Australia's best black tea is grown on the Sunshine Coast
A SUNSHINE Coast hinterland tea grower whose first crop last year won multiple awards will in the next few days start harvesting its second haul.
Located between Maleny and Woodford at Bellthorpe, Arakai Estate is a family business run by Brendon Collins, his wife Kristie and mum and dad Lorraine and Darryl.
Arakai Estate scooped the Australian Tea Masters Golden Leaf Awards for the best Australian black tea and Australian green teas earlier this year.
They also rose above international entrants to win the best overall green tea category.
"We harvested and processed all of our first spring cut just in time to enter in the competition," Brendon said.
"It was our first commercial harvest and first use of all our machinery here. We got in just in time."
Brendon's parents bought the Bellthorpe property in 2000 but it was when he returned from travelling in South and Central America the family started looking for a new product to grow and lit upon tea.
"What originally gave us the idea (was) ...we saw it on a Landline episode about farmers in Victoria working with Japanese companies," he said.
"That was really the thing that made us go 'maybe we should look at tea'."
The subtropical climate and fertile soils of the Sunshine Coast hinterland meant the environment was a good match for tea growing, Brendon said.
But Australian tea growing is in its infancy, so the Collins family connected with farmers in Taiwan and tea processors Japan and China to decide on growing, harvesting and processing techniques.
The tea bushes are planted in a hedge and from next week will be harvested every five to six weeks, with lots of pruning, cleaning, fertilising and weeding in between, he said.
The same species of Camellia are used for both green and black tea, but processed differently to achieve the different flavour and appearance, Brendon said.
Six green tea varieties are produced on-site as well as a black tea.
"We had to put in our own processing facility here," he said.
"It has to be processed quite quickly or else the leaf will degrade or it starts to rot."
The special machinery came with manuals in Chinese, which had to be translated, and the tea is processed Taiwan-style.
"Green tea is steamed for five minutes before processing starts," Brendon explained.
"That steaming is what locks it into being green. It stops the oxidisation - (stops) any more breakdown of the leaf.
"For black tea, it gets rolled first, then put into a fermentation chamber - a big humidity and temperature-controlled chamber for two hours.
"It goes in green and comes out copper brown. That warm, humid environment accelerates the breakdown of the leaf."
The Collins family's 400-acre property boasts 300 acres of native forest, 500 avocado trees, commercial timber plantations using native species and 5km of tea bushes grown in hedges.
In recognition of his commercial tree growing efforts, which involves tending 10-12 native rainforest species for cabinet making timbers, Brendon and Darryl also won an Queensland Tree Farmer of the Year Award from Australian Forest Growers in 2012.
The Collins family works in sync with the seasons to harvest and tend different parts of their enterprise: tea harvesting in spring, forest tending and timber cutting in winter.
"Most of it we just learn as we go," Brendon said. "The internet is a great resource for learning anything you want now."
Winning the awards was great for the business, Brendon said.
"The award really kick-started us into having packets and labels," he said.
"We didn't have anything at that point.
"We just entered into it hoping for the best and it really pushed us to get everything in place."
You can buy Arakai Estate tea online at www.arakaiestate.com.au and at Maleny IGA and Maple Street Co-op in Maleny. Avocados grown on the Collins' family farm are sold wholesale by SunnySpot Packhouse.
If you have timber you need milled and can bring it to the Bellthorpe property, contact Brendon on (07) 5496 5005.