Cool winters bring natural sweetness to our coffee. How is that so?
Coffee is grown in the tropics. Well, that was a given, until Australians started to grow in cooler subtropical conditions.
Fine arabica as well as the less loved robusta coffees are typically grown within 23 degrees either side of the equator – the tropical zone. Subtropical Australian arabica coffee is a true exception! We enjoy a microclimate that is truly cool for coffee. Properly subtropical at 28 degrees Sth of the equator, with definite cooler winters. Well regarded coffees of the world are typically grown at high altitudes – in the tropics. Think shade grown rainforest plantings of Honduras or Guatemala. Hard to get to, hand picked coffee trees growing high up the hillsides. Of course that’s not always the case, but it is the image of what the international coffee industry has well communicated to those seeking ’the finest quality, specialty grade beans’.
That’s where the best beans come from, right.. from high altitude, mountainous country?
We are growing coffee in Australia on undulating land, more rolling hills, relatively flat country than steep jungle. Most of us who produce coffee professionally rather than as a lifestyle interest, will want to bring in a harvester, tractor and so forth – so we don’t seek steep hillsides for growing coffee. Basically too inaccessible and too dangerous. Do we value our lives more than other coffee growing lands? There’s a thought. Prices for most coffees of the world would suggest so. But I digress. This is not a blog about real fair trade and paying a decent price to those who grow our daily beans, in often difficult terrain and under all sorts of trying conditions that farming brings to coffee families round the world. But it could be!
So what’s our altitude you ask?
It’s not high, right, and altitude is key to quality and flavour development ..that’s a known coffee fact.
Well, its not always the case.
Location Location Location.
“Down here” at our farm on the NSW Northern Rivers Bundjalung Country, we truly understand the value of location. And not just because our prime lush Byron hinterland farmland is being bought up by Lifestylers these days. Sigh. That’s nothing new, really, so I should just shrug .. but it is indeed a shame when superb ‘food bowl’ land suitable for growing coffee and other high value, desirable tree crops, food crops .. is no longer being productive.
Just where do we think the coffee will be grown if we keep losing ‘our best’ to growing big houses rather than trees? But I digress.
The winter of 2021 was quite deliciously, decently cool. Those who had a log fire or wood stove found they could enjoy the crackle and warmth for at least a few weeks, and we could wear a proper jumper and real winter clothes to deal with a few extra shivers. Gee, did it get to 3 degrees one night and max of 13 one day in July? I rather welcomed the proper winter, let it be known. Delightful for weekend garden and farm work in softer light, and no energy sapping humidity.
Anyway … back to the coffee facts. This cool for coffee environment ensures a comparatively longer, slower ripening period for the coffee fruit. Bringing sweetness to the cup. Agronomists suggest our uniquely cool microclimate, well south of the equator, provide conditions as if we were positioned at much high altitudes of around 1800m, rather than the 125m above sea level that we are, here at Newrybar.
In the tropic countries the cooler conditions and likely richer soil is found up in the highlands. It’s the ‘coolness’ and microclimate that that adds to the flavour development – that’s what the ‘altitude’ delivers. The microclimate and conditions up at high altitude in hot tropic zones helps deliver higher quality coffee.
We have lower altitude but significantly lower latitude too. So… we are naturally cooler, even though we are not up in the mountains.
So what we lack in altitude, we make for in latitude.
Now isn’t that cool!
Typically from our late November-December flower set after first Summer rains, to harvest season the following October- November, our coffee crop takes a full 10.5-11 months of fruit development – a much slower ripening time than most coffee lands. Slow fruit development allows the sugars and flavours to intensify .. so slowly ripening is a good thing for coffee as it is noted also, in cool climate wines. That’s not controversial is it? We appreciate the flavour development and nuances of the cooler growing conditions.
So cool coffee environs leads to sweet coffee. Basically, yes.
This enhances the natural sugar development in the coffee bean within. Sweeter, naturally chocolatey coffee? Yes please.
It helps of course that we have beautiful deep volcanic soil, thanks to being located within the Mt Warning caldera – our rolling hills being the lava flows of long ago. This also goes for our more northern coffee farm friends on Qld’s S.E Sunshine Coast and up at the Tablelands, and other little pockets where rich volcanic soil and unique microclimates of cooler conditions and more regular rainfall are rated cooler ‘subtropical’ by agronomists, even though they are ‘above’ the Tropic of Capricorn, and therefore technically ‘tropical’. So they too have sweetness, and naturally mild characteristics (a good thing, rather than harsh) with – I think, more nutty biscuit flavours that complement our truly chocolaty deliciousness of our Northern NSW and SE QLD hinterland coffees.
Which you will find, if you go forth and take a journey tasting our Australian coffee blends. Go on, see which you prefer.
Now if only there were more growers in Australia joining us – the demand is there for quality coffee that so few of us produce!
But wait there’s more! There’s 2 other noteworthy benefits of our cooler coffee conditions in Australia.
Naturally pesticide free and Naturally low in caffeine.
1. Naturally Pesticide free.
There are no pests or diseases that require nasty sprays. This is unique to Australia! A true benefit of our cooler conditions. Perhaps its also a bit of luck being an island and good planning in having decent biosecurity laws in place that have so far prevented the tropical pests and disease that have been found in neighbouring Timore-Leste, Indonesia and PNG – let alone the rest of the coffee growing lands that have suffered from the either disease or borer, across the globe.
Australian coffee is almost herbicide free and chemical input free … Small, positive steps being taken in real biological farming.
