ANNE KRUGER, REPORTER: The frosts will soon descend on Victoria’s high country and snowfalls will blanket the peaks. And in the Alpine Valley some crops will lie dormant till the spring.
One crop that especially likes its winter slumber is green tea and this season’s crop is about to come to a close. Tea growing is a fledgling industry in Australia, but a mix of Japanese expertise and Australian enterprise is brewing a beautiful brew.
TIM LEE, REPORTER: As the clouds swirl over the neighbouring peaks, George Barel is going through his morning ritual, brewing and drinking a good strong cup of tea. Nothing remarkable about that, except that it’s his own tea, grown outside his backdoor, and that it’s green and extremely valuable, especially in far-off Japan.
GEORGE BAREL, TEA GROWER: I might as well try the product I produce.
TIM LEE: Soon, George Barel is at the controls of the harvester, skimming across his hedgerows of tea, trimming them as neat as a cottage garden.
There’s added excitement about this harvest. It’s the first time the fledgling industry here has beaten its biggest enemy: the weather.
The Kiewa Valley lies in the shadow of Mount Bogong, Victoria’s highest mountain. And while the tea plant enjoys a cold winter, spring frost on these delicate green shoots is disastrous.
In the past few years, on the eve of the harvest, tea growers here have had to endure the smell of frost damage. Frost-bitten young shoots give off a pungent, burnt odour and damaged plants take months to recover.
GEORGE BAREL: If you don’t get the first pick, you’re not viable, basically, so (inaudible) not viable so we needed to do that.
TIM LEE: The solution was to install elaborate spray irrigation systems throughout the plantation. It was expensive, but when frost threatens, a good dousing of water keeps the ice at bay.
So what is it about the first pick that is so crucial?
GEORGE BAREL: It’s basically because it comes out of dormancy during winter, its two or three months dormancy, and then it shoots out and then it’s got all its energy into the first flush. And that’s why it is so good. It is a better tasting tea than second and third pick. So, yes, it’s most valuable, so that’s why we needed to invest a fair bit of money in trying to protect it.
PETER ANDERSON, ITO EN AUSTRALIA: When you get to the start of the season, you get very small leaves. We look for the amino acid content and the fibre content of the leaves. And at this time of the year they’re sort of perfect for making good tea. So, at this stage, it’s very similar to the Japanese-quality tea leaf.
TIM LEE: Nowhere in the world is green tea so prized and celebrated as Japan. For centuries, ceremonial tea making has been a prominent cultural practice. Ito En capitalised on that tradition by developing canned tea in the 1980s. With a growing global demand for traditional loose leaf and canned tea, the company needed to look beyond its shores for the raw product. In 1993, it came to evaluate the soils and alpine climate of north-eastern Victoria.
GEORGE BAREL: This area is similar to where they grow it in Japan and obviously that’s the reason why they grew it. They’ve been here for a long time, Ito En, to do trails, so they wouldn’t have grown it here if they didn’t feel it was the area to grow it.
TIM LEE: The first commercial plantings took place in 2001, so these plants are only now reaching full production. Getting this far has been a long and often slow haul for both the tea growers and the Japanese company.
GEORGE BAREL: Ito En has been very patient and I suppose we’ve been patient as well. We had our little issues, but it seems to be all going quite well. The tea’s coming out of the factory quite well at the moment, the first harvest, so that’s good.
PAUL STANFORD, TEA MAKER: You bring it into the factory in evaporative air-conditioning. It’s a living product and we have to keep it fresh.
TIM LEE: The delicate art of making green tea blends modern technology with some age-old practices.
So what can you learn from sniffing?
CLIFF SHEATHER, TEA MAKER: Basically, the freshness of it, looking for signs of overheating and fermenting, basically, and then also just a visual check for contaminants, could be spiders or dust.
