green tea Tawonga Victoria

Green Tea for Tawonga

With a similar climate to some of Japan’s best tea-farming regions, Tawonga in Victoria’s North East is proving an ideal place to grow the perfect cuppa.

If you had offered Davide Angelini a green tea a decade ago, he admits he probably would have screwed his nose up at it.

But now he enjoys a cup of green tea grown on his Tawonga family farm that was once covered in tobacco.

“I used to look out and see tobacco growing, now it is green tea and I think it is a nice sight,” he says.

Davide and wife Erin, both 37, are involved in a joint venture with Japanese green tea giants Ito En, the largest producers in Japan. Tea plants grown chemical free cover 4.2 hectares of the chemical free 50-hectare farm in North East Victoria’s Kiewa Valley, nestled at the foot of Mount Bogong.

They also market their own green tea under the Alpine Tea Co label to value add to the family income, run 35 beef cattle and sell chestnuts from 130 trees at the farm gate and farmers’ markets.

Their venture into the green tea market started about eight years ago when Davide was looking for something different to do on the farm after his father retired in the mid 1990s.

After growing up on the family farm, Davide, the second youngest of five children, studied mechanical engineering in Melbourne then worked at the Australian Defence Industry Munitions factory at Benalla. When his parents retired from farming, Davide was keen to return to the land

“The property was too small for cattle so I had a good look around and when I heard that Ito En was canvassing people to grow green tea, I thought why not?,” he says.

“I can’t say I really knew what I was doing at first but I have learnt a lot over the past years and it seems to be going pretty well.”

He says he felt both excited and a little anxious when he decided to go ahead with the venture.

“Excited – because it was something new and anxious because I was going into something unknown, but I had good back up with Ito En,” he says. The company offered a great deal in 2002 to help novice green tea farmers.

“I only paid $100 for about 60,000 tea plants – it was a one off offer for the initial plants for farmers who were considered the pioneers of green tea production in Australia,” Davide says.

He planted 2.7 hectares of the Camellia Sinensis variety- yabukita- a strain of green tea which is one of three suited to Australian conditions.

In 2004 he planted another 1.5 ha plants, making in total 4.2 hectares. “I planted at a density of 14,000 tea plants per hectare and at full maturity, which is about eight years; we are conservatively expecting a total yield of 18 tonnes of fresh green leaves over three harvests and that’s about 1.8 million cups of tea for my 4.2 ha,” he says.

“What was good about the venture was that we had a guaranteed return for the first seven years regardless of how much tea we produced which gave all the farmers involved a feeling of security.”

Davide and Erin, who have two young sons, Joshua, 5 and Lachlan, 3, are among 10 farmers who are part of the green tea venture in the North East, which is considered particularly suitable for green tea production.

The Tawonga region is on the same latitude as the main tea growing locations in Japan, where he is planning to visit in April to see their operations first hand. According to Davide, there are both similarities and differences between growing tobacco and green tea.

“The difference is green tea is a perennial plant and tobacco is an annual– the similarity is that they are both a row crop, which was great because with little modification much of the equipment for tobacco was utilised in the early days,” he says.

As with any new venture there have been some challenges to overcome, namely severe spring frosts which burnt the first harvest, and African black beetles that would ring bark the tea plants in the first two years as well as competition from weeds.

“I would say we lost nearly 30 per cent of plants in the first year due to the beetles,” he says.

“Cockatoos and magpies had a go at snipping and pulling them out as well, but once the plants are established they are pretty hardy.”

Davide says Ito On went out of their way to help and understand the growers faced concerns and spent $2 million helping fix the frost situation. Pop up sprinklers now alleviate frost damage.

The winter of 2003 is one Davide won’t forget and Erin even more so. He and his then fiancé, planted more than 11,000 plants by hand. “I thought it was great weather for planting the tea but Erin on the other hand could hardly feel her fingers, even through ski gloves, and was certain that it was snowing,” he says. “After a while the clouds parted and revealed snow at about 500m- we are at 420m and that was the end of her helping me for that day.”

One of the most demanding aspects of tea growing is constant fertilising. Davide says it’s a bit like “feeding an animal”- the plants require so much regular fertilising. “I use high nitrogen based fertilisers and the plants thrive on them. The fertilisers used are based on the stage of growth and the time in the season,” he says. “I use a slow release in early spring, again in late November and in late March. Sulphate of ammonia is used two weeks before harvest to boost amino acid content, sulphate and potash is used after harvest to promote new growth.”

