Sat, Jun 25, 2005 - Page 16 News List

A new brew is born

A cider-like alcoholic beverage made from the sugar palm-tree in Cambodia is becoming a popular drink

AFP , Daun Mann, Cambodia

A Cambodian worker moves from one tree to another to collect sugar palm juice for palm beer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.


In a hut built from the leaves of Cambodia's famed sugar-palm tree, a worker sloshes suds into used glass bottles, readying them to be filled with a unique local brew made from the bountiful tree: sugar palm beer.

The labels of international beer brands are scrubbed off bottles by some of the 20 staff here and replaced with stickers bearing the name "Khmer" featuring an image of Angkor Wat and two spiky sugar palms, Cambodia's national tree.

"We are nationalists who love the palm tree ... and this is a tree that can help reduce poverty," Pok Leakreasey says enthusiastically, referring to the 35 members of the local Club of Palm-Tree Lovers who set up the enterprise he directs.

The cider-like concoction, made from the tree's sap, has a sweet yet mouth-puckeringly tangy flavor. Distribution around the country is widening.

The brew is the brainchild of the club, whose members fear that the tree dotted across the emerald rice paddies of the kingdom, one of the world's poorest countries, is under threat.

Extra cash

With more than a third of Cambodians earning less than a dollar a day, the US$5 they are paid to sell the wood of a single sugar palm tree to businessmen is an easy way to earn extra cash. Though there are no official figures, reports say clusters of trees have been cut down in the provinces of Kandal, where Daun Mann is located, and neighboring Kampong Speu.

Traditionally, villagers used the sap tapped from the stems where the tree's fruit and flowers grow to make distinctively-flavored palm sugar, an essential addition to spicy curries and other Cambodian specialties. But increased competition from white cane sugar imported from neighboring Thailand, along with the spiralling cost of the firewood needed to help produce the palm sugar, means the trees have lost their luster.

So in 1999, the club successfully persuaded villagers at Daun Mann, a settlement about 30km west of Phnom Penh still studded with sugar palms, to use the sap to make vinegar. Then last year they hit on the tastier idea of using lightly fermented sour palm juice made from the sap, a popular elixir in rural Cambodia, into a carbonated "beer" with an alcohol content of 4.5 percent.

The result was a drink that Pok, 35, is confident has wide appeal.

"Consumer feedback is that the beverage is good and easy to drink," he says.

The factory churns out about 2,400 bottles per day, which are distributed to the capital Phnom Penh, Siem Reap -- the gateway town to the Angkor Wat temple complex -- and Battambang and Kampong Chhnang provinces.

Daun Mann villagers are paid 150 riel (four US cents) per liter of sap, selling up to 2,000 liters per day in total.

Uoch Vorn, 60, who has climbed the slender trees since he was 15, attaching bamboo containers to the stems to collect the sap overnight, is thrilled with the new market, which means he can earn about US$6 per day.

Selling sap

"Selling the sap is easier than making it into sugar. I can sell 150 liters a day doing this," he says, with the knife he uses to slash 25 trees twice a day tucked against his leg.

The drink was at first christened "Naga," but Pok says drinkers suggested the name "Khmer" -- the name of indigenous Cambodian people -- instead, believing they should capitalize on its roots.

"When people hear the words `tom yam' they know they are talking about Thai food," he says, referring to the spicy soup its neighbor is world-renowned for. "We wanted to do a similar thing, because palm trees represent Cambodia."

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