Cool climate coffee

It may not seem it when you visit an Australian coffee farm in summer, but most coffee is grown in notably cooler conditions compared to the usual coffee lands in the hotter tropical zones.

Quite bearable in summer and downright delightful as a subtropical winter, our cooler growing conditions are a good thing, not just for the growers and their farm workers. Prior Australian Subtropical Coffee Association articles in BeanScene have outlined the natural benefits and sustainability of Australian coffee, where thanks to the cooler subtropical conditions, there are fewer pests or tropical diseases and therefore less need for nasty sprays.

Growing in cooler climates brings a relatively long fruit development and ripening season for typically 10-months or more. Being based on a farm in the hills behind Byron Bay, I can report that the spring flowering starts in late October after good rain and the ripe cherries are not harvested until the following October/November. So really, that’s at least 11 months growth and flavour development of the coffee fruit and the seed within. Those who hand harvest might even start a few weeks earlier, but it all depends on the terroir and the locale of the trees. Some pockets within a plantation receive more winter daily sun or afternoon sun that ripens the fruit quicker than the shadier parts. Rainfall prior to the harvest period also affect the spring harvest timing.

Last year, the winter was drier than usual, so we had to wait for rainfall before starting to harvest in October. I like to harvest after or even during light rain so the fruit softens and “gives”’ easily, leaving the less ripe fruit still on the branch.

Some Australian estates will produce pure wet processed coffee from fully ripe cherries, seeking clean, sweet coffee. Others will allow the coffee fruit to stay on longer and develop rich, spicy notes as naturally dried coffee, often finishing on drying racks or in a mechanical drier post harvest. With cherry skin on, unpulped natural coffees develop spicy, winey nuances as they slowly became over-ripe coffee fruit, rather like sultanas or prunes.

Love an Ethiopian natural? Try an Aussie natural process bean. Love a sweet South American or Kenyan coffee? Try an Aussie wet process coffee or a blend of both for your daily espresso. If you are seeking sweet and chocolate notes, we got it right here.

We hear a lot about high altitude coffees producing renowned coffee flavours, but why? Well, the cooler conditions play a big role with the coffee trees enjoying shade, perhaps from rainforest trees and the deeper, nutrient-rich soil, and there’s likely more rainfall than the hotter lower lying coffee lands.

In hot tropical climates, growing coffee at high altitude will gain a cooler microclimate. This assists with the development of sweetness, and finer nuances of flavour with a longer, slower ripening season than hotter, lower coffee lands. There are some mighty interesting hot climate coffees, but it is quite usual for coffee appreciators and green bean buyers to look for high altitude coffee as an indicator of expected quality. However, it’s not the altitude alone that provides the foundation of the sweet and fine flavour development. It’s the microclimate along with the terroir and coffee cultivar.

To quote ASTCA’s ‘chief’ Australian coffee agronomist David Peasley: “What Australian coffee lacks in altitude, it makes up for in latitude.” Have a look on a world map. Most of our coffee is grown below the tropical zone. Even the Queensland Tablelands estate coffees enjoy a unique pocket of cooler subtropical conditions with abundant water available from the irrigation systems and creeks replenished by the Tinaroo Dam.

Further south, there are areas of rich soil and subtropical coffee growing conditions near Bundaberg, and just west of the coastal township of 1770 on the Sunshine Coast, and other surprising spots such as north of Toowoomba. We have the well established New South Wales Northern Rivers, Gold Coast hinterland, and Mount Tamborine subtropical coffee estates. Whether you know it as the Byron Bay hinterland or the Mount Warning caldera, the Lismore Big Scrub zone or the hillsides of Coffs Harbour and Gold Coast, the coffee estates within this subtropical zone all enjoy rich volcanic soil and cool conditions with long, slow ripening periods. It’s not just a picturesque landscape of green rolling hills meeting the coast, it’s rich and ripe for coffee growing.

With ASTCA’s mantra “we need more coffee growers” in mind, it’s exciting to see new entrepreneurial growers popping up, investing and planting Coffea arabica for our future local coffee supply.

By ASTCA’s Rebecca Zentveld

Rebecca is an Australian coffee specialist, Owner of Zentveld’s Coffee Roastery and Plantation, and member of the Australian Subtropical Coffee Association.