"It's a dirty business," sighs Akira Suzuki, a Japanese American and ex-coffee roaster. Apparently, two years ago, a rival roaster threw a computer monitor through his Phnom Penh shop window. Not a modern lightweight screen, either—it was an old-school Windows 95 model that landed in a shower of glass on the floor.
"He didn't want a foreigner coming onto his turf," explains Suzuki. And why not? Cambodian roasters fight tooth and nail to produce the cheapest product and guard their recipes like jealous gods.
Suzuki was importing Vietnamese Robusta beans (Cambodian sources were too unreliable, he says), roasting and packing them for sale. But no one was buying. Not when his rivals were hawking blends at half the price.
"They were selling very cheap," he explains, leaning his forearms on a table in his office which is now the headquarters of his cousin's juice business. "It was 70p for 500 grams of coffee but you can't buy the worst grade of beans for anything near that price, not to mention the cost of roasting, processing, and packaging. It didn't add up."
For many visitors to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, the trip is not complete without sitting in the bustling streets sipping a cup of iced coffee served with condensed milk, ocasionally washed down with jasmine tea.
But it's a con. Coffee here is cut through with scorched corn, soybeans, and dodgy flavourings. It's a discovery as bitter as the filtered dregs thrown into Phnom Penh gutters.
In Kampot, a riverside town in southern Cambodia, Angus Whelan taps the plastic tube of his AeroPress and watches a pancake of pressed dregs drop into the bin. The brains behind Rumblefish speciality coffee roasters, this man knows coffee.
"There's a basic test you can do to see roughly what's in local blends," he says.
This "test" involves taking Whelan's rattling moped on a mission to buy fake coffee.
We arrive at a dingy market entrance, where a woman and her son have been grinding a nefarious mixture. They have bags for sale but no roasting machine. According to Whelan, flavourings like caramel and chicory are added to soybeans and corn, and ground up to mimic coffee. People don't notice the difference because low-grade Cambodian and Vietnamese Robusta beans are so unpalatably bitter, flavourings have been added for decades.
Next, we go to a coffee wholesaler. The owner stands shaking her head. She smiles—not with her eyes—leaning on a waist-high glass cabinet filled with various blends labelled "coffee." We certainly weren't going to see her roasting room.
Several bright yellow barrels are stacked by her back door. "Butter Oil Substitute," they read and, beneath that, "Product of Malaysia." There is no more information on the labels. "That's what she fries the beans in," Whelan later explains.
"She knows Angus is a roaster," says Srey Oan, a waitress back at Rumblefish. "She thinks Angus will steal her recipe."
No roaster would show me how they are producing their coffee, but not for fear of losing business or getting arrested. They thought I wanted to nab their secret recipes.
At the cafe, Whelan rips open the bag of coffee we bought from the wholesaler to demonstrate its ersatz nature. He tips a spoonful of the fake coffee in a glass and the same amount of his own roast in another. After a few minutes, the difference becomes clear. The real coffee has sunk to the bottom where it remains like a sandy riverbed, while the fake coffee has separated into three layers—Soybeans, corn, and blackened water.
Occasionally, the Cambodian cops raid a fake coffee maker. In January, local press reported the arrest of four men who were caught with "30 tons of raw materials used to manufacture the potentially toxic brew."
But according to Suzuki, the police almost always turn a blind eye to the process.
"They were joking with me," he says, remembering an inspection. "They were asking me what my favourite additions were."
Suzuki wouldn't be surprised if the raid was paid for by a rival company.
"That kind of thing happens all the time," agrees Whelan.
Back in Suzuki's office, the former roaster explains his own recipe for fake coffee, made with soybeans and two litres of butter oil substitute.
"I never sold it," he says. "I was just fascinated with the process so I started asking around and a lady gave me her recipe. [My customers] said it came out really nice and some wanted to buy more."
Maybe the coffee fraudsters are onto something.