One of the questions we get asked regularly in our stores is “Do we grow any coffee beans in Australia?” And the answer is yes!
In fact, every January we put the spotlight on the Australian coffee industry by roasting some of the best coffee beans grown in Australia. And this year it’s Skybury Estate.
Skybury Estate is in Mareeba up in the Atherton Tableland of North Queensland. The plateau’s position on the Great Dividing Range means that while it may not come anywhere near the elevation of the Andes of Central America, it’s one of the best spots we’ve got to grow coffee. Skybury is one of the oldest commercial coffee plantations in the country and one of the first to export green bean. Today about half of its entire production finds its way to Japan, USA, and all through Europe.
This isn’t the first time Australian coffee has made a splash on the world stage, but until Skybury branched out, let’s just say it had been a long time between drinks…
Government records tell us that the first Australian coffee tree was planted in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane in 1832. By the 1880s cultivation had spread down to Northern New South Wales and as far north as Cooktown. The fertile soils were favourable and small coffee plantations sprung up, with around fifty farms producing 40% of the coffee consumed domestically. Australian crops were judged to be of high quality, winning awards in Paris and Rome.
Following this initial burst of enthusiasm and success, by 1926 Australian coffee production ground to a halt. Coffee flourishes in high altitudes – in Ethiopia farms sit at around 1900 metres above sea level and unfortunately there’s not a lot of arable land in Australia at that elevation. Mt Kosciuszko itself is only 2228 metres above sea level.
In addition to Elevation, the biggest problem was price. Australian coffee farmers were unable to match the prices of coffee produced in developing countries with lower production costs. Coffee is a labour-intensive crop, especially at harvest time when every cherry needs to be picked by hand. Australian producers’ cost of wages made competition impossible as they were undercut by plantation owners from South America and Africa.
The coffee growing industry in Australia lay dormant for around fifty years, even as coffee consumption skyrocketed with the spread of espresso through our blossoming café culture.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Australians like to pride ourselves on our ingenuity. The Jaques family of North Queensland were determined and Nat Jaques teamed up with a crew of ship-building engineers from NQEA in Cairns to come up with a way around the high costs of labour. Their invention would revolutionise the coffee growing industry worldwide.
‘Coffee Shuttle One’ first rolled across the Atherton Tableland property in 1983. Based on the grape pickers used by the wine industry, the Shuttle allowed Nat Jacques to drive over the rows of trees, agitating the ripe cherries from the branches and collecting them on conveyor belts before being sorted, cleaned and pulped in the harvester.
Not only did this machine solve the wage issue in Australia, it also reduced the time between harvest and processing – half the work which traditionally had been done by hand post-harvest was now done in the field.
The Shuttle was an improvement from previous harvesters as the driver was able to adjust the speed to remove ripe cherries rather than stripping the whole plant. The technology was embraced from Brazil to Hawaii and armed with this innovation, Australian coffee was once again able to blossom.
Today the industry continues to grow and produce high quality beans, free of pests and diseases that plague growers elsewhere. The cooler climate and long maturation periods provide full, rich flavours and natural sweetness with medium to low acidity.
For anyone looking to support local farmers, cut down on food miles and try a new flavour profile, Australian grown coffee is a logical next step.
Coffee is affected by what wine makers call terroir: the relationship between plants, the environment and the crops they produce together. Like grapevines, coffee trees need to spend a few years growing in a new place before they adapt and create character shaped by the environment. Coffee has been growing in Ethiopia for thousands of years, and the complex, sweet, floral and fruity flavours are a product of that place. By contrast, Australian coffee is beginning to show itself as something a bit sturdier, maybe even a little rough around the edges. The flavour that shines through is of dark chocolate, earthy notes and rich cocoa.
We hope you enjoy our feature Australia Day bean from Skybury Estate, a perfect example of Australian coffee character.
Order yours here.