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An Australian tea estate.

An Australian tea estate

By world standards, the Australian tea industry is very small indeed. In 1977 national output was 139 tons of made tea which by 1987 had increased over sevenfold to 1,080 tons, still scarcely placing the country in the big league of world tea producers. Virtually all home-grown tea was consumed domestically (208 tons exported in 1987) and it supplied about three percent of the domestic market.

For the three years 1979-81, Australians consumed an annual average of 22,840 tons of tea or 1.56 kg per head of population. For the triennial 1984-86, consumption had fallen to an annual average of 20,640 tons or 1.31 kg per capita. Thus, like many other Western countries such as the U.K. and the U.S., Australia is experiencing a gradual and secular fall in tea consumption at the expense initially of coffee and more recently of soft drinks. Virtually all the tea consumed in the country is black tea imported from countries such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG). Green tea has never caught the public imagination and the consumption of Jasmine or Wulong tea is confined principally to Chinese restaurants.

History of the Australian Tea Industry

The Asutralian tea industry has experienced fluctuating fortunes in the 100 years or so of its intermittent history. The first Australian tea estate was planted at Bingil Bay, 30 kilometers south of Innisfail, in the state of Queensland on the northeast coast of the country, in 1884. The plantation was never a success and was destroyed by a cyclone and accompanying tidal wave in 1918. The Cutten family from India, who had established the tea fields, also planted coffee, chicory, coconuts, citrus fruits, pines and mangoes in the lush tropical climate. Herbert Frederick Cutten (1855-1930), one of four brothers in the family, is now acknowledged as the father of the Australian tea industry.

In 1980, thousands of tea trees more than 80 years old, covering an area of about a hectare, were discovered in a rain forest near the original plantation. The trees were growing wild and in profusion; no branches were visible for 15 meters off the ground. Seeds from the trees have since been planted, linking the pioneer estate with more recent developments in the industry.

In 1936, experimental plantings were made on Mt. Bartle Frere, the highest mountain in Queensland. Dr. Alan Maruff, who died in 1979, started growing bushes at his surgery in Innisfail in 1959 with seedlings from tea bushes growing wild in the Bingil Bay forest. His enthusiasm and dedication was the moving spirit behind the Nerada tea plantation in the area. Plantings began in 1959 and by 1962 the fields totalled 20 acres. A severe drought in that year killed 70 percent of the bushes. In 1963 the fields were replanted and an irrigation system was installed. By 1965 the plantation had grown to 30 acres and to 80 acres by 1968. Experimentations with a mechanical harvester were commenced.

In 1970 the Pacific trading company Burns Philp and Co. bought a 60 percent interest in the estate and proceeded to invest funds in its upgrading. A processing factory was built and the area under production expanded. However, the factory was closed down in 1972 after returns did not meet expectations. The main problems were low output, low leaf quality and low price. At that time the tea was not marketed under its own name. In 1973 Tea Estates of Australian (established in 1969) bought the estate, which was adjacent to its own tea gardens, and ran the two properties together. In 1974 the tea was marketed under the Nerada brand name, which to this day is probably the best-known domestically produced tea in Australia. For example, Australia's international airline, Qantas, serves Nerada tea on its flights.

In 1979 another serious drought caused further setbacks, but by 1981 the fields were fully irrigated to guard against future dry spells. The estate now has 200 hectares of fields plucking all year round with annual yields of 3-4,000 kg per hectare. Packing capacity is now two million kg per annum.

Other planting were also made in Queensland in the years 1977 to 1982. In 1983 the Queensland Tea Growers Association was established. In 1984 plantations were established by Malaysian and British interests. By 1986, Queensland had 1,000 acres of tea fields and this was expected to triple by 1993.

In recent years, tea estate have been planted in the state of New South Wales, immediately to the south of Queensland. On the outskirts of the northeast rural town of Lismore, a large project is underway to develop up to 500 acres of tea fields. One hundred acres have already been planted on alluvial valley land and high hopes are held for the yields and quality of the tea which will be produced on the estate.

The main focus of the article is, however, the Madure Tea Estates, also in New South Wales, where the author spent a pleasant morning in early February 1990 as the guest of its owner and founder, tea master Michael Grant-Cook.

Madura Tea Estates

Michael is a third generation tea-maker and was born in Sri Lanka where his grandfather and father owned estates. He had practical training on the family estate and then three years training as a blender and taster. Michael left Sri Lanka in 1948 and spent seven years in Sydney doing various odd jobs. There was no demand for a tea maker there and tea was still rationed in the immediate post-war years.

