• Jason Jaques at Jaques Coffee Plantation, located in the Atherton Tablelands (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The local coffee farming industry is thriving. In fact, from the Byron Hinterland to the Atherton Tablelands, it's bean an effort to keep up with demand.
By
Bron Maxabella

21 May 2021 - 2:33 PM  UPDATED 13 May 2021 - 4:09 PM

--- Stream the coffee episode of The Cook Up with Adam Liaw free on SBS On Demand or catch the series weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm. ---

 

It's fair to say that Australians are a nation obsessed with coffee. It's a love affair that's been brewing for decades, but lately it's getting steamier than ever. Micro-roasters are popping up all over the country, sourcing, importing and roasting quality green beans from farmers around the world. The punters love being able to support small roasters, but the fact is that very few offer a truly local cup of coffee.

Australian-grown coffee accounts for less than one percent off coffee consumed in Australia. A tiny fraction of the market, but it's an industry that simply can't keep up with demand.

Small industry, big market

Rebecca Zentveld, President of the Australian Subtropical Coffee Association and Creative Director and Coffee Roastmistress at Zentveld's Coffee, estimates that there are around 50 Australian growers in total, mostly in northern New South Wales and Queensland.

Australian-grown coffee accounts for less than one percent off coffee consumed in Australia.

"We'd love to see more land with coffee trees on it," says Rebecca. "Across Australia, the demand for locally-grown coffee is there. Every grower is selling every bean [and] the demand is far exceeding the supply."

"Since COVID, I reckon the demand for Aussie-grown coffee has doubled, if not more," echoes Jason Jaques, General Manager of Jaques Coffee Plantation, located in Marbeea, Queensland. "More than ever people want to support locals, so they are reaching out to local suppliers. Once they try our coffee, they don't want to go back."

"Australians want to buy Australian-grown products," says Rebecca. "We'd love to be a higher percentage of the coffee that is being consumed in Australia."

Migrant beginnings

Zentveld's is located at Newrybar in the Byron Bay hinterland, where the cost of land is a big barrier to welcoming new coffee farmers. Zentveld's was started in the late eighties by Rebecca's father-in-law, John Zentveld, who migrated to Australia from Holland as a teenager. While many expressed surprise that a Dutchman was so interested in coffee, it was actually electrical importer John's love of equipment that got him started in the industry.

"John Senior and my mother-in-law June moved up from Melbourne to Newrybar and started farming in their retirement years," says Rebecca. "They were growing avocadoes until 1987, and then transferred over to coffee...

"He was very innovative and, more than hard-working, he was brave."

South of the equator

John's move to commercially grow coffee was actually a return to a dormant industry for the region. The Department of Agriculture suggested coffee as an option as records showed that coffee had successfully grown in the Northern Rivers area from the1890s until about the 1920s.

"We are so much further south of the equator than traditional growing regions, but it's actually that coolness, the particular high rainfall, zero frost micro-climate that you're looking for to produce excellent coffee," says Rebecca.

In fact, the first Australian coffee was believed to have been planted at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane as early as 1832. The industry then spread further south down to Northern New South Wales where Zentveld's is located. The growth of the industry at this time was an attempt to meet the increasing demand for coffee from southern European migrants in Melbourne and Sydney.

Out Cairns way

Things really took off for coffee farming around 1862 when Italians were actively sought to serve as labourers on Queensland sugar plantations. As part of their contracted agreement, their weekly rations were to include half a pound of coffee. In order to meet the supply, blocks of land were made available on the 1,000-acre estate of Davide Thomatis outside of the settlement of Cairns to cultivate coffee.

It was perhaps coincidence that the growing conditions in this area, known today as the Atherton Tablelands, were perfect for growing coffee. The high altitude, sandy soils, zero frost and high annual rainfall made this region ideal to grow Arabica beans and the area remains Australia's biggest producer of coffee.

The high altitude, sandy soils, zero frost and high annual rainfall made this region ideal to grow Arabica beans.

Skybury, based outside Mareeba, is Australia's oldest commercial coffee plantation, and the largest exporter of Arabica coffee beans. South African migrants, the MacLaughlin family established at Skybury in 1987 after touring Australia by motorbike in search of a business opportunity.

Like many Australian coffee farmers, Ian and Candy MacLaughlin are passionate about working their farm according to sustainable agricultural management principals. Measures in place include water conversion, renewable power, erosion control, integrated pest management and dual cropping. In fact, along with the unique growing climate, it's the ethical and sustainable farming practices of the Australian coffee industry that sets it apart from overseas competitors.

