Originally sent: 12 May 2005.

About this series.

I spotted my first rat on the way to work this morning which was the size of a small pony. It was headed in the direction of my house. Things bode ill.

I’ve just finished my first few weeks of work and it has been incredibly hard and exhausting. I’m the only native English speaker and despite the excellent language skills of my compatriots, I’m still not sure if people understand me or are just agreeing with me to save face. In the process, I swear that my ability to speak Khmer and English is rapidly declining. My position description is ill-defined and so I’ve spent most of the time meeting with people in the vain hope that they can tell me what I was hired for.

I seem to have been hired in lieu of getting cash from AusAid to pay for the projects that I should be working on (marketing income generating activities and the organisation generally). So at this stage I’ve got no funding to immediately implement anything at all. I’ve still got to meet with the chief accountant to see what I can squeeze out of the existing budget until the next round of funding in July. On the up side, everybody seems overwhelmingly pleased to have a Westerner to display at meetings and I do get the standard Cambodian two hour lunch break.

SCC, the organisation that I’m advising, is doing some fascinating work using Buddhist monks to implement HIV/AIDS prevention and care activities in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep (near Angkor Wat) and Battambang – so there will be monk stories aplenty in the coming months. I saw a monk smoking a cigar while talking on a mobile phone but didn’t think that it was prudent to take a photo because it was during a staff meeting with him.

To keep myself busy outside of work, I’ve bought myself a mountain bike for the regal sum of $35 so that I can immerse myself in the sheer lunacy of peak hour in Phnom Penh at speed. Rumour has it that you drive on the right hand side of the road but I can neither confirm nor deny this. Right of way is granted to whomever has the heaviest vehicle travelling at the greatest speed, regardless of signage, red lights or any other man-made barricades. Despite driving like the possessed, everyone acts courteously when you cut them off or run them down.

Speaking of barricades, if you have a wedding, you can erect the marquee for your hundred guests across the entire street in front of your house to further mar the flow of traffic. One was built on my way to work complete with separate catering tent, golden stupa, styrofoam Angkorian ruins and traditional Cambodian gamelan band; all scenically located within vomiting distance of the miasmal open sewer. Short of building the marquee directly over the top of the roiling sewer, there wouldn’t be a worse place in Phnom Penh to spend a few days in a tuxedo or wedding dress in the 40 degree heat.

Apart from the catering tent.

180 degrees of housing

M and I moved into our house about two weeks ago. Our landlord lives next door and he is the nicest man in Phnom Penh, possibly because we pay him ten times the monthly Cambodian minimum wage for our house. When we arrived, he had already done about four of the tasks that we thought would be a real hassle with our substandard Khmer, like refilling the gas bottle and getting some spare keys cut. Another expat lives upstairs. The bathroom is a vision in lurid maroon. The whole house is tiled, so we can just hose the place out when the dust gets unbearable.

My two favourite beers at the moment are Love Beer (because let’s face it, who doesn’t? It even tastes like love) and Black Panther Stout (because The Man can’t keep the black beer down!). I’m also a bit partial to ABC Stout because their advertisements feature a Cambodian guy who looks like James Bond pimped out like Snoop Dogg. Confusingly the two top-selling beers here are Anchor and Angkor. Thanks to the infinite wisdom of Khmer pronunciation, “Anchor” rhymes with “ranch or”; and “Angkor” rhymes with “Anchor”. Angkor also means about five different things depending on how you pronounce “or” and thankfully none of them are mortally offensive when you slur drunkenly. You really can’t go too wrong either way, when it costs $9 for a whole slab.

In corruption news, the Cambodian Government just signed a 30 year agreement leasing Choung Ek – the Killing Fields Memorial and grimly popular genocide tourist attraction – to a Japanese company for $15,000 a year. The site is currently clearing a $20,000 per annum profit, not to mention that for better or worse, it is a vital piece of the Khmer peoples’ public heritage. My only guess here is that the Government knows that some sort of tourism apocalypse is headed for Cambodia (like a bird flu outbreak or a Commonwealth Games) because the tourism market has been growing at 100% per annum for the last 4 years. I smell a rat larger than a small pony.

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Anglia Shandy

a can of Anglia Shandy

“Brewer”:Guinness Anchor Berhad (Diageo/Asia Pacific Breweries-Heineken).

One of my dreams was to become Asia’s leading reviewer of canned shandy, the worst thing to happen to beer since the discovery of shandy. Today that dream is horribly realised.

GAB Says: “The real shandy. Malaysia’s pioneer shandy, since 1978, recently took on a new and refreshing image and look, giving it a more exciting, cooler and fun image while continuing to provide its drinkers a unique and refreshing drinking experience. It is a refreshing blend of fizzy lemonade and beer to be enjoyed on all occasions.”

I say: I hoped that this was a shandy that was built for Malaysia’s pioneers, a drink that smelled faintly of the that injured Tunku Abdul Rahman as a child and Tan Cheng Lock‘s rubber business. The only pleasant feature of this drink is that it pours a beautiful golden amber, the nicest shade of soft drink that I have ever seen. Nose of lemon dishwashing liquid and malt is obliterated by a smoked orange finish that acridly lingers in your throat.

If Anglia pioneered something, that thing would be: Burnt Fanta.

