to distribute, brew, sell, run a taproom, sleep etc. etc.
What are you doing that’s different or that will make you stand out?
Not cutting corners. It gets more expensive and it is more time-consuming but rather make less money and good beer than shit beer and more money.
We make beer that we want to drink, but also what we think people want to drink right now. We steer away from artificial flavours and extracts. Only pure ingredients.
We avoid the artificial taste that can be tasted in the finished products from so many breweries. Although this makes it harder to work with, it results in a product we can be proud of.
What sort of things are happening in the market at the moment that make it exciting?
Basically an incredibly fast expansion. Even the beer that is coming in from other countries is pushing our beer faster.
The market is finally starting to be ready for craft beer. Four years ago, when we started, there was absolutely no market. Tiny sales here and there.
It is still hard to convince anyone to pay 3-4-5$ bucks for a beer, but now even the locals are getting into it. Phnom Penh folks are actually reaching out to us instead of us having to try to sell it to them.
What are your future plans for Riel Brewing?
Right now we’re just trying to expand our brewery so we can keep up with the demand.
We’re also going to take some of our beers for the beer competitions during SEA Brew 2019 and it will be very interesting to see how our beers will fare against some of the region’s best beers.
Thanks Andrew for the great interview – we encourage all our readers to make their way over to Phnom Penh to try Riel’s delicious range of craft beers!
Did you enjoy Beer Asia’s #BeerTalks interview with Andrew Strugnell from Riel Brewing? Check out our other interviews with Phuc Tran (Hoprizon and Brewlliant), Charles Guerrier (SEA Brew and Evolve Beverages) and Tim Scott (BiaCraft & Quan Ut Ut).