Coffee grows wild in the highland forests of Ethiopia, Sudan and northern Kenya as an understorey tree. The stimulating effect of the coffee bean has been recognised for almost 2,000 years, and today, coffee is the world’s most widely traded tropical agricultural commodity. Coffee is sought and valued the world over as a brewed beverage.
The coffee tree is an evergreen woody perennial that produces green fruit called cherries, which become red when ripe and bear up to two beans (or seeds). The cherries are harvested from the tree and processed to extract the beans, which are dried to produce dry green beans, the tradable commodity of the coffee tree. Dry green beans may be marketed directly to wholesalers; roasted for sale as whole beans or ground coffee for the café and retail markets; or roasted, processed and powdered to produce instant coffee.
World wide, coffee drinkers are becoming more discerning about how and where their coffee is produced, as well as spending more time preparing and drinking coffee. Boutique-style and ‘clean and green’ are strong selling points for Australian coffee in domestic and overseas markets.
The tropical areas of Queensland and subtropical areas of south east Queensland and north east New South Wales are the most suitable locations for coffee production due to temperature, water availability, well-draining soils and freedom from frost.
Coffee plantations in Australia vary in size from a few hectares to 20–40 hectares. Trees are planted at densities of 2,500–4,000 trees per hectare and reach full production in four or five years. A mature plantation will yield about 1.0–2.0 tonnes per hectare of dry green beans.
The modern coffee industry of Australia began in the 1980s with the advent of mechanical harvesting. As the Australian coffee industry matures, it is identifying and implementing more efficient farming systems and more sophisticated processing techniques, enabling consistent production of high quality coffee beans.
Facts and figures
- In 2011–12, just under 50 Australian coffee growers produced about 1,000 tonnes of dry green beans
- A mature tree yields 1.5–4.0 kilograms of ripe fruit each year, which processed and dried results in about 250–600 grams of dry green beans
- 25,000 trees are needed for a sustainable business
- In 2011–12, Australia imported about 67,000 tonnes of dry green beans, nearly 8,000 tonnes of roasted beans, and almost 10,000 tonnes of dry or concentrated coffee
- Caffeine is produced by the coffee plant as a defense mechanism against pests and diseases
- Australian coffee is 10–15% lower in caffeine than much overseas coffee probably because it is grown in a comparatively stress-free environment without the pest and disease pressure of other coffee producing countries
- Depending on maintenance and pruning, the productive life of a coffee tree in the subtropics is about 10–15 years
Coffee production in Australia is a developing industry, which began (in its modern form) in the 1980s and 90s. As at 2013, industry experts estimate there are no more than 50 commercial coffee growers in Australia, producing coffee on a total of 300–350 hectares. In north Queensland, there are about seven growers producing coffee on 175 hectares; and in north east New South Wales and south east Queensland, there are about 40 growers producing coffee on 150 hectares. Many more landholders may grow very small plots of coffee for their own purpose, which may account for conflicting reports on numbers of coffee growers in Australia.
For the 2011–12 financial year, industry survey and Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest that Australian coffee growers produced about 1,000 tonnes of dry green beans worth AU$11 million dollars.