Ripe for the picking
LOCAL coffee drinkers will be happy to know that our area produces some of the best coffee around.
Though still a cottage industry, Northern Rivers-grown coffee has been punching above its weight of late, both here and overseas, with a burgeoning export industry and numerous medals in prestigious domestic competitions.
Local growers Byron Beans took out four medals in the 2012 Sydney Royal Fine Food Show - one silver and three bronzes - while Joss and Wendy Webber of Kahawa Estate took out two bronzes.
The Byron region is well-known with coffee pundits for its ability to produce beans that are of a superior quality to the average imported bean, characterised by a naturally sweet flavour and lacking in bitterness, a quality most coffee drinkers accustomed to cheaper blends have yet to experience.
Rebecca Zentveld is the founder of Zentveld's, one of the pioneer local coffee roasting operations in the area and responsible for roasting a significant chunk of the Byron area crop. She says it is the magic of the Mt Warning region with its relatively cool climate, high rainfall, humidity and rich red volcanic soil that is the key to the region's quality product.
"The cooler climate brings out a sweetness in the bean through a longer ripening period of 10 months as opposed to eight months, as is the case for most equatorial coffee beans," says Ms Zentveld.
"Brisbane University set up a taste-testing experiment in the late 1980s which proved that it was, at least subjectively, better-tasting coffee than anywhere else."
Now Zentveld's is working with Southern Cross University to do further testing on local beans to establish their quality, including caffeine levels and overall taste to benchmark them against other beans.
Since starting the operation in 1993 she has built a thriving speciality business focusing primarily on regional clients, mostly staying away from metropolitan areas where city roasters ply their trade with generous offers of equipment and maintenance to their customers, which as a boutique player Zentveld's cannot match.
Most city roasters, however, are not using superior Australian-grown coffee.
Not only does it taste better, but due to Australia's precious geographic isolation we have none of the diseases that plague coffee growers overseas, such as berry disease and coffee rust, which means Australian coffee is naturally pesticide-free.
Also, we do not have cheap labour which the poorer regions of the world such as Brazil, Kenya and PNG use to harvest the bulk of the world's coffee, so Australian coffee is naturally more expensive.
According to Graeme Ford, one of the directors of the largest plantation in the region, Mountain Top Coffee, the price of coffee worldwide is expected to hit record levels in the near future, and there's a "huge explosion" in the speciality end of the market which Northern Rivers grown coffee is part of.
Mountain Top are currently in discussion with Lismore Council to set up tours of their milling and harvesting operation.