Many people are surprised to hear that green tea is grown in Australia. Australia isn’t a traditional tea-producing country, although tea has been grown in North Queensland for several decades. Up there the high rainfall and warm temperatures are suited to year round production of black teas, similar to some of the low elevation-tea producing regions like Assam in India.
Back in the 90s, with the demand for green tea in Japan moving ever upwards, a number of Japanese companies began looking outside Japan for additional sources to supply its domestic and export markets. A few big Japanese companies conducted trials in Australia and other parts of the world, looking for places that had the right conditions for Japanese style green tea. A couple of spots in Victoria and New South Wales turned out to have all the right conditions, and now there are a bunch of green tea farms supplying those companies. There are also a few independent growers around and about.
With all this tea-action going on in our backyard, it seemed crazy not to go and check it out. So, just in time for the first Spring harvest or ‘ichiban cha’, I jumped in the car with one tea sommelier from a certain high end Melbourne restaurant, and another impressive woman about to open a tea bar in the inner north, and headed towards Victoria’s tea country.
First stop was Matthew’s farm in Alexandra, about two hours out of Melbourne. Matthew had run cattle on his property before signing up to supply green tea to Ito En – a Japanese company, which processes the tea at its factory in Wangaratta. Talking to Matthew, we started to get an idea of what was involved in taking on this growing task – nurturing hectares of tea bushes for four years before they could be harvested for the first time, getting the soil nutrient content right, monitoring the amino acid and tannin levels in the plants, irrigation and frost protection. Frost is a constant menace to the plants leading up to harvest and the farmers have sophisticated systems in place that activate sprinklers once the temperature drops below a certain level, and which also conveniently notify the farmers when this occurs – usually in the cold early hours of the morning! It really is an ‘around the clock’ job during the harvest.
By mid afternoon the processing machines were starting up at the Wangaratta factory so we left Matthew and continued north. When we arrived, temperature controlled containers of leaves were arriving at the factory from some of the other farms. Unlike black or oolong teas, green tea is not oxidised. It’s important that the leaves are kept cool and are processed within hours of being harvested because exposure to the heat and air can allow the natural oxidisation process to begin. The factory was like a steampunk creation – a complex mechanical system of gauges and conveyors, and twisting, turning and revolving parts, designed to replicate each stage of traditional hand processing.
Tea being processed at the Factory
The tea makers can judge from the feel, smell and taste of the leaves whether or not the tea has been processed at the correct settings at each stage. Although machine processed, there can be quite a bit of variation in the processed leaves depending on the way the individual tea maker has operated the equipment. Nearly all the tea at the Wangaratta factory is processed to ‘crude tea’ and then sent to Japan for final processing and blending. A small amount is finished at the factory for domestic customers.
Examining the leaf
After spending a good three or so hours at the factory we went off in search of our couchsurfing accommodation for the night at Mary’s nearby farm, where we retired shortly after being fed a variety of homemade treats. With wonderful hosts, a comfortable night’s accommodation, and a tour of the gardens in the morning, this surely beat the local roadside motor inn!
On Thursday morning we dropped in on Antoinette and her husband a bit further down the road near Mt Beauty, who were in the process of harvesting. This was a relatively large farm (about 12 hectares), where they had previously grown tobacco.
The harvester making its way along the row
Despite being done by machine, harvesting is a relatively slow and delicate process, as the farmer aims to take only the bud and top two leaves, and must account for any differences in height along the length of the rows.
A freshly harvested row
The location was stunning and it was hard not to be impressed by the perfect rich green rows of tea plants covering the slopes of the property.
Farming is a tough gig by all accounts. So much goes into it, and at the end of the day, success or failure is at the whim of Mother Nature. Visiting the green tea farms and talking to the farmers really gave me an understanding of the balancing acts and trade-offs they must constantly make – whether here or anywhere else in the world. It also gave me an even greater appreciation for all the time, care, skill and labour, risk and expense that goes into creating the tea we enjoy every day.