PETER ANDERSON: Our factory is a lot of touch and feel. Green tea is – when they’re doing the processing is all about the feel of the leaf. We look at the texture, the moisture content, the heat. We then have to taste the tea and we’re looking for nice water colour when it’s brewed, a nice aroma. We don’t want to be getting anything that’s going to be off-putting to a consumer to enjoy the tea. We want to make sure that it’s correct all the way through the process, so, a lot of tasting, a lot of touching, a lot of feeling, very, very hands-on.
TIM LEE: A delicate art and a intricate art?
PETER ANDERSON: It really is an intricate art.
TIM LEE: It takes about three years to become a proficient tea maker. Initially, all the trained tea makers at the Wangaratta factory were Japanese. By next year, the locals should be competent and confident enough to go it alone. So there’s much riding on Paul Standford’s senses.
PAUL STANFORD: Mainly a good, nice strong colour and flavour, nice strong flavours.
TIM LEE: Tea grower Erin Angelini says the early harvest tea, the most sought-after of all, certainly warrants its status at the top of the tree.
ERIN ANGELINI, ALPINE TEA COMPANY: It’s like a savoury flavour and in the tea it sort of makes a creamy, brothy, sweet flavour. Because it’s got lots of antioxidants and sugars and amino acids, it has lots of depth to the first harvest. So every brewing and taste you can actually taste different flavours in the tea.
TIM LEE: So what must be avoided?
PAUL STANFORD: Tannins and amino acids and nothing that’s sort of overcooked or anything that’s burnt indicates that it might be fermenting.
TIM LEE: In short, no red colouring, which indicates the tea’s oxidising, because its absence is what makes green tea green.
GEORGE BAREL: Black tea and green tea, same plant, the camellia sinensis, but it’s just a process in the factory is different. Green tea’s basically not fermented, black tea is fermented. Yeah, it’s just a process.
TIM LEE: But don’t think for a moment that growing tea is easy. Ito En may be a corporate giant with an annual turnover rivalling that of Coca Cola, but there were no easy shortcuts.
PETER ANDERSON: They looked at China, they looked at South America, they even looked at New Zealand. But they ended up coming here first to look at Victoria. They were invited by the Victorian Government to look in the valleys and they started researching around Alexandria.
TIM LEE: That was in 1993. Two years later, trial plantings began, and with a handful of farmers signed up, commercial plantings took place five years later.
PETER ANDERSON: And we haven’t planted any tea since 2006, but once the tea is in the ground, it takes eight years for it to become fully mature, so it won’t be until sort of 2014 season till we can realise 100 per cent of the yield from our current plantings. But it’s hoped in the next few years we can plant some extra farms and slowly expand from there.
TIM LEE: In 2004 the $10 million factory was unveiled. It’s now capable of processing 18 tonnes of tea a day, but for the time being, that has put a cap on new plantings. Extra tea would require another factory. Ito En’s arrival was most timely. Several of the region’s nine tea farmers formerly grew tobacco.
GEORGE BAREL: Our main production was tobacco and it was the only thing we were doing. It’s a high-intensive crop, tobacco.
TIM LEE: Australia’s tobacco industry and it’s growers were also being squeezed by cheap labour countries and the industry was besieged on a range of fronts because of the harmful health effects of smoking. In 2006, the industry accepted a Federal Government buy-out.
Dave Angelini could also see that tobacco’s time was up and has no regrets about the end of the industry.
DAVE ANGELINI, ALPINE TEA COMPANY: Per hectare, I haven’t done the sums, but for peace of mind, one, it’s good for you, green tea, and two, the labour input isn’t huge. I run this 4.2 hectares by myself and it’s not a full-time job. So, with respect to that, it’s really good, because tobacco was quite labour intensive. The way we did it back in 1995 when we got out, you know, it was a 13-month season, so it was pretty tough on us.
But this is quite easy. Good lifestyle now. So, that’s what I’m after. That’s why I came back to the farm for: a good lifestyle. So, I think I’m close to achieving that.
TIM LEE: Green tea has allowed the trained engineer to follow his heart, but today Dave Angelini is anxious to see his plantation picked.
