Australia’s small coffee growing industry hopes to capture the tastebuds of our coffee-obsessed nation, in the face of some hefty foreign competition.
Two billion cups of coffee are drunk in Australia every year and while only a fraction is made with locally produced coffee beans, growers like John Lawes think there’s good business in a home-grown brew.
“It’s definitely a selling point – a lot of people want Australian, especially if it is a good coffee,” Mr Lawes says.
Australia’s national coffee production is tiny – around 20,000 tonnes of green beans a year compared with imports of some 94,000 tonnes of green, roasted and instant coffee in 2011 – the latest International Coffee Organisation figures.
Worldwide some 8.7 million tonnes of coffee is grown each year.
But Mr Lawes is backing his belief: currently he sources beans from a large northern Queensland grower but he has just invested in a new plantation at Byfield, on Queensland’s central coast and will start producing within about two years.
Growing coffee in Australia is a tricky business, with suitable locations and adequate water limiting production to Queensland and northern New South Wales, but Australian beans are all high-quality Arabica and have some distinctive characteristics, including naturally low caffeine levels in lower-grown coffees.
“There’s more than one reason – it’s the closer to sea level you get and also the control over fertilisers,” Mr Lawes said.
“They haven’t actually proven what causes it but there aren’t too many naturally low caffeine plantations in the world.
“The higher you are up the more caffeine it seems to produce.
“Also we don’t spray any insecticides or pesticides and it’s well known that the more insecticides and pesticides you spray on coffee the higher the caffeine is.
“There’s no real pests in Australia.”
His company, Capricorn Coast Coffee, sells beans and ground coffee to cafes and shops in Queensland and also supplies to national fresh produce home-delivery group Aussie Farmers Direct.
Exports are tougher: Australia has exported coffee to Hong Kong and China in the past, Mr Lawes said, and a Japanese buyer wanted to buy 20 tonnes a month at one point.
“I have had a lot of inquiries about exporting my coffee but there’s just not enough available for the overseas market,” he said.
Availability of suitable land and water are limiting factors but cost is also an issue.
Mr Lawes says Australian coffee roasters have told him they can source beans from Brazil for half the cost of his product – the difference being the higher cost of production and labour in Australia.
Australian coffee is yet to make significant inroads in the burgeoning boutique specialty roaster market.
Athan Didaskalou, managing director of specialty online coffee retailer Three Thousand Thieves, said artisan coffee roasters tended to source from overseas, with some even buying plantations offshore now to ensure supply.
“For some particular reason in the last 10 to 15 years, the Australian scene, while it may have grown, it hasn’t really stepped up to the plate,” Mr Didaskalou said.
There was no clear reason why roasters were opting for overseas, he said.
“It could be a fundamental economic thing.”
Mr Lawes is more optimistic about the industry.
I think it’s going very well – it’s getting more sought after and I think it can go a long way,” he said.
“I think it’s a fascinating industry and I just love getting up every morning and going to work.”