Some of us (I can at least speak of our farm) have chosen not to buy chemical based fertilisers .. for years. Only organic inputs, and the more we make ourselves, sand encourage microbial life through our compost and natural fish and seaweed hydrolysates the better. I believe the only reason for any herbicide use on Australia coffee farms (whether ‘natural’ plant based or chemical/industrial) is for dealing with truly unwanted rampant grass (such as kikuyu climbing the coffee trees) and weeds that are really bothering the farmer such that they feel they can’t live with them. I will leave this topic here, to pick up another day because there is a lot to be learnt about weeds and why they pop up .. and should we allow some to ‘do their job’ ?.. Lets just say that we are practicing these regenerative ways : growing ground covers, low growing legumes and smother grass, allowing the gentler native grass species to spread, adding mulch and compost and covercrops or other perennial low growing species. Such actions reduce the use of any chemical input on the farm and provide the ground cover that the soil is looking for; and the hopefully encourage the nutrient flow that the plants we intend to grow, need. With naturally less weeds! We can attest to that. Good things can be done if we choose to look after the soil first – with healthful coffee trees and a more healthful planet for future generations the desired long term benefit for all.
That’s the regenerative farming mindset in action. So here’s to soil life!
Lets keep out the pest and diseases.
Every other coffee growing land has been hit by either the dreaded coffee rust disease, or the coffee berry borer insect pest which can wipe out coffee crops and have devastated coffee communities around the globe, leading to shortages too. That’s when most of us are alarmed – when we hear of green bean coffee shortages. We are told the effective sprays (that I will say are nasty, but I am not a scientist) aren’t even available to Australian growers – they aren’t registered for use incur country. So we would be in trouble if the pests or disease hit our farms. The advice is immediate tree removal, and burning of the branches to limit the spread of coffee rust spores (which travel on the winds, for hundreds of miles) to other farms. My! We don’t want that. So following the biosecurity protocols is vital.
We growers particularly ask any visitors who have recently returned from other coffee lands, to not enter Australian farms as the spread of tiny coffee rust spores can easily occur as they ‘hitch a ride’ on clothing, shoes, coffee bags and the like. Roasters and baristas take note if you go to Origin, and then want to visit an Australian coffee farming area. Best if you don’t straight away. And do let the Biosecurity Australia quarantine officers spray your shoes or bathe them or even destroy some items – and confiscate any raw green bean upon returning from Origin. At least that is less likely now, with the travel restrictions of 20-21. The other thing we ask of visitors to Origin, or buyers of green bean – is to not attempt to grow your own ’special varietals’ that you have privately sourced. It is illegal to do so, a breach of Biosecurity Australian laws, as you may be growing coffee plants that are susceptible to rust, and therefore can spread disease to our approved varietals we grow, that have been chosen for their rust resistant characteristics, as well as quality determinants and tree behaviour, productivity and the like.
New Varietals Project
On a side note, new varietals are being worked on for the Australian coffee industry, with full biosecurity conditions in place.
I will write another blog on the New Varietals Project and the World Coffee Research on varietals that we have been actively involved through our Australian growers org – Australian Subtropical Coffee Association, being a host organisation directing research through our partners at Southern Cross University, Plant Science Unit, Lismore NSW.
The second benefit of our naturally cool conditions, naturally free of pests and disease status is naturally lower caffeine content.
Our coffee still ’works’. It’s just not so intense an effect. The lower caffeine allows us to enjoy that 2nd or 3rd cup we desire – without getting the jitters and other less desirable effects of caffeine overload.
It turns out coffee trees pump out caffeine as a defence mechanism – and our plants just don’t have to defend themselves of ’the bad guys’ prevalent in other coffee lands. They are living the good life here in the Byron hinterland, don’t we know it.
It is more complicated than that, but this is true; and lower caffeine level is also linked with higher quality coffee. Win win. Our regional coffees in Australia have all been tested and regularly show 28-30% lower caffeine level than comparable ‘quality, high grown arabica coffees’ of fine regions around the world. If we want to compare with Robusta coffee, or relative to Instant coffee – than we come in at about half the caffeine level.
So as coffee goes, it is a pretty healthy choice for coffee consumers to choose Australian estate. Not just naturally spray free, but grown with a whole range of considerations by ‘most of us’ growers as we educate ourselves on how to reduce our ecological footprint, look after the soil health and choose to look after our land, encourage wildlife through creekline rainforest plantings and waterways free of pesticides – as we strive for productive, and I will suggest, nutritious coffee production that we can be proud of.
So Australian coffee. As I say, it is rare, and it is good, and increasingly thoughtfully, ecologically grown with real fair trade and wages paid to Australian farming families and their mostly small teams. There are no mega companies, international conglomerates here growing coffee yet, either!
We just need more of us to grow it.
Other roasters want ‘our coffee’ as an estate specialty. Green bean traders seek our coffee, private label business seek our coffee for repackaging .. but we say no! There just isn’t enough to satisfy the business market in Australia, let alone all the households that are keen to enjoy a daily cup at home. So we only supply a chosen few hospitality, retail and hamper businesses with our pure local beans. We appreciate those who have been loyal Australian coffee seekers, servers and providores for years – and thank them for truly supporting Australian growers, in seeking local, naturally spray free coffee that of course tastes delicious, so Drinkers come back for more.
We do keep most of our beans – I mean truly our home grown Zentveld estate beans – for our home coffee drinkers. Our Coffee Friends that either call in and visit our farm based roastery, or order across Australia direct from us for their home.
Thankyou for your support and keeping us in business on our farm and roastery. And thankyou for your interest in these more in-depth coffee stories I share on occasion with you.
Yours in Australian coffee. Lets grow more!