Between 1954-74, he worked in PNG and produced that country's first commercial crop of tea. Michael established the first large commercial tea plantation in the Western Highlands near Mt. Hagen and worked there from 1964 to 1970. In 1968 he contracted malaria and later worked on Bougainville island with the big copper mine as employer services manager. In between times, and to keep his hand in with the tea industry which always has been his first love, Michael was consultant to the Nerada tea plantation and designed its processing factory.

Michael purchased his present property, which was then old dairy pasture, in October 1977. Once a rain forest, it is located in the Clothiers Creek Valley of Northern New South Wales, near Murwillumba. Here the land is lush and fertile, with rolling hills and valleys. The main crop in the area is sugar cane.

The Madura (emphasis on the first syllable) Tea Estates is situated at a latitude of 28.25 South compared to 26.5 North for Assam, but the climate is slightly warmer in Australia. Field work began in January 1978 and planting the following April. Seed of Camellia sinensis from Tanzania was used and planted directly into the groiund by machine. The reason for this unusual approach, according to the owner, was that bushes planted from seed have a longer producing life than cuttings or vegetative propagation (VP). They send a tap-root deep into the soil and are therefore less sensitive to changes in climate and are easier to prune. Capital costs in planting are also reduced.

Establishment costs included the cost of land at $1,000 per acre in 1977 (now worth $12,000 per acre). The land suitable for tea production in Australia is confined to a narrow belt along the east coast where population density is greatest and other crops compete (such as sugar, macadamias, etc.). Therefore, the cost of expanding the estate in the future world be prohibitive. Most of the processing machinery has been designed and built on the estate; the drier, roller (a modified mincer), withering troughs and packing machine (vertical cartoner). Only the teabag packer has been imported (from Argentina).

Planting were made at intervals of 24 inches between bushes and six feet between rows. With hindsight Michael recommends one meter between bushes and 2.5 meters between rows to allow for lateral growth of the branches. Ten years after planting the bushes are now 10 feet wide and will have an estimated life of 100 years compared to 50 years for VP plantings.

Tea is plucked every eight to nine days for nine months of the year by a plucking-machine designed on the estate and made locally. The plucking machine cost $A160,000 and replaces 140 pluckers. [Photo 1] It carries grass cutters to mow the weeds between the rows and an herbicide spray further to control the weeds. The catcher can hold 400 kg of leaves. [Photo 2] Fifty percent of the crop is handled between January and March, which creates great demands on factory capacity.

Tests carried out by the state Deparment of Agriculture on a small parcel of land have revealed yields of 3,516 lbs. of made tea per acre. Maximum yields are anticipated 20-25 years from planting, at the end of the century. The bushes lie semi-dormant from the end of June due to the lack of sunlight, which is reduced from 10 hours to 7-9 hours per day. At this time a light annual pruning is carried out using pruning heads on the tea harvester.

Irrigation is not used due to the expense and the minimal increased return in yields. Annual rainfall in the area is 85-100 inches per annum. In the 12 years since the estate has been established the lowest annual rainfall has been 68 inches and the highest 110 inches. The dry period comes in late winter and early spring. In 1979, shortly after the seeds were planted, no rain fell for 17 weeks but fortunately no seeds were lost.

The employees on the estate include Michael's wife, who runs the business with the help of computer and fax machine from their office attached to the estate residence. Their stepson/successor is interested more in the manufacturing and marketing side of the operations than the horticultural side of the business. His wife also works on the property. Then there is the production superintendent, an Irishman from PNG who has been trained in Assam with four years apprenticeship in engineering; four permanent men on the estate managing the 40 acres currently in production and three part-time ladies packing four hours per day five days a week.

The estate has three withering troughs 40 feet by 4 feet in dimension with forced draught fans which put out 10,000 cubic feet of hot air per minute in each trough. The freshly-plucked leaf is spread on mesh about 18-24 inches thick (each trough can take a maximum of 400 kg) and subjected to about 24 hours of air both injected into and drawn down and out of the troughs. Chemical withering begins after 18 hours but physical withering begins with two hours. The skill is to stop withering when the required level of perfume is obtained, an aroma described as similar to that of ripe apples. Withering reduces 30 percent of the gross field weight of the leaf and causes chemical changes in the juice of the leaf, which is now limp and soft.

