Australia has a well-established specialty coffee scene, characterised by independent cafés and high coffee consumption levels. In fact, it’s estimated that over 384 Olympic sized swimming pools of coffee are consumed by the nation every year.
A small group of producers have overcome financial and environmental challenges to grow Australian specialty coffee, and a dedicated audience drives local demand. Despite this, few outside the country have heard of Australian coffee – let alone tried it – and it makes up less than one percent of the coffee consumed domestically.
Here’s what makes Australian specialty coffee different from the rest, what challenges its producers face, and what could be keeping them from entering the international market.
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Australia’s Return to Coffee Production
Coffee production is primarily concentrated in equatorial regions in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. The average temperatures, precipitation received, soil conditions, and altitudes in these areas help coffee thrive. This isn’t to say that coffee can’t grow elsewhere, but that it would be more challenging for this to take place.
While Australia isn’t currently renowned as a coffee producer, it used to be. In the 1880s, it was successfully produced and even won awards in Paris and Rome. However, by the 1900s, this petered out, due to the rising cost of manual harvesting and production. In the eighties, coffee production started to make a comeback, with mechanical harvesting lowering labour costs and speeding up the process. Increased demand for specialty coffee further encouraged production.
Today, the industry supports around 50 commercial coffee growers. Most are in south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales, as these subtropical areas support coffee growth. According to Agrifutures Australia, “in the increasingly urbanised environment of the Australian subtropics, coffee is a most compatible crop to grow [here]. Its light environmental footprint fits in well with the high conservation value of this region.”
Australia produces Arabica, with tropical areas growing red Catuai or yellow Catuai, and subtropical areas growing the K7 variety. Lloyd Thom is a green coffee buyer for Campos Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster in Sydney, and says that red Catuai is mainly produced in North Queensland, as it can withstand the temperatures there.The conditions tend to produce mild coffees with a complex flavour profile, medium to low acidity, and natural sweetness.
Due to the industry’s relatively small size, processing is often undertaken by farmers on site. While wet processing is popular, other methods are also used. Rebecca Zentveld is Director of Zentvelds Coffee, a plantation and roastery in the Byron Bay hinterland of New South Wales. Her coffee is “fully washed, honey processed and natural/dry processed”. However, she also experiments by “adding yeasts in small batch lots to bring out nuances not experienced before.”
What Makes Australian Coffee Unique?
Australia currently produces a small volume of specialty coffee, harvesting up to 600 tonnes of green beans from about 850 000 trees every year. Production costs remain higher than in most producing nations, which in turn increases its selling price.
Almost none of the coffee produced is exported. Rebecca says that most of it is consumed locally – with a quarter sold online or directly from estates, a quarter from specialty stores and grocers, and a quarter through roasters selling to cafés or who have their own cafés. She explains, “Australian estate coffee is easily all sold and value-added within Australia.”
While their production capacity is small, local producers do benefit from natural advantages. Growing coffee in naturally cooler microclimates within Australia’s subtropical areas means that coffee is naturally free of pests and diseases. With little in their environment to stress them, the coffee will also contain 10–15% less caffeine, as they only produce it when threatened.
As Australian producers have access to quality infrastructure, machinery, and agricultural research, they can afford to keep up with the latest advances in coffee production. Rebecca explains that growers are educating themselves on the latest technology and environmental management practices and as a result can produce coffee without harming the land, waterways, and wildlife. This is accomplished through replanting rainforest corridors, avoiding the use of harmful chemicals, intercropping with legumes, and promoting tree health and pollination through insectaries and beehives.
The country has also embraced the trend for value-added seed to cup experiences. Some producers are tapping into existing tourism efforts to show consumers (and buyers) that their coffee is high quality and being grown in their backyards. They can offer consumers a taste of it and explain how its flavours are shaped by its unique growing conditions.
Rebecca says that reliable access to water, the climate, and the area’s rich volcanic soils have helped produce coffees with desirable and valuable characteristics. It’s helped her “bring out a natural chocolate flavour and sweetness in the coffee”. For example, her Ernesto Roast has “sweet chocolate notes, plus raisin and fruitcake notes”.
