tea for two
In the hills south of Hobart is the world’s southernmost tea plantation, home of Australia’s oldest commercial grower and processor of Japanese green tea. ROGER HANSON called in for a cuppa.
WITH an eye on caring for the environment, the tea grown by Gordon and Jane Brown at Allen’s Rivulet is certified pesticide free. Solar energy powers the irrigation pumps and tea processing plant.
The couple have created Tasmania’s only tea plantation with 4000 bushes on half a hectare and developed their brand Tassie-T. Tasmania’s cool temperate climate is ideal for producing supreme quality leaves.
Innovation is in the DNA of the Browns. Gordon has a masters degree in agriculture from the University of Sydney, a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Western Sydney and a graduate diploma in education. Jane, who has more than 30 years of experience in food research, has a bachelor of education degree specialising in food and nutrition and holds a masters degree in science education through Curtin University.
About 28 years ago Dr Brown, who specialised in post-harvest horticulture, was working for the state department of agriculture when given the task of investigating the process of turning the fresh green leaves of camellia sinensis into tea for drinking. The project was shelved but he pressed on with his own plantation. The backyard garden variety of camellia is not suitable for tea.
“It’s been an ongoing process of innovation and improving on what we do,” Dr Brown said.
The plants in their tea garden are a Japanese variety of the Chinese native camellia, which in their natural state can grow to almost 5m tall.
“The bulk of the black tea drunk in the world is from the Indian native camellia, and green tea is dominated by the Chinese native,” he said.
From planting it takes about five years for first harvest, hitting full harvest in the next five years.
“Even though I’ve been involved in horticulture all of my life, this is the first crop I’ve ever felt inspired to grow,” Dr Brown said.
The Browns were at Huon Small Farms Expo at Ranelagh on Sunday talking to people about setting up a small holding with a focus on tea.
“I believe we have real potential for growing quality tea in Tasmania as it has a temperature profile very similar to Darjeeling in India. The most important thing in growing tea is irrigation. Tea is so resilient and we have no major pests and diseases here in Tasmania,” he said.
“I would love to have a collection of small growers in Tasmania, to add variety to small plot farms and exchange ideas. This year we are selling cuttings to people who are interested in growing tea.”
On their small farm they also grow heritage apples and sour cherries, with the trees coming from Hungry.
“The global market for sour cherry production is larger than sweet cherries, which we grow here for the fresh fruit market,” he said. “Sour cherries are a processing fruit.”
The Browns are nurturing a new crop of tea plants put in last winter. The plants are covered by paper cups to protect them from rabbits and rope is strung just above the cups to prevent wallabies trampling them. Geese in the nursery plantation don’t eat the tea plants but keep the grass down.
Their scale of growing is definitely of a smallholding size. Australian company Nerada, in Queensland, uses big equipment to harvest 4000kg of leaves an hour on a plantation of 400ha.
Mechanisation is required, but conventional equipment is not suited to the Browns’ operation, and there has been some interesting lateral thinking and adaptation involved. “I like to have equipment that you actually buy from the local shop,” he said.
A Rover ride-on lawnmower has been adapted. When harvesting tea, the forward motion is by a solar powered electric motor. On the front is the cutting deck that was moved from under the mower. It is suspended by a crane so the height can be raised or lowered. Beside the deck is a grass catcher, where the tea leaves collect.
From mid-November to April the Browns harvest 28 bins of leaves a week during each of the growth flushes, 20 of which are processed for green tea, and eight for black tea. The leaves are picked at a more mature stage than most, when the leaves have more sugar and are less astringent.
“Our tea is a smooth, almost sweet drink, with a beautiful aroma that
I think they really enjoy it as much as anything else and it gives their horses a good workout
comes from the older leaves,” he said.
For green tea, oxidation must be prevented to stop them turning black. This usually is done by steaming or cooking in hot pans in what Mrs Brown calls their laboratory. They blanch the tea leaves at 90C for three minutes in a commercial deep fryer, which was designed for fish and chips.
For black tea oxidation is mandatory. After it has wilted a little, black tea is put into a meat mincer. This breaks up the cell structure to release flavour. Black tea goes through three times and green tea once.
“I am interested in processes that are economic and that the consumer loves to drink,” Dr Brown said.
“We are continuously conducting research to ensure our process produces tea with the highest of flavours [and] excellent health properties while preserving the environment for future generations.”
Once the tea is dried, the 90kg of fresh leaves picked at a time become 28kg of tea leaves.
Their Tasmanian green tea is sold as Huon Green, the black tea as Huon Black, and Tasmanian Oolong as HuonOolong. For more information visit www.scientifichorticulture.com.au