An Introduction to Coffee
Australians love their coffee – but Australian coffee is hard to find. Food writer Emiko Davies has the lowdown on where to caffeinate ethically in New South Wales.
Australians spend a good $10.7 billion annually on coffee, consuming nearly three kilograms of coffee per head per year. But for a nation of passionate coffee drinkers who know exactly how they like their long blacks or flat whites, and considering that speciality coffee roasters and espresso-based coffee consumption is continually on the rise, there is still a relatively large gap of knowledge about our own Australian-grown coffee.
Coffee has actually been grown in Australia for over a century, with the first plantings in northern NSW in 1889. As the high cost of labour made it an impractical industry, it wasn’t until the 1980s when mechanical harvesting became commonly available that the coffee growing industry got back on its feet. Although it is still a small industry (Australia produces about 600 tonnes of coffee a year, but imports over 40,500 tonnes; in comparison, Brazil, the largest coffee producer in the world, makes 3 million tonnes), there is an ever-increasing number of local growers and plantations, and northern NSW still remains the hub of Australian-grown coffee, along with the Atherton Tablelands of Far North Queensland.
The life cycle of a NSW coffee bean begins when the fruit of coffee trees – the cherries – begin to ripen in June for several months. Harvesting is usually done by a machine that shakes the ripe berries off the branches, while some smaller plantations go through the meticulous process of handpicking. Within hours, the cherries are processed to remove the fruit. The most commonly used method in northern NSW separates the unripe green cherries from the ripe or overripe cherries first, then a pulping machine separates the fruit from the beans, which are then usually fermented for 24 hours, before being washed and dried. The beans can then be stored in this parchment form for extended periods of time. Before the coffee is roasted, the beans are hulled to strip them of the outer layer to reveal the green bean – the internationally traded form of coffee. Freshly roasting and, grinding are the final touches in the magical transformation of the green bean into something that is instantly recognised as one of the best wake up calls ever created.
In NSW, the Northern Rivers area of the Byron Bay hinterland, which is naturally rich in red volcanic soil, is the most popular area for coffee plantations. The temperate coastal climate allows for a relatively long ripening season (about three to four months), something that translates into good complexity in the cup.
Despite these seemingly favourable conditions, it’s not all rosy for local coffee growers – they have to compete with some of the world’s naturally best coffee-growing conditions that produce the incredible range of high-quality imported specialty coffee available on the market these days. It’s no small feat. Ideally, coffee is grown at high altitudes which ensure slowly-maturing fruit for a more complex cup. Australian coffee, however, is grown at relatively low altitudes. An extra challenge is that the cost of labour in Australia is considerably higher, resulting in a more expensive product (about three times the price of beans worldwide; in some cases, even more). It means that harvesting is more often than not done by machines, especially on larger plantations rather than being handpicked and hand-sorted both before and after processing. This makes it important for Australian growers to be absolutely thorough in their harvesting management.
But despite the challenges facing Australian growers, Australian Subtropical Coffee Association President Jos Webber says they are generally finding it difficult to keep up with the growing market and demand, including the export market.
The fact that there are a number of key people who are devoted to promoting and developing Australian-grown coffee shines a light on the future of local coffee, which is said to have a lower caffeine content than coffee grown abroad – and some standout cups attracting well-deserved awards are the result.
Mark Ryan and Samantha Edmonds of Eureka Coffee have historical links to coffee growing through Samantha’s family plantation in the Byron Bay hinterland. Ryan, a great advocate of quality Australian-grown coffee says, “When Australian coffee is meticulously managed and well processed, then it can stand up against some of the best specialty coffees in the world.” He also runs Growers Espresso in Melbourne’s North Fitzroy – a lively espresso bar and roastery where many local coffees are showcased under their Eureka Coffee label, which include Australian growers such as Mountain Top Estate and Green Cauldron Estate, as well as imported specialty coffees with a particular focus on Indonesian and Central American coffees.
Mountain Top Estate is another good example. With an innovative, distinct collection of locally-grown single estate coffees, they are well-known pioneers in the Australian coffee industry. Located in the hills above Nimbin, some of the best beans in the country come from their 30-hectare farm. After more than 10-15 years of producing quality beans with innovative practices, Mountain Top are broadening their horizons with development projects in Asia.
Nestled in the fertile hills of the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence river valleys the aptly named Three Valleys Coffee was established in 1997 originally as part of the Australian Subtropical Coffee Growers Co-op. Richard and Beryle Gibson took over in 2007 and have been growing and producing coffee for the co-op ever since. Sun-drying beans as opposed to mechanically drying them allows for more flavours to develop in this naturally lower-caffeinated coffee. If you’re in the area, grab a takeaway Three Valley Coffee at the Racecourse Cafe in nearby Ballina (Corner of Simmons Street & Racecourse Road, Tel. 66868118).
Green Cauldron Coffee produces their artisan coffee with sustainable practices on their Byron Bay hinterland farm. Their beans are not only grown, but also processed and roasted onsite.
Fat Cow Coffee is an estate in Nashua run by husband and wife team Mim and Jeff Smith. Their coffee bushes are grown without the use of pesticides or chemicals and come harvest time, the cherries are handpicked, processed and sun-dried. Master roaster, Nat Byron, roasts their coffee beans, which can be purchased directly through Mim and Jeff and posted straight to your home – just shoot them an email.
The coffee drinking phenomenon has also inevitably produced some excellent local, boutique coffee roasters who have made roasting, blending and of course brewing imported coffees an art form in itself. In Sydney, try Mecca Espresso (67 King Street, Sydney, 9299 8828) – the place for a nice, neat espresso or brew such as a pour-over and Coffee Alchemy (24 Addison Road, Marrickville, 9516 1997), one of the original, dedicated coffee specialists – so dedicated that they only do coffee. This is the place for true coffee aficionados or those wanting to try something different like the fizzy cold drip.
Emiko Davies is a food writer and photographer who, after spending seven years in Tuscany, is now based in Melbourne with her sommelier husband. She has contributed her food knowledge and keen eye to publications such as The Canberra Times, Maeve Magazine and Australia’s first magazine dedicated to cheese, The Cheese Mag, and she eats her way through restaurants and cafes for some leading food guides. She has a thing for historical cookbooks, regional Italian cuisine and sustainable, good food. Follow her on twitter @emikodavies or on her blog at www.emikodavies.com