Challenges Facing Today’s Australian Producers
Australian coffee production might be light years ahead of what it was some hundred years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s overcome all its challenges.
Land prices remain high due to real estate competition, meaning there aren’t many plots available at the attitudes required for successful production. Additionally, labour and production costs remain higher than in other countries. As Rebecca says, “our real wage cost is at least ten [times that of] most coffee-producing nations.” Danilo de Andrade is Quality Control Manager for 3Brothers Coffee, a coffee importer in Brisbane. He says that because of these higher costs, it’s “difficult for Australian producers to compete with other origins that can produce better quality coffees at a lower price.”
The changing climate is also a complicating factor. Liam Smith is Producer at Tamborine Mountain Coffee Plantation in Queensland. He says, “Weather in any farming endeavour is a challenge… We have extended dry spells followed by… six months annual rainfall in one week, which is usually during our picking season. This can also affect the [coffee] drying process.”.
Lloyd says that changing climates can also increase biosecurity risks and make maintenance more challenging. He explains that “The changing climate puts the trees at risk of pests… This is compounded by diseases being present in neighbouring countries such as Papua New Guinea. Many coffee professionals travel to farms in affected countries and return to Australia, and carrying in seeds without biosecurity checks puts the industry at risk.”
Danilo feels that another challenge to local production is that consumption isn’t as high as it could be locally and internationally, as most countries don’t realise Australia produces coffee or prefer to stick to the origins that they’re used to. “We’re naturally attracted to complex and identifiable flavours from coffees grown at higher altitude locations such as Ethiopia and Colombia… I think Australia’s potential is yet to be discovered by the coffee industry.”
Selling Australian Coffee Locally & Internationally
While Australian producers are recouping their current production costs and can meet their production demands, this will not necessarily guarantee them long term success. Danilo feels that it’s important for local consumption and production to increase, as COVID-19 has already negatively impacted the economy. He says, “The industry can support Australian coffee production by featuring Australian [coffee] in their cafés. This will in turn help our local economy which is always a bonus – especially now.”
Rebecca adds that this will require a buy-in from roasters and cafés, as that they should “choose to pay a real fair premium to reward Australian growers and give it the recognition it deserves… in other words, promote it as a real ‘crop to cup’ low coffee miles specialty.”
Lloyd says that buyers will also need to cooperate, and that this will involve “buying directly from farmers at a price [that] reflects their growing costs”. He adds that by getting involved in the coffee’s farming and production, they can work with farmers to ensure the coffee is specialty grade. This will also benefit the farmer, Danilo explains, by helping them add value to their coffee. By learning the nuances and skills of roasting and packing their product, they can better justify its price, rather than selling it as a commodity to green bean brokers.
Many producers have entered competitions with their coffees, and Lloyd mentions the Royal Agricultural Show and Sydney Fine Food Show as being some of them. However, the most well known event dedicated to specialty coffee is the Australian Coffee International Awards. This ceremony demonstrates that more producers than ever are realising the importance of independent quality scores in getting local buyers interested in their specialty coffee – and possibly attracting international sales interest. This year’s awards saw over 800 entries, with coffees graded as Gold, Silver, or Bronze according to their scores. Rebecca says that competing for these awards also benefits roasters, as it helps them get industry recognition.
The Future of Australian Specialty Coffee
Australian coffee has something unique to offer, but the local supply chain is somewhat disconnected. Many local coffee shops and consumers are unaware it exists in the first place, while buyers and roasters don’t know what production costs or the quality of what is produced.
Increasing overall demand will require educating local and international consumers on what Australian coffee has to offer, why it’s priced the way it’s priced, and why they should consume more of it. This will ensure that the country keeps producing its coffee for years to come, and won’t disappear again as it did before.
Enjoyed this? Then Read What’s Keeping Producing Countries From Growing Coffee Consumption?
Photo credits: Zentvelds Coffee, Campos Coffee, Tamborine Mountain Coffee Plantation
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