AUSTRALIAN COFFEE FARM DISCOVERY EXPEDITION

A collaboration with Jack Murat Coffee - Australian grown coffee

How long has it been since you have tried something new for the first time?
If you pointed that question back at us, we would beam and say, ‘last week, actually!’

 

As the aircraft loops out over the blue green sea of the Great Barrier Reef and swoops in parallel to the lush, tropical forest clad hills that rise steeply from the coastal plain to land at Cairns airport, we know, this is it, the project has begun! Months of planning has culminated in us actually getting our boots on the ground in far north Queensland where Zest’s latest flavour exploration project is set to begin.

After hiring a camper van (for the first time in my life) and gathering some last essentials, we head up the beautiful mountain pass that twists steeply up the hills from the flat coastal strip to the tablelands above. Shrouded with deep green foliage that breaks every now and then to provide a stunning glimpse of the blue ocean stretching out to the horizon, this route is quite something to experience. Our trusty campervan manages the challenge quite nicely with a gutsy, high revving performance…

Once on the elevated tablelands the terrain subdues to undulating hills, the vegetation transforms from tropical palms back to familiar gum trees, and distinctive beehive shape ant nests dot the landscape.

After another half hour’s journey, the road signs indicate we’re nearing Mareeba and the gums are suddenly replaced again, this time by swathes of fruit trees in purposeful lines. We’re getting close.

We smile as we enter the town and note the rustic signboard proclaiming...

“Welcome to Mareeba, 300 sunny days a year, a great place to live!”

 

The town of Mareeba is a local hub for the intensive agricultural activities of the fertile plateau that is the Atherton Tablelands. Mareeba’s name is derived from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘meeting of the waters’ which we take to refer to the merging of the Tinaroo Creek with the Barron River in a green gully that passes through the town.

But now’s not the time to linger, our final destination is out the other side of town and further up the hills. We pass groves of avocado’s, papaya, sugar cane, mangoes and… coffee! We pass signs to the well-known Skybury coffee farm and see for the first time rows of Australian grown coffee trees. The excitement is building. We have arrived in the heartland of Australia’s coffee growing region. Here, in these rolling hills, 80% of all Australian coffee is grown.

Up another rise and we see the turnoff to Tyrconnell Rd. That’s the one! We’ve been talking about this address for a while now. Suddenly, we’re there. At the entrance to Jack Murat Coffee where an amazing avenue of towering fir trees guides us down the driveway to our journey’s end. And the start of our team exploration project of 2021.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Here we are. Large black letters on a sizeable white shed proudly herald our location, Jack Murat Coffee. Four large dogs race to welcome us (or we hope that is their intention anyway). Our eyes go to the plantations surrounding us. Beautiful, green-leafed coffee trees in neat rows as far as we can see. Amazing! Get a little closer and we see the trees are fairly laden with stalks of bright red cherries. For the coffee gurus on the team it is maybe just another stint at origin and this is all quite familiar from previous projects. Except that this is in our own Aussie backyard! But for me it is an amazing experience.

We, who drink coffee, think coffee, breathe coffee, live coffee… For the first time, here, BEFORE MY EYES, IS the raw material of the world’s favourite beverage!

 

Now to meet Plum. We have spoken a lot on the phone but seeing someone in person is the real deal. No special formalities. Down to earth. Plum, (one of the Murat brothers who own the farm), climbs down from his harvester - broad brimmed hat firmly in place, tanned face and a welcoming smile. Simply and warmly, says, “How ya going, mate?”.

Yes, we’re definitely in Australia.

CHERRY PICKING

Needless to say, I have never picked coffee cherries before.

But we all know the well-worn teaching, “Selective picking means to pick only the ripe red cherries”.

Now we are faced with the task firsthand.

The harvest is not quite ready for mechanical harvesting. Still too many greens on the trees. This is due to a second flowering brought on by 2 inches of unseasonable rain back in the season. This is the reality that a farmer must contend with. Nature does its own thing, season to season. A farmer must be a special kind of person, patient, accepting the good with the bad, rain and shine, storm or drought. In sync with nature.

But what this simply means for us is, that if our project is to be a success, the seven of us who have pitched at the farm need to roll up our sleeves and get cherry picking.

Our goal is to complete more than ten different lots each using a specific processing technique and thus coax an array of different flavours out of the beans. To do this we need “bucket-loads” of cherries and we have no real idea how long this will take us.

Without hesitation we all grab our buckets and duck into the plantation.

The coffee trees stand about 2½ meters tall, full of large green leaves on thin branches that poke outwards from a central trunk. The cherries are clustered on stalks. These stalks, we find, are often hidden under the thick clumps of leaves.

Interestingly, some trees are laden with ripe fruit. Others are more leaves than anything else. Some have more unripes than others. We quickly realise that our best bet is to target the best trees where there are the proverbial “easy pickings”.

