Brewing up a coffee turf war: Lover’s Coffee

Han Ponlork wants to change Phnom Penh’s coffee habits.
Han Ponlork wants to change Phnom Penh’s coffee habits. Nick Street

Brewing up a coffee turf war: Lover’s Coffee

While Cambodian sidewalk café culture is omnipresent in Phnom Penh, a single brew has a clear monopoly: cheap Vietnamese brands served with a dollop of canned condensed milk. But now, one local entrepreneur has decided to add something new to the market: Arabica and Robusta.

“I want to introduce all the real coffee beans to the Cambodian people,” said Han Ponlork sitting on a wooden table decorated with a single lotus flower. The 27-year-old newlywed quit a lucrative banking job to open Lover Coffee on the corner of Streets 51 and 178 six months ago.

It’s a modest set-up, with a single stall, three tables and a sound system that pumps 90s British pop hits, from the Spice Girls to Natalie Imbruglia. The name of the business serves as a double entendre referring to the two greatest loves of Ponlork’s life, he said: his coffee and his wife, who helped him start the business.

“When we drink coffee together, we feel the love inside,” Ponlork said. The pair, who met and started dating when they worked together at the bank, have been married a year.

His brew, which is 70 per cent Arabica and 30 per cent Robusta, is imported from Italy via Singapore.

“I want to share my knowledge with the Cambodian people. I don’t want them to all drink Vietnamese coffee anymore,” he said.

Although European coffee is already available at the city’s multiple Western-style coffee shops, Ponlork said that his roadside stall is more in tune with the way Cambodians traditionally buy coffee.

He criticised the local brew, saying: “I think Vietnamese coffee affects the health, because it is mostly roasted improperly, and is mixed with a lot of things like butter, corn and anything else inside.”

Vietnamese coffee is notorious within and outside Vietnam for being chock-full of additives. In 2011, a Vietnamese coffee insider told the press that soybeans and corn make up most of what is sold as coffee in the country. He was joined this year by a senior Vietnamese coffee company executive who claimed that 90 per cent of the country’s “coffee” doesn’t have a trace of actual coffee beans.

Nonetheless, Vietnam is still the world’s second largest coffee producer, with 1.04 million tons exported over the first nine months of 2013 according to government statistics.

Ponlork himself drank the predominant brew before travelling to China and Singapore three years ago. After he sampled various Chinese, Singaporean and international blends, Ponlork realised what he had been missing, he said.

As a result, the menu at Lover Coffee is expansive.

The usual classics are available at Lover Coffee, such as espresso (0.$80) and café mocha ($1.80). The Four Seasons frappe ($2.50) consists of raisins, almond, milk and syrup. With a smooth taste and creamy frosting, it gives Lover’s larger competitors a run for its money in both flavour and price.

Smoothies are also available, with the strawberry option made from strawberry yogurt ($2.20) particularly refreshing if perhaps a bit sweet. For those chasing a stronger kick, Kahula coffee ($2) is also on the menu. Baked goods, such as croissants and chocolatines, are occasionally for sale but are not a regular fixture.

Ponlork said that most of his customers are foreigners, but he hopes to change this over time.

In the meantime, Ponlork has no plans to give up his coffee-vangelism.

“I love coffee, I want to do the coffee just like a barista, and so something to make my customers happy.” ​​​

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