Sustainably grown

The international coffee trade has long been plagued with problems. Environmental impact and sustainability and exploitation of growers and workers are two of the biggest issues. While Fairtrade certification goes some way to addressing these concerns, buying coffee grown fairly, locally and sustainably addresses them all. 

Our region is perfect for growing good coffee in a way that's good for the environment, too.

"It's fortunate that the area where my father-in-law John Senior started farming is perfectly suited to growing coffee," says Rebecca. "We have no pests, no diseases here. It turns out that our sub-tropical climate - and not being in the equatorial zone where all the other coffee growing lands are, this cooler climate and regular rainfall means our region is perfect for growing good coffee in a way that's good for the environment, too."

The pest and disease-free soils around Australia have meant that most Australian coffee is grown without the use of pesticides. AgriFutures Australia has suggested that this comparatively stress-free environment - without the pest and disease pressure of other coffee producing countries -is the most likely reason why Australian coffee is 10–15% lower in caffeine than most overseas coffee. While most plantations don't seek organic certification, Australia's "clean green" reputation means our beans are in high demand all over the world.

Innovative harvesting

With the demand being high both locally and overseas, the main thing that holds back the industry is the high-cost of harvesting the coffee. In fact, if it wasn't for one enterprising Mareeba farmer's ingenuity, the Australian commercial coffee industry might still be lying dormant.

"My father Nat was the son of coffee farmers and he migrated with my mother Linda to Australia from Tanzania in 1979," says Jason. "Coffee is all hand picked in Tanzania, but Nat realised very quickly that if he was going to be commercially successful, he needed to somehow be able to mechanically pick coffee."

Cue a few failed attempts - including trying to use a grape harvester and a berry picker to do the job. Eventually, however, Nat was able to work with a local shipping company to produce the world's first mechanical coffee harvester and Australia's modern commercial coffee-growing industry was born in 1985.

Cook with coffee
Coffee granita with cream Chantilly

If you’re looking for a coffee hit on a hot day, this is the answer. The vanilla-bean cream cuts through the granita for a refreshing dessert.

Vietnamese coffee tiramisu

It’s hard to imagine an easier dessert than this. Vietnamese coffee is known for its characteristic fragrance which pairs well with the mascarpone cream.

Coffee and cumin lamb leg

Coffee isn’t just about your morning caffeine hit. It’s an ingredient, albeit a bitter one, just like any other and works incredibly well as a rub for slow-cooked meats.

Nuances of flavour

The industry is still small and mostly situated in two growing pockets: subtropical and tropical. The low-altitude, cooler climate around northern NSW and the higher-altitude, tropical warmth of Far North Queensland means that there are distinct differences in the coffee produced by the two regions.

"The cooler climate down here means we have a longer ripening season," explains Rebecca. "This brings out distinctive sweet notes and nuances of flavour in our coffee. It's a lovely, chocolatey flavour."

By contrast, the Australian coffee produced in the more tropical climate of Far North Queensland produces what Rebecca describes as a "delicious, nutty, almost biscuity flavour." Respondents to an Instagram call-out by Skybury to describe it's coffee most often used the word "earthy".

While single origin coffee bought direct from the grower is most popular, "blending coffee from different Australian regions together can produce some truly unique and delicious blends," says Rebecca. "As a roaster, we produce some of our most popular blends by buying in coffee beans from other Australian growers."

A selection of Australian coffee growers:

NSW

Zentveld's, Newrybar

Kahawa Estate Coffee, Tintenbar

Mackellar Range Coffee, Hogarth Range

North Creek Coffee, Ballina

Mountain Top Coffee, Nimbin

Coffs Coast Coffee, Coffs Harbour

QLD

SkyburyMareeba

Tambourine Mountain Coffee, Tambourine Mountain

Whitsunday's Gold Coffee, Prosperpine

Madella Coffee, Mourilyan

Jaques, Mareeba

Tichum CreekMareeba

Coooofffffeeeee
Coffee granita with cream Chantilly

If you’re looking for a coffee hit on a hot day, this is the answer. The vanilla-bean cream cuts through the granita for a refreshing dessert.

Vietnamese coffee tiramisu

It’s hard to imagine an easier dessert than this. Vietnamese coffee is known for its characteristic fragrance which pairs well with the mascarpone cream.

Coffee and cumin lamb leg

Coffee isn’t just about your morning caffeine hit. It’s an ingredient, albeit a bitter one, just like any other and works incredibly well as a rub for slow-cooked meats.

Coffee caramel

This dish is a Vietnamese take on the classic French creme caramel. The coffee gives it a wonderful aroma. Try and use Vietnamese coffee if you can.

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