Traditional rice wine continues to attract thirsty Battambang tourists

Chea Kuntheary explains that her wine-making craft is not a recent development, but a business that has been cherished and handed down through two generations, and could be traced back to her ancestors.

Kim Sarom

Kim Sarom

The Phnom Penh Post


Chea Kuntheary prepares to mix up another batch of delicious rice wine in her Battambang establishment. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/ THE PHNOM PENH POST

August 10, 2023

PHNOM PENH – The production rice wine is a traditional craft passed down from the ancient Khmer ancestors, and is prevalent in all regions across the country.

In Battambang province, a woman has been engaged in this business for two generations and her establishment consistently attracts foreign visitors, as well as Cambodian students who seek to study the techniques employed in this craft.

Chea Kuntheary, a 61-year-old resident of Peam Ek village in Ek Phom district’s Sala Peam Ek commune, diligently stirs her tasty beverage, occasionally sprinkling a fine powder into the mixture to enhance the process.

She explains that her wine-making craft is not a recent development, but a business that has been cherished and handed down through two generations, and could be traced back to her ancestors. It serves as a profound symbol of Khmer national identity, as every aspect of the process is carried out by hand. Her family has not only been in this business for generations – she is passing down this tradition to her children.

Despite her age, Kuntheary does not solely rely on her children to handle the entire process. She remains actively involved and takes great care in training them.

Although they have the knowledge of the craft, true mastery, skill and experience are essential for producing delicious wine. She brews her white wine using her unique techniques, strictly following the ancestral principles. Her yeast ingredients are carefully sourced from natural fruits such as cardamom, Deypley, chili, galangal, ginger, garlic, pepper, star anise and rice.

According to Kuntheary, the wine-making process involves three distinct stages. The first entails preparing the yeast, which is then left to ferment for a duration of three days. The yeast is then dried for an additional seven days. Rice is then cooked and subsequently cooled. The yeast, having been ground into a powder, is then mixed with the rice. This mixture is preserved for a period of four days.

This process is crucial for achieving optimal fermentation of the rice, setting the foundation for the subsequent wine production.

The alcohol content of the wine can be adjusted based on the ratio of yeast to rice used in the fermentation process. If one yeast grain is mixed with 1kg of cooked rice, it can yield 1 litre of wine with a 30-per cent alcohol level. To achieve a higher alcohol level of 40, she uses 2kg of rice and two yeast grains to produce 1 litre of wine. She specialises in crafting these two distinct types of wine.

“I learned how to make this yeast from a woman who was entrusted with this recipe from her ancestors. She told me that once I learned, I should never give up, regardless of the challenges that come my way,” she says.

At present, she has two large pots, each capable of cooking 15kg of rice. So, a total of 30kg of rice can be cooked. However, the desired alcohol level of 30 or 40 primarily depends on the specific adjustments.

For example, if she aims for a wine with 30 per cent alcohol content, she would typically use 1kg of rice to produce 1 litre of wine.

On a daily basis, she cooks 50kg of rice for wine-making purposes. The resulting quantity of wine varies, and it is uncertain. Some days she may obtain around 30 litres of wine, while on other days she may yield as much as double that.

Within Peam Ek commune, she says there are numerous wine-making establishments. However, the techniques employed in each brewery differ.

Chea Kuntheary dries cooked rice, before adding it to jars to ferment. PHOTO SUPPLIED

She claims that her wine has a distinct flavour, due to her unique practice of incorporating yeast derived from pure fruits and plants. She supplies it within the local area, and it is usually sold out promptly. She sells generally charges around 2,500 riel (around $0.60) per litre.

Throughout her wine-making journey – which spans from 1995 to the present – she has never encountered any issues or had any concerns raised by her customers.

According to Kuntheary, though her brewing business primarily operates as a family venture, it has attracted a significant number of foreign tourists in the past, with an average daily attendance of 50 to 100 visitors prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of foreign visitors she receives has fallen to around 30 visitors on some days. Her brewery also serves as a learning hub for students from the National University of Battambang, who often come to compile notes and learn about the wine-making process.

For the past seven years, she has noticed foreign visitors who continue to visit her place. Initially, local guides would bring these tourists to see Ek Phnom temple and introduce them to her establishment. Then, visitors would often take pictures and share them on Google Maps. This meant that other tourists would see her business on the map and seek her out.

“The part that piques the interest of tourists is our unique ability to create yeast from fruits and plants, resulting in the production of flavourful white wine. In their countries, wine-making involves utilising fruits, but it can take years before the final product is ready to be sold. Here in Cambodia, it takes us just 15 days to produce wine,” she said.

Ho Dany, deputy director of the provincial Department of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation, told The Post that within Battambang province, there are multiple wine producers across almost all parts of the province, but there have been no incidents of alcohol poisoning until the present time.

She explained that alcohol poisoning can sometimes occur when winemakers deviate from the traditional method. Instead of using cooked rice and allowing it to ferment naturally with yeast, some producers opt to purchase yeast from neighbouring countries and immediately using it to ferment the rice into wine. However, in Battambang, this kind of wine production is non-existent, as the craft is primarily conducted as a family business.

The department consistently promotes education on hygienic production practices, including guidance on how to properly make and seal wine.

“That said, in Kamrieng district, there is a Japanese company that produces high-quality wine using ingredients such as longan, bananas and mangoes, without the use of rice,” she added.

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