I hear the Cairns Highlands is at the heart of Australia’s coffee-growing culture so, as a caffeine-loving Sydneysider on holiday in far north Queensland, I scout out our home-grown gourmet coffee trail. First stop, Mareeba.
This is more than just a charming rural town: conditions here are reminiscent of the great African coffee-producing regions, where there is plenty of rain and sun. While arabica coffee, which is the only variety grown in Australia, is also cultivated in other parts of the country, 80 per cent originates in the Cairns Highlands.
The tropical coffee shrub, which grows to about 3m here, establishes a commercial crop in about five years. The bean process starts with delicate white jasmine-scented flowers that cover the tree for only three days in November. Bright red coffee cherries then take over the branches of the shrub, ripening for the next nine months. The coffee beans are the seeds of these fruit.
Harvesting takes place in winter each year. Each plantation produces only one annual crop, with a mature coffee shrub bearing 8kg of ripe red cherries. Each of these cherries has two seeds, or coffee beans, and it takes a whopping 8kg of processed cherries to produce 1kg of roasted beans. That means each shrub produces a single kilogram of roasted beans a year.
The Coffee Works at Mareeba is the largest roaster of premium Australian beans. Entering this place is like diving into a Disneyland of coffee. The overwhelmingly rich, dark aroma so seduces visitors that few walk out empty-handed (tastings, sales and mail order are all available).
The Coffee Works’ newest attraction, the adjoining Coffee World, houses a collection of more than 2000 items of coffee and tea paraphernalia and memorabilia (pictured) that span six continents and three centuries, making it one of the world’s largest collections on the subject. Aladdin-style coffee pots jostle for space in the crowded shrine. Rare and highly valuable artefacts range from the ugly to the ornate, the simple to the intricate, the common to the quirky.
Australian coffee expert Ian Bersten, who amassed the collection during a lifetime in the coffee industry, made more than 50 trips to Paris in his mission to trace the evolution of every style of coffee machine. One of the most valuable is an 1872 steam engine-style porcelain machine by French designer Jean Baptiste Toselli.
Rob and Annie Webber, who established the Coffee Works, are the first to display Bersten’s collection in its entirety. The couple, industry pioneers in their own right, have been roasting and supplying gourmet Australian coffee for more than 20 years. Their roasting business grew out of a local operation they started in 1998, selling premium roasted coffee at a fruit and vegetable market in Cairns. They built an impressive list of retail clients that included David Jones and Myer stores, which they continue to supply today.
Four of the Coffee Works’ blends are of 100 per cent Australian coffee: Australian Gold, Black Mountain, Highland Pearls and Queensland Blue. There is also a wide range of imported beans, including organic and special blends.
The tiny Highland Pearls turns out to have smooth, warmed-honey flavours with nutty overtones, while Queensland Blue is a medium-dark blend with well-balanced depth and sweetness. Those who thought such delicious coffee beans could hail only from foreign plantations quickly learn that homegrown coffee is king in the highlands above Cairns.
The near-perfect conditions attracted growers such as Ian MacLaughlin and his wife, Marion, more than 20 years ago. The MacLaughlins made their way to the Cairns Highlands from Zimbabwe via Oman and Britain. Ian is chairman of the Australian Coffee Growers Association, and the couple’s businesses, Skybury Coffee Plantation and the Australian Coffee Centre, are booming.
Skybury is the largest plantation in the area and the first to produce a commercial crop. Almost half the MacLaughlins’ coffee is exported, much of it ending up in high-end European outlets. A cafe in the shadow of Paris’s Eiffel Tower has been selling Skybury coffee for 15 years. In Britain, Sainsbury’s stores have stocked the Skybury blend for 10 years, and in 2005 it became the coffee of choice in the Houses of Parliament.
As Australia’s oldest coffee plantation, Skybury is also a great place to learn about the beloved beans. I settle into the cinema to watch a short movie about the origins of coffee and its production here at Skybury, and later join a plantation tour, strolling through the lush 146ha estate. I also visit Jaques Coffee Plantation, which recently won the Equal Golden Bean Roasters’ award for best milk-based coffee.
On my way back to Cairns, I stop to share a quick cup of Mario’s famous blend with Mario and Claudia Sorbello at Tichum Creek Coffee Farm. I return home in the comforting knowledge that most of the plantations producing world-class coffee in our north do mail order.
The Coffee Works,
136 Mason St, Mareeba.
Skybury Coffee Plantation and the Australian Coffee Centre,
Ivicevic Road, Paddy’s Green, Mareeba.
Jaques Coffee Plantation,
137 Leotta Rd, Mareeba.