Next comes rolling, where the leaf is twisted and curled in a rotor vane roller which can handle 250 kg per hour. The leaf cells are ruptured to extract the leaf juice which is carried on the outside of the leaf. The leaves next go through a roller breaker to separate the sticky, sodden mass and compact it into curlicues, and emerge to drop into trays. The trays are placed in fermentation bays and left to stand for two hours, causing fermentation, or more exactly a change in the enzymes through oxidation, a change whose speed is related to air humidity and temperature. In this process the leaf changes from bright green to bright red and the process is stopped when the tea maker adjudges the "fermentation nose" to be right.

Finally the tea is dried in a chest of drawer style drier, modidified from the type common in Assam. Firing the drier is a propane gas burner which burns completely free of smoke, kerosene or sulphur. The leaves are spread 1 inch thick on the trays, which are raised and lowered by a hydraulic system. The six stainless-steel mesh-bottom trays are changed every six to seven minutes so that one batch of leaves takes 36-40 minutes to travel down the drier. About 6,500 cubic feet of air per minute at 98 [degrees] C or 208 [degrees] F is injected into the drier by forced draught fans, reducing the level of moisture to three percent at discharge. The extracted juice on the surface of the leaf dries as a lacquer.

The total time for processing is withering (24 hours), fermentation (2 hours) and drying (45 minutes). The processed tea is packed in aluminum-lined tea chests and left to maturate for about ten days. Then the bulk teas from different days are placed in the blending drum with teas imported from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, etc. Before packing the tea is passed over stalk and fiber extractors, a bank of magnets and a filter screen [Photo 3].

Three teas are now produced by Madura: green and black tea in tea-bags as well as loose black tea in 250 gram packets. In 1989, green tea comprised only five percent of total output. Marketing of the product began in 1981. The management now predicts that on current projections they won't be able to meet demand within two years. By value half of the sales are in tea bags and half in packets. By quantity the ratio is 30-70.

Australian market research has revealed a trend toward tea bags in the most populous cities of Sydney and Melbourne, which with their more diverse ethnic populations and higher density living are attracted to the bags because they are easier to dipose of and quicker to prepare. In other state capital cities such as Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, where the people have a more recent rural backgroiund and presumably still enjoy the ritual of making "real" tea in a pot, the trend is more toward the loose packet-tea.

The end product from Madura contains no pesticides, is free of tannic acid and low in caffeine. It is available in supermarkets and health food stores. The company has trailed exports to the U.S. and New Zealand but there have been problems with bulk supplies as the U.S. places embargoes against packaged (value added) products, equivalent to a 100 percent import duty. Shipping freight costs and the cost of blending for different markets, taking the quality of local water into account, are further deterrants.

In conjunction with University of Darling Downs in Queensland, Madura is researching the anti-cholesterol and anti-carcinogenic properties of Epicatechin Gallate (ECG) and Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG) contained in green tea, as well as the therapeutic benefits of green tea and the chemical components of the tea leaf in the cup. The estate has published a pamphlet outlining the benefits of tea catechins and their "remarkable effect in preventing fats from entering body tissue: inhibiting cancer forming cells and reducing the damaging effects of Strontium 90 on the human body."

Impressions: Having previously visited tea plantations only in China, I was struck at Madura by the neatness and orderliness of production, from field to factory. Lovely straight rows of tea hedges on undulating land, even in height, contrasted greatly with the patchy, uneven bushes on most Chinese tea estates [Photo 4]. The factory was clean and bright, suffused with that lovely aroma which is almost sufficient reward for those connected with the tea industry.

Madura is environmentally conscious and its owner holds strong views about the industry. He has inspected fields and factories in China's Yunnan province and not surprisingly was disappointed at the low levels of management, outdated equipment and poor product quality. He is not content to mark time; his next project may be a joint venture growing tea in Hawaii with a U.S. company. Australia and the tea industry need more people with the vision, energy and initiative of Michael Grant-Cook [Photo 5].

PHOTO : Photo 1: Machine replaces 140 pluckers.

PHOTO : Photo 2: Catcher holds 400 kg. of tea.

PHOTO : Photo 3: Tea passed through.

PHOTO : Photo 4: Straight rows of tea.

PHOTO : Photo 5: Michael Grant-Cook

Keith Forster Contemporary China Center Research School of Pacific Studies Australian National University
COPYRIGHT 1990 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:history of The Madura Tea Estates
Author:Forster, Keith
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:May 1, 1990
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