LEARNING THE DISCIPLINE OF SELECTIVE PICKING

Our resident coffee guru and coach, Aryan Aqajani, helps us to discriminate accurately in selecting only the best fruit. On one stalk there can be greens, nearly ripes (bright orangey red), ripes (deep maroon or ‘blood red’), and even over-ripes or naturals (cherries that actually start drying out on the tree). Our mission requires only the best. "Blood red cherries only guys," Aryan insists.

We quickly fall into a somewhat mesmerizing rhythm. Walking down the rows, eyes scanning the trees, choosing one, getting ‘into’ it. Yes, to harvest the cherries you really have to get amongst the leaves and branches, arms reaching in, snaking through the stalks to pluck the right cherries. It’s an eye-hand co-ordination thing. Constantly looking for the next ripe cluster. Fingers moving as fast as possible, gripping the cherries, pulling them off and depositing them in the bucket below. Interestingly, we find that the greens are hard to pluck off, over-ripes fall off when you touch them. The target - perfectly ripe cherries - come off quite easily but with a little resistance much like plucking a juicy grape off a stalk. And, when they are just right, the skins of good cherries almost shine in the sun, beckoning to the picker. They are very beautiful indeed.

We quickly lose each other down the long rows of trees, each pursuing his own cherry treasure hunt. The plantation seems to swallow all sound. A wedge tailed eagle catches my eye spiraling effortlessly on the thermals above me. "Hey, guys check that eagle," I shout. No reply. Alone in nature.

We quickly establish that we are certainly not ‘speed-pickers’. This is a painstaking task that takes time, concentration and energy. It takes about an hour of flat-out picking to fill an 8kg bucket. We are going to have to keep at this for a number of days to get our desired amount of raw material for our experiments!

Is it monotonous? No. mesmerizing. YES. Almost addictive. As Anton comments, “Every time you spot a ripe bunch of cherries you just have to pick it! And once you’ve filled your bucket you carry it back to the main station like a prize!”

 

Could we do coffee picking for a job? Probably not. We respect deeply those that do. We realise that we’re not just filling our buckets with cherries; we are filling our hearts with empathy for those coffee pickers the world over. We have never ever valued their occupation so much before! It’s those coffee pickers that certainly do the hard yards, often for very meagre financial gain, in bringing us all the wonderful beverage that is coffee.

HOW MANY COFFEE CHERRIES IN ONE CUP OF COFFEE?

I notice Anton deep in thought at the camper van (our base camp on the farm). He is weighing some roasted coffee beans and working out how many beans go into one shot of coffee. Then he is back to the trees picking. Then, with a cupping bowl piled with red cherries he triumphantly exclaims, “this is how many cherries needed for just one cup of coffee”. 42 plump cherries fill the bowl.

It is striking to realise how much weight and bulk is lost from this point of a whole cherry to the the small pile of 11 grams of roasted coffee that makes up one espresso shot! In fact between 80 and 85 percent of the mass of the original cherry is lost through the processing and roasting processes. Interesting!

HOW MUCH COFFEE DOES ONE COFFEE TREE YIELD?

How much does one tree yield, I wonder? I look for a nicely laden tree with lots of good ripe fruit, and, starting with an empty bucket, begin to pick. After picking solidly from that one tree for about fifteen minutes I weigh the bucket. I have harvested two kilograms of cherries off that one tree. I estimate there’s another 1kg of unripes left on the tree.

So, if one tree yields, say, 3kg of cherries per year, that equates to approximately 360g of processed and roasted coffee, which in turn equates to about 33 single shot lattes. Wow! There must be a lot of coffee trees in the world!

Quite profound when you realise how much effort goes into each cup we consume. A new appreciation of ‘what goes into coffee’ dawns as we get doing it with our own hands.
Don’t waste a drop!

REFLECTIONS AFTER DAY ONE...

Darkness falls suddenly in far North Queensland – no long twilight like back home in Melbourne. As we drive back down to Mareeba and check into our cabin at Mareeba Motor Inn, we reflect on why we were doing this? Why are these projects important for Zest?

These expeditions really display the guts of what Zest is all about. As Anton exclaims, “We are living it! We are real people pursuing our passion of exploring all that there is in the world of coffee hands-on”. We are learning all the time. We are developing empathy and understanding. We are experiencing things firsthand so that, when we speak, we can speak genuinely and with the authority that comes with doing.

And it makes us humble, not proud. Humble, to think that there are 125 million other people in the global coffee industry and that most of them are working on the approximately 9 million small holder family farms in developing countries. Humble, to consider that to so many of them what we did today is their only source of income, of survival. Humble, to think that they already understand it far better than we do.

To be continued.

Authored by Rod Greenfield, director of Zest Specialty Coffee Roasters.