MONDULKIRI, Cambodia (Reuters Life!) - Southeast Asian coffee from Vietnam and Indonesia percolates around the world, but if a family roaster has its way, mugs may soon be filled with a blend from another, unlikely location: Cambodia.
Every few days, the rich, earthy aroma of roasting coffee wafts over the dusty town of Mondulkiri in Cambodia's remote northeast as the employees of family-owned Mondulkiri Coffee maintain a tradition started in the 18th century by French colonialists.
The hills surrounding Mondulkiri are about 800 meters (2,625 ft) above sea level, an ideal climate for the coffee plants which are irrigated by natural streams, and the area has so far remained safe from rubber plantations and other cash crops.
Mondulkiri Coffee owner Yon Thun is a relative newcomer to the business but says his love of the brew made him turn it into his livelihood.
His company roasts 150 kg of coffee beans every couple of days, which are ground into a powder and packaged in 250 gram boxes which sell for 6,000 Riels ($1.50) or larger half kg boxes which sell for 12,000 Riels.
"I used to drink coffee at this place and the taste was so good I asked the locals how they made it and I learnt from them," Thun told Reuters recently.
"I then started to make coffee but it was not that good at first. But I got it right after about six months later."
Cambodian coffee, like other coffees in Southeast Asia, are roasted till almost black with the help of vegetable fat. The beans are then ground into a fine powder, and the whole process is done by hand, creating a rich, dark blend.
Now that Mondulkiri Coffee has mastered the area's signature taste, Thun is eyeing the export market, and hopes his sales to supermarkets in the capital Phnom Penh will provide him with capital to ramp up production.
In Phnom Penh where most Mondulkiri coffee is sold, business is brisk, coffee shop and supermarket owners say.
"Customers want to buy Mondulkiri coffee because it is produced in Cambodia, they support the local product and it is also a good coffee," said Pen Phanna, a supermarket owner.
In Indochina, Vietnam has long been the largest producer of coffee and is now the world's second biggest exporter, but Cambodia and Laos lag far behind.
Apart from some beans which are sold through fair trade NGOs, much of Cambodia's coffee is consumed locally. But those in the coffee industry in Mondulkiri say demand for their brew has tripled in the last year.
Bad roads and a primitive infrastructure has left much of the sparsely populated province cut off from the rest of the country, and largely off the tourist track.
But the few tourists who make it to the hills can enjoy freshly roasted coffee which is either made using a Vietnamese coffee filter or a cloth sock-like sieve.
"Not bad. But I think if you prepared it with an espresso fashion, you would have a pretty good shot of coffee. I would put a little bit of sugar in here and some condensed milk, it's a good drink," said American tourist Daniel Shearf who had his first taste of Mondulkiri coffee at a local restaurant.
There is little data on Cambodia's coffee production, but industry sources say Mondulkiri Coffee and Angkor Coffee, the two largest brands, sell a total two tonnes of coffee annually.
Editing by Miral Fahmy