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Chinese microbrewery turns on the tap

Colorado, where I’m from, is known for rich, tasty, nuanced microbrews.  Needless to say my thirst for such brews has been anything but satiated by Cambodia’s charming capital, where thin, watery tasteless beer is ubiquitous, but a robust libation conspicuously absent. Finding a flavourful beer in this town is like trying not to be sketched out on a Saturday night at “Do-It-All”: it’s impossible.
Enter my saviour: a three-story monstrosity of a building on Monivong Blvd called Man Han Lou. In addition to serving regular Asian fare and nightly Khmer dance performances, the Chinese-owned restaurant also brews its own beer on site.

There are four options: a blonde beer, a red ale, a stout and a green-hued brew. I was pleasantly surprised by each.

The blonde pours slightly darker than your average light beer – I’d characterise it as dirty-blonde – but it’s still refreshing. It’s heartier than most light brews and has a bit of a bite at the end that lets you know it’s there: that it’s not some Angkor trying to masquerade as a microbrew.

The red ale is exceptionally pleasing, with a smoky, mesquite-y, barbeque-y finish that is abrupt and unexpected, but in a good way, like a Facebook message from that girl you’ve been crushing on who you had originally wrote off as uninterested.

It’s made from “Chinese wolfberries”, which add a subtle hint of sweetness that balances the smoky taste well. The Chinese wolfberry is no stranger to microbrews and Coloradoans like me will be pleased to know that the unusual ingredient can actually be found in a seasonal brew (the Springboard Ale) produced by New Belgium, a popular Colorado-based microbrewery.

The stout was easily my favorite. It was a rich, complex and filling espresso-coloured concoction with a welcome chocolaty after-taste. Like most stouts, it was a tad bitter and burnt, reminiscent of a cup of Starbucks coffee.

The “jade draft beer”, by far the most popular according to wait staff, was silky smooth and similar to its blonde counterpart, not surprising since they are essentially identical beers; the green one just has an addition of “natural spirulina extract”, otherwise known as seaweed. I can’t say that I’ve ever tasted a beer with seaweed as an ingredient, but I was pleasantly surprised. It actually seemed to add a bit of sweetness.

Beyond the beer, the ambience is entertaining, though unlike that of any craft beerhouse you’d find elsewhere. It’s a sleepy restaurant and bar, but for some reason the music – an eclectic mix of Asian covers of American pop songs – was overwhelming, so much so that we had to ask the wait-staff to decrease the volume at one point (keep in mind that our crew of five just about doubled the number of patrons in the bar area on a recent Friday night). A 1x1.5-metre projection screen displays the accompanying videos.

The interior features Spanish tiling, blue and yellow windowsills with Asian designs, and brick and wooden columns. A round bar takes centre stage, flanked by glass-topped wooden tables, while a glass enclosure lets you see the large vats of frothy goodness brewed to perfection.

The wait staff is attendant, if not a bit hovering, and the 78-page menu is intimidating and expensive – don’t rush there for budget food.

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