tea production Australia

From little things big things grow

Bradley Cahill and Mafalda Moutinho of Casa De Cha reflect on the history of tea production in Australia: part one.

Australia is known for its high-quality products, impeccable standards, and green or clean practices. When it comes to tea production, however, many would be surprised to learn it is grown here at all. 

Casa De Cha Specialty tea
Bradley Cahill and Mafalda Moutinho are Co-founders of Casa De Cha and Consultants to the Australian Tea Growers Cooperative.

Over the past 20 years, the Australian tea industry has been evolving and gaining momentum, winning awards nationally and abroad. Currently, tea farming is an emerging industry, a quiet achiever on the agricultural export market. If the visions of a few mavericks come to fruition, Australia may very well become a major player in the tea world. So, how did we get here?

During the 19th century, colonial Australians were the world’s highest tea consumers, knocking back an average of four to five kilograms of tea per person per year, compared with today’s average of just 0.8 kilograms. Mostly green tea was drunk, alongside other commonly available Chinese teas. Many of Australia’s early colonists also grew and made their own tea. 

James Inglis was a politician, author, and agent of the Calcutta Tea Syndicate. He also pioneered black tea in Australia, successfully introducing Indian and Ceylonese tea to the colonies during the 1880s. His company, James Inglis & Co, marketed Billy Tea using an altered version of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda for advertising, a song now known as Australia’s “unofficial national anthem”. 

By the time World War II broke, some people were drinking eight to 12 cups of tea per day. When the government started to ration tea – which severely curtailed tea consumption – the general population was displeased and disgruntled. Members of the Australian public wrote relentlessly to their parliamentarians and Prime Minister complaining about the tea ration.

“Never mind the Japanese invasion, this tea rationing is totally unrealistic and unreasonable,” one letter reads. 

Historical records show a surge in petty crime during the period, including reports of chests of tea being stolen from homes and theft of an unattended truck loaded with tea. Another recounts how police were called to break up a riot which erupted in Melbourne when a Bushell’s truck overturned, prompting people to rush onto the street to fill their hats with tea. Eventually, a black market emerged and thrived.

In 1970, Allan Maruff began producing tea commercially on his estate at Nerada, near Innisfail. Nerada Estates is now the largest commercial producer of tea in Australia. In 1978, Daintree Tea Company was started by the Nicholas family on the Cubbagudta Plantation, situated in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland. 

Although tea has a rich history in Australia, it was only around 20 years ago that the country’s potential as a producer was first recognised in a larger scale by Japanese tea companies looking for a place to grow tea during the off season. Together with the Department of Primary Industries, several test plantations were set up with Japanese tea plants using Japanese processing methods. Due to the nature of this setup, all the tea produced from these plantations was being shipped back to Japan to be sold under Japanese brands. 

In the last couple of years, several Australian tea companies have incorporated nationally grown tea into their own collections as a way to educate the Australian audience, support Australian produce, and ultimately grow the industry.

We have seen this happen before with the Australian wine industry, which grew from a grassroots movement to the international stage. Needless to say, we in the tea world believe that the same is possible for tea. 

This article appears in the December 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.