ABV: 1%

Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA

Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA

Sierra Nevada is the brewery that probably gets most craft brewers hooked on the idea of American Pale Ale; there is no end to the pale imitators and delightful, almost flawless copies. Their India Pale Ale, the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, will with any luck spawn another round of duplication.

Pours amber, the aroma is like releasing a depth charge in a pine forest. The flavour is hoppy to the point of being almost sticky like pine tar with a bitter, astringent finish, hops covering the 7.2% alcohol entirely. This is over-the-top American brewing, pushing as much floral hoppiness into beer as possible.

Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale

Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale

Kona Brewing Company calls this a “Hawaiian-style” pale ale rather than an American pale ale, the only differentiator being that Hawaiian style pale ales must display an active volcano on the label. This lava-filled terroir holds no influence over the beer itself. I don’t imagine that any of the ingredients grow anywhere near the island, but this is hardly an excuse to avoid drinking local. I imagine that hops are dropped in as part of a periodic resupply drop.

Pours copper with good lacing, not the most flowery of pale ales but strikes a fine balance between hops and malt. There’s not much complexity there, but who cares? Beer made on a tropical island is never close to this good.

ABV: 5.9%

Asahi Style Free: Happoshu and Beer of the Third Kind

Asahi Style Free

It is a strange quirk of history and economics that a nation’s taxation regimes change the beer that each country drinks. In the US, beer needs to contain at least 25% malted barley and so mass market brewers push the lower limit using rice, corn or anything else that can contain sugars and is cheaper than malted barley.

In taxation terms, Japan has three kinds of beer. Japanese booze blogger Jim from MoIpai outlines:

Regular beer which must contain at least 67% malt is taxed at the highest rate.

Happoshu (which means “Sparking Spirits” 発泡酒 in Japanese) contains less than 25% malt and is therefore taxed at a lower rate (which obviously means it’s cheaper to the customers).

There is a Third-Category “beer” called 第三のビール (Daisan no Biru) which basically doesn’t have any malt and is made from “other” ingredients (I believe corn, peas, soy, etc), which has an even cheaper tax rate.

Along with attempting to juggle a fickle drinking market, Japan’s brewers do so within a three tiered tax regime. Asahi Style Free is beer of the third kind, which is to say, that it is not beer. It’s tax-dodging beer simulacra for drinkers who primarily choose their brew by price. Asahi make the claim that this beer is zero sugar which they do by some sort of prestidigitation around what counts as “sugar” in this chart. It contains no part of some subset of sugar.

The beer is as expected – yes, it’s thin and watery, headless and virtually clear, with a metallic edge and the thinness that you get from brewing with rice rather than some other grain – you can’t confuse it with an actual beer but it is surprisingly refreshing.

Beer and Chocolate: Sapporo x Royce Chocolat Brewery Bitter

Sapporo x Royce Chocolat  Brewery Bitter

This limited release from Sapporo and apostrophe’d Japanese confectioner Royce’ is a strange Belgian nightmare; multiple vices backsliding into a brown can of depravity. Hops bitterness and cacao bitterness are perfect partners, malty and chocolate-y sublime and congruent combinations. Beer and chocolate works together.

But these two really don’t.

The pour is black with a quick-fading, soapy tan head. The taste is like stirring Nesquik through watered down Guinness. This would be a great place to start if you wanted to wean your kids off cola and straight onto stout. It’s sweet like candy rather than rich – the aroma of milk chocolate is there, but it doesn’t carry into anything more complex when imbibed. For a beer that weighs in at 5% alcohol by volume, the booze flavour seems to be front and centre – maybe the chocolate brings it forward?

I’m not at all against a novelty beer and Japan seems to do a good job of filling every drinking niche with unnecessarily innovative liquids. The wonderful flexibility in brewing is that if you want your beer to taste like juniper or coriander or in this case, chocolate, you can just dump it in and see what happens. The style guide can be prescriptive (if you happen to be a brewer that is driven to win awards) but the reward in any brewing should be in the drinking.

Royce’ other crossover product is chocolate coated potato chips. I’d serve them with this beer as a reminder that both ideas are an injustice to their constituent parts.

ABV: 5%

Price: Y264 from a 7-11.

Asahi Strong Off

Asahi Strong Off

I’ve noticed that one of the first beers that I drink in any country is the one whose advertisement I see first. The ads for Asahi Strong Off on the subway platforms around Tokyo depicts your average businessman with an expression on his face of either drunken jubilation or gaping in a rictus of groin-tearing pain. It’s more than a little bit off.

Strong Off is a beer that promises all of the boredom of a lager combined with all of the alcohol from a stout. According to the can, it has 60% less carbohydrates which accounts for the “off” portion, the “strong” from the 7% booze kick. It’s a beer that says you remain conscious about your waistline while attempting to drink yourself unconscious.

Asahi says (via the bewildering engine of Google Translate): “Alcohol 7%, 60% carbohydrate is achieved ※ off a new genre. Malt-based company ※ “liqueur (Sparkling) ①” ratio” (アルコール分7%、糖質60%オフ※を実現した新ジャンルです。※発泡酒をベースとした当社「リキュール(発泡性)①」比)

I say: My kanji skills only extend to about 5 characters but I would not be in any way surprised if one of them on the can said “malt liquor”. This is not really even close to beer, closer to a thin alcoholic soap.