Export-Grade Coffee from Cambodia’s Highlands

In a quiet neighborhood not far from Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, on an unassuming side street lined with houses and a few carts selling sweets, a revolution of sorts is brewing. Or, at the very least, a good cup of joe.

Coffee beans at Three Corner Coffee in Phnom Penh. (Three Corner Coffee)
Coffee beans at Three Corner Coffee in Phnom Penh. (Three Corner Coffee)

In this bustling neighborhood of Cambodia’s capital city, Three Corner Coffee roasts Cambodia’s only locally-sourced, export-grade coffee, made from beans grown in the highlands of Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces. Now, in its third year of operations, the roaster’s products can be found in several local cafes and supermarkets, and are also being exported to the U.S., Europe and Japan.

For many purchasers, it’s their first encounter with coffee from Cambodia. While neighboring Viet-
nam is now the world’s second-largest coffee producer, Cambodia’s industry is, for reasons of both money and taste, miniscule.

“Ten years ago, about 80 to 85 percent of the farmers in Mondolkiri province grew coffee. Now, most don’t,” said Joshua Jones, Three Corner’s general manager. “Mostly, it’s because in 2003 to ’04 there was a huge price dip. Many of the farmers left after that started selling off.”

Although the market has recovered since then, it’s still difficult for farmers to make a profit; the coffee growers often have few alternatives to selling to traders from Vietnam, who usually offer very low prices.

The industry also suffers from a lack of quality control, according to some roasters outside of Cambodia.

“[About eight years ago,] we received some green coffee and used it as a blender for a fundraiser for a few charities in Cambodia,” Mary Senter, cafe operations manager at Walla Walla Roastery in Washington state, said in an email. “The quality at the time was not very good,” she said, adding that finding reliable sources for the beans proved impossible. The company has not used Cambodian coffee since.

And while there are plenty of small roasting operations in Cambodia, the simple metal drums they employ for the task don’t produce a flavor of beans that many importers or coffee chains are looking for.

“The standard drum method results in a burnt, smoky taste,” Mr. Jones explained. Locally produced coffee’s distinctive flavor comes from attempts to make it less harsh by adding butter or animal fats.

By contrast, Three Corner uses a hot air roaster, which allows for the smoother and more consistent taste that buyers generally want. Three Corner currently has coffee for sale at several cafes in the country, including Villa Lanka Boutique Hotel, and NEO Cafe in Phnom Penh and in Lucky supermarkets in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

The company hopes that the combination of quality coffee and a “Made in Cambodia” label will attract consumers to it: first as a novelty item, and maybe someday as a pantry and cafe staple.

But the company’s guiding vision is about more than growing an industry; it’s also about doing so in a socially responsible and sustainable manner. The founders—an American couple who originally visited Cambodia more than a decade ago for business—found themselves drawn back by a desire to do something beneficial for a country they had fallen in love with. They set up Three Corner as a Christian social enterprise.

As such, the company sources its beans via the Direct Trade Method. Purchasers go to the doorsteps of coffee farmers, in the hopes of fostering a close working relationship. The producers are paid based on the bean’s current market value, and are encouraged to both improve quality to increase profits and to farm in ways that are environmentally sustainable.

“If all you’re worried about is the contract, that’s not a relationship, it’s just about profit,” Mr. Jones said. “What is most important in getting our producers what they need is not in the contract, it’s in the personal relationship. If I want to have a business [that’s going to last], relationships are key.”

This philosophy also extends to Three Corner’s roasting operations. The company employs many Cambodians who are underprivileged, and provides on-the job-training to bolster their future employment prospects.

“It’s definitely a challenge to be socially responsible here, where so many companies don’t pay taxes or take care of their workers,” Mr. Jones admitted. “They have a ‘screw the other guy’ mentality.”

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.