Officials at the JICA Grassroots Project noticed some glaring deficiencies in Cambodia’s rice wine industry – low incomes for the producers due to a lack of quality control over their products – as evidenced by the tragic mass-poisoning incidents that have occurred time and again over the past several years, which have often involved multiple deaths.

The Grassroots Project decided to team with the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) and Nagoya University to provide technical support for farmers in Takeo province to improve the production methods for traditional rice liquors.

The programme’s advisors are motivated to do this because rice wine has a very long history in Cambodia and is part of its traditional culture, but the public health dangers associated with home-distilled rice wines have lately been unacceptable.

Their goal is to oversee production under the vigilant quality control of the project in order to increase farmers’ incomes who produce these traditional products. The rice liquor produced by the farmers will be packaged by the Royal University of Agriculture to provide further guarantees of its safety.

Ung Boratana, manager of Cambodia Japan High-quality Agro-Production (CJHAP), said that the farmers who produce liquor have mostly learned how to do it from each other and approach it as more of an art than a science, so it’s not unusual for them to encounter problems like the finished product tasting sour or having a burnt smell to it – and batches like that are just money down the drain.

“Processing 25 kg of rice, they can produce only one plastic container of wine, which is not a profitable ratio. Some farmers make 5,000 riel in profit, some get 10,000 riel profit. Some people just fail completely because they do not know the techniques or they end up with a half-full container or with wine that doesn’t have any alcohol content in it,” the technical advisor to the farmers explains.

She said that most farmers that distil rice liquor earn no profit and only end up with leftover rice wine mash to feed to their pigs.

“They say that they get leftover rice wine mash to feed the pigs, so it’s good for the pigs. But now they say that raising pigs is also not so profitable these days because pig feed is so expensive, and the pigs can only eat the leftover rice wine mash when they’ve grown big enough,” Boratana told The Post.

While producing traditional rice liquor isn’t likely to turn a profit, even worse than that it also has acquired a bad reputation from all of the high-profile poisonings and deaths that have occurred from drinking it.

“The lack of information about the rice liquor is not good. Rice liquor is a kind of alcohol without a label, without a clear source and that makes people reluctant to consume it and rightfully so,” she said.

Tradition upended by modern ingredient

According to Cambodian anthropologist Ang Choulean, the Kingdom does not yet have laws regarding the production of rice wine or homemade rice liquor out in the suburbs and in the countryside.

“In terms of revenue, there is no rice liquor production that should be called a ‘business’ because none of them can be regarded as any household’s main source of income, and if there are any cases where that is true then they are the exceptions that prove the rule,” Choulean said.

According to Choulean, rice liquor made via traditional processes is not much different from other types of alcohol. The most common reason that it turns poisonous is the use of chemical yeasts and the presence of methanol or “wood alcohol” – which humans cannot safely drink – rather than the normal ethanol alcohol present in all store bought beverages like beer, wine or whiskey.

“The first concern I have is about the consequences for consumer health, and second, rice liquor is part of traditional Khmer culture and we should be conducting more research to record the techniques used to make it, which could also lead to experimenting to improve it,” he said.

The Japanese liquor sake was originally family-made just like Khmer rice wine is now, but over time they refined their methods and businesses began to produce it profitably on an industrial scale and ideally this same process could take place in the Kingdom, according to Choulean.

Boratana also said that the production of traditional rice liquor is now different from how it was done in the past due to the type of liquid yeast being used that can lead to poisoning due to dangerous levels of methanol.

“It’s not poisonous because of the rice used to make the wine, it’s because they used liquid yeast. Some people said they have used it and it was okay, but it has its limits and it may not be safe to use for home brewing,” she said.

Restoring rice liquor’s reputation

Before 2010, JICA’s Grassroots Project taught, directed and improved the techniques and the use of wine production equipment in Traing and Tram Kak districts, targeting hundreds of families who produce rice liquor in Takeo province.

“So when we went down to teach them, they made good wine but the price was still too cheap. Therefore, we were thinking about how to help them to get proper bottles to not only focus on local markets but also to be known as a commercial product,” Boratana added.

CJHAP, which supports the research and experimentation at the Royal University of Agriculture, also collected rice liquor from farmers to be packaged at the university where both the technicians and students are trained.

“Therefore before collecting it we set the standards and we collect it from the processing place where it’s clean, hygienic and safe. However we still test the contents again and if it fails the test then we won’t accept it,” she said.

Among the rice liquor producers, Ros Chanthy from Svay Romchek village of Prey Sleuk commune in Takeo province’s Traing district has 15 years of experience producing rice liquor.

“I produce rice liquor that is safe and of good quality with the support of the project. Supporting and promoting our traditional Khmer rice liquor products also help improve the living standards of our farmers,” Chanthy said.

The rice liquor is first tested by experts and then tested by the Industrial Laboratory Centre of Cambodia (ILCC) before being certified.

The project has managed to bottle rice liquor made by Cambodian farmers in proper wine bottles with labels as well as tamarind wines.

“Normally when we do business we cannot focus on only one type of product because customers prefer all different types of products, so we decided to also offer tamarind wine as well,” Boratana said.

For a 500ml bottle of Takeo rice wine with 25 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) content the price is $8. Takeo wine with a 40 per cent ABV is priced at $9.5 and tamarind wine at 25 per cent ABV costs $15. There is also a 90ml bottle option with all three wines in one package called the mini-set or 3-in-1 set for $9.

Tamarind liquor tastes great if you drink it with soda and ice, said Boratana, and it is quickly gaining in popularity, while the Takeo rice liquor with 40 per cent ABV can be mixed with fruit juices and used as the main ingredient in cocktails.

“We also promote Khmer cocktails in restaurants like Jasmine, both in Siem Reap and in Phnom Penh. Normally, foreigners always ask for Khmer products. While some cocktails use only their raw materials, how can it be called Khmer? Rice liquor can be used to make cocktails that are Khmer,” she said.

Decade of distilling delicious drinks

It’s been more than a decade’s journey for the project but Boratana feels they’ve done a lot of good in improving the safety and quality of the traditional wine-making by farmers in Takeo thanks to the technical assistance from Japan.

“Japan also recognises that our rice liquor has a long history and goes back to even before Japan made sake. In terms of technical help, the Japanese came here directly to be able to see what was going on and teach how it should be done.

“Rice liquor is a tradition in Khmer culture and in Japan their traditional wine is called sake, but all of these wines are made from rice,” she added.