The future’s bright for Australian coffee
Byron Bay in northern NSW is the gateway to beautiful beach fronts, lush hinterland and subtropical rainforests. It’s also home to coffee farm pioneer and roaster Rebecca Zentveld (at top with husband John), who continues to achieve many firsts in the hills behind Byron Bay – which, it turns out, has the perfect terroir and microclimate to grow truly fine coffee.
Coffee has no pests or diseases here in Australia, unlike in other coffee-growing regions, but is presently only grown in select areas. Besides Bryon Bay, coffee is also grown in the Tablelands behind Cairns, and in pockets of good soil and subtropical conditions across South East Queensland. But there is potential to grow coffee in other areas of Australia.
“Being so few in number, we are genuinely supportive of new growers,” Zentveld says. “Australia needs more growers and we want them to grow well – and grow quality. That’s good for all of us, to showcase to the world the high standard of coffee we can grow here.”
AgriFutures Australia has identified the Australian coffee industry with strong growth potential as part of the AgriFutures Emerging Industries program, and is currently investing in three coffee industry projects focused on the selection of best performing cultivars for improved productivity, assessing quality to define the value of Australian-origin coffee as a global product and creating a plan for an industry-wide environmental sustainability system.
“We are really proud to be chosen as a rural industry worthy of government support,” Zentveld says. “Coffee is a crop that has a good future.”
The Zentveld family story
In the late 1980s, Zentveld’s parents-in-law were the first landowners to take up coffee growing seriously in the NSW Northern Rivers region. Taking advice from the NSW Department of Agriculture, they kickstarted the local NSW coffee industry.
In 1993, Zentveld and her husband made the move from Melbourne to the family coffee farm in Byron Bay, and established Zentveld’s coffee roastery.
“John found a good position as a programmer with Southern Cross University in Lismore, and I set about putting my savings into setting up a wholesale coffee roasting business on our family farm to present Australian coffee at its best,” Zentveld says.
“It was an unusual profession for someone at 23, but I wasn’t daunted. John and I both grew up with entrepreneurial families.”
Living in Melbourne, Zentveld learnt to drink good coffee and pay attention to the nuances – so it set the benchmarks for flavour and complexity she was striving for. She soon started learning how to roast and unlock the flavour potential of Australian grown coffee.
Zentveld is now a long-standing pioneer of Australian estate coffee. She’s been dubbed the “Roast Mistress” or “Coffee Queen”, but whatever her title, she’s always focused on the end game, which is “to please tastebuds”.
An entire coffee experience
It’s in the roasting and blend development that Zentveld shines. She takes the “washed” and “natural” (raw coffee) from her farm and others, creating roast profiles and interesting blends for cafes, guesthouses and home consumers. The Zentveld family is also quite unique in offering the entire coffee experience, from the berry through to the brew.
“We were the first proper coffee farm in NSW,” Zentveld says. “I am proud to have value-added to the crop, and encouraged many a new grower over the years by roasting well – really bringing out the coffee’s natural sweetness.”
Eco-tourism has become a growing part of the business. The Zentvelds are responding to demand by developing infrastructure to become a specialised space to welcome visitors.
“We’ve created a real Australian farm experience where people are welcome to step out among the coffee trees, taste the fruit fresh off the trees and learn a few facts about the processes coffee goes through, before we get to take a first sip,” Zentveld says. “It helps people to not take their daily cup for granted.”
What does it take to be a modern coffee farmer?
Your eye always has to be on the end game – making beautiful coffee. Everything from the landscape and soil to the microclimate produce the elements of quality. The farmer needs to nurture that by looking after the coffee from seed through to harvest, Zentveld says.
“All stages affect quality,” she explains. “Growers need to maximise their potential through offering a truly high-quality coffee, both to pay for their efforts and to compete against much more cheaply produced imported beans.”
Zentveld has led the way in demonstrating that drawing out the flavours of Australian coffee is a worthwhile pursuit, as is maximising the crop to its best potential and meeting demand.
“Coffee is so much more than just drinking something out of a cup,” she says. “The journey of coffee from crop to cup is a lot more complicated than people think. But for us, it’s about putting a smile on people’s faces.”