As a sideline the Angelinis buy back tea from Ito En and market it under their own Alpine Tea Co brand which they sell at farmers markets in Melbourne, Bright and selected shops. “Our tea is refreshing yet has a mellow aroma, and balance of sweet and bitter taste,” Davide says.

“Yabukita is also particularly high in antioxidants, providing many other health benefits.” The couple has been rewarded for their efforts and last year won the New and Emerging Agribusiness award presented by the Australian Alpine Valleys Agribusiness Forum. “It was pleasing to get that recognition because we were doing something different and new and as well as growing green tea for the Japanese company, we are also value adding with our own brand of green tea,” he says.

The tea is harvested three or four times a year with the main harvest in October and other harvests about 40 days apart. But it is the first harvest that is the most important and valuable. “The first harvest has a distinctive taste and greater concentration of nutrients compared to the later harvests – the first is the most crucial as it is potentially more than 50 per cent of your harvest in tonnage and of a higher quality compared to the other harvests,” Davide says. “The first harvest is important as the plants contain a higher percentage of antioxidants and amino acids which are so important in green tea.”

Harvest Time

Davide says the best way to explain how tea is grown is that the plants are similar to a box hedge and only the freshest leaves are picked from the top of the plant each harvest. “The new leaves grow out of the canopy,” he says. The leaves are harvested by a mechanical harvester imported from Japan and supplied by Ito En. “I describe it as a glorified hedge trimmer with a vacuum on the end that is fan forced which sucks up the new freshly cut leaves,” he says. The plant produces about 1500 to 2000 new shoots per square meter per harvest and each shoot is harvested with at least 3 leaves.

“The harvesting process is easy and takes about 2 to 2 1/2 days and we harvest up to four times a year. “It takes two of us to do the harvest, I drive the harvester and Lee, an employee, moves the bins around once they are full.” The bins are then put on a waiting truck and transported to the Ito En processing plant at Wangaratta, where the leaves they are steamed for 35-45 seconds to kill off any fermentation enzymes.

“They are then rolled and slowly dried over a five hour period in a manner that mimics what the same way that the Japanese emperor’s tea makers would have once done by hand,” Davide says.

“At this stage it is considered crude green tea as the moisture content is 5 per cent and it still contains the stem which is between the leaves.” It is then vacuum sealed, put into cold storage and shipped to Japan. When it comes to their own green tea, Ito En dries a proportion of their tea to 2 per cent, which increases the shelf life considerably, and they also have the stems removed. The tea is then taken back to the Angelinis where it is packaged under the Alpine Tea Co label, some of the tea is also further value added by subjecting it to a short high temperature roast to impart a distinctively different flavour.

“It is all from the same crop and is all harvested and processed at the same place but we request some of the tea to be redirected during the drying process for us to value add,” Davide says.

He admits there have been a few sceptics about his venture, but on the whole he’s been well supported by family, friends and now the green tea drinking public.

At this early stage the financial rewards aren’t great, according to Davide. “The price at the farm gate can vary per tonne from $50 to $1200 depending on the quality, and we are very much still in the building stage of Alpine Tea Co,” he says. “The crop won’t make me wealthy, especially with only 4.2 hectares but if you had 10 hectares you could make a reasonable living. “Our own tea is received doing quite well by people who try it but we still have a long way to go, at this stage and Erin still has to work off farm to supplement our income.” Davide says there are about nine contracted growers in the area who get together regularly to compare notes. He is keen to dispel the public perception that green tea is “yucky and bitter.” “If the tea is fresh and you brew it correctly it is delicious and the health benefits are just amazing,” he says.

The Low Down

David and Erin Angelini grow green tea on their property at Tawonga for the Japanese company Ito En and also manufacture their own label.

Ito En was founded 45 years ago by the Honor family with its headquarters in Shikoku in south central Honshu.

The Angelinis are one of nine farmers in the region to take up the offer to grow green tea. Ito En supplied all the plants for $100 for the first planting of 2.7ha in 2002 and the follow up of 1.5ha in 2004.

Density is at a rate of 14,000 tea plants per hectare. They produce about 18 tonnes of dried tea each year and reserve 1 to 1.5 tonnes of the leaves to make tea under their own label, Alpine Tea Co.

They sell three teas, First Harvest Green Tea, Pure Green Tea and Roasted Green Tea at Farmers’ markets, and online at www.alpineteaco.com.au

The Angelinis also run 35 Angus breeders and grow chestnuts.