The trouble is, there’s only one tea harvester and he has to wait in line.
DAVE ANGELINI: I’m just basically taking a sample to send off to the factory so they can test quality parameters, so they can schedule in the optimum time for harvest. They’ll be checking things such as fibre and amino acid content, which is the main two quality parameters that we’re judged on.
TIM LEE: With growing knowledge of how to grow it here, the quality of the local product is on the rise. This tea tends to have a milder taste than its Japanese counterpart, but head office is happy with the product. And it has the benefit of being produced during the Northern Hemisphere’s off-season.
The tea plant is part of the camellia family and needs constant pruning. Like wine, the final taste and quality depends on soil and climate. It’s no coincidence that the world’s best tea comes from high altitudes, where the plant grows slowly, concentrating the flavours, but running the risk of frost.
PETER ANDERSON: Since we first opened our factory in 2004, we’ve had frosts every single September and October, and it damaged the company quite badly some years. In 2006-2007 we lost 90 per cent of our crop.
TIM LEE: Now almost all the farmers have installed frost protection and it’s already paying dividends. The locals have been watching with great interest.
DAVE ANGELINI: It is the first year that we’ve managed to produce the first harvest for Ito En, which is fantastic. They’ve invested a lot of money in allowing the farmers to put in frost protection systems. So, most of the farmers have got that in and, you know, we’re looking at a really good harvest. So, we’re pretty excited.
PETER ANDERSON: It probably accounts for about 50 per cent of their income for the year. So if they happen to get frosted, it’s quite detrimental to what they can achieve this year.
TIM LEE: The Angelinis are also selling their tea directly through farmers’ markets as far away as Melbourne and by mail order and with the blessing of the parent company.
DAVE ANGELINI: They said, “Yeah, no worries, go for it. We want the Australian public to know about Australian green tea.”
ERIN ANGELINI, ALPINE TEA COMPANY: I think a lot of people know that green tea’s good for you, and a lot of people are not expecting green tea to taste good.
TIM LEE: The Angelinis say that this high-quality tea is much nicer tasting than the ordinary, but the parent company is not buying into talk of its possible health benefits.
PETER ANDERSON: People are always talking about its antioxidant effects, fighting cancer and that type of thing. We just want to make a high-quality green tea people can enjoy. Ito En is a world leader in green tea, especially Japanese green tea, and learning directly from the Japanese has been a great experience.
TIM LEE: The second harvest tea, grown in the full summer sun from early January to March, has its own distinctive flavour.
ERIN ANGELINI: Peppermint tea sort of gives you a refreshing taste to your mouth That’s what our pure green’s like – it’s very clear, refreshing tea.
TIM LEE: And if that’s not to your taste, Dave and Erin Angelini produce a roasted tea.
ERIN ANGELINI: It’s like a puffed rice tea, so it’s a woody, nutty tea. I like to say that our first harvest is our intriguing tea, because it’s got all those different things in it to make an intriguing taste; our pure green’s our refreshing tea, and our roasted’s our comforting tea.
TIM LEE: While Erin Angelini still needs an off-farm job, their sideline is expanding and the couple is now looking for national distributors.
Ito En’s sales are also on the rise.
PETER ANDERSON: Initially we were set up just to supply the Japanese domestic market. Various things happened since it was set up, and a lot of our tea now goes to North America in bottles, but we’re now also selling small amounts into Australia, so there’s various tea shops, Queensland, NSW, Sydney and just – a shop in Perth has just taken it on. So, we’re selling only loose leaf tea at the moment, but we’ve also started importing ready-to-drink beverages from our parent company.
TIM LEE: This year, the company will launch an organic green tea and begin producing tea bags.
The tradition of picking, curing and drinking tea leaves dates back more than 3,000 years to China. This fragrant evergreen shrub continues to find new horizons.
ERIN ANGELINI: I still find that talking to people, they’re just absolutely amazed that tea is grown in Victoria. And they’re absolutely amazed that then that tea is sold to Japan. It’s – people are gobsmacked.