The Inside Word

Australian Coffee Terroir

Australians love coffee. Each year we drink more than two billion cups of extract from the roasted seeds of cherries produced by the Coffea tree and enjoy the stimulating effects of its caffeine.

The great irony of our love affair with coffee is that while it can be very successfully grown in Australia, mostly it isn’t.  Over 99% of the coffee consumed in Australia is roasted from imported green seeds (that we call beans) and major Australian cities now boast one of the most sophisticated coffee cultures worldwide.

While this presents significant market opportunities for Australian grown beans, there are many barriers to increasing the size of the industry and attracting new investors.  Understanding the unique sensory experience of Australian grown coffee is one strategy the Australian Government is exploring with the aim of positioning Australian-origin coffee as a global-niche product, highly sought after, attracting premium returns.

A team at Southern Cross University (SCU) at Lismore headed by Dr Simon Williams has been funded to define the terroir of Australian grown coffees. Like wine, coffee has a terroir associated with the variety, where it is grown and how its grown, which affects its sensory qualities.

The general consensus is that coffee grown in the tropics at high altitudes (>1000m) with low rainfall (1600mm/year) and lower average winter temperature prolongs the coffee cherry maturation period. This results in a nutritionally dense coffee seed (bean) that provides a greater concentration of chemicals/flavour to the resulting cup. Opinion is divided as to whether the same quality can be achieved in Australia’s subtropical, lower latitude, lower elevation growing regions with similar climatic conditions.

The wine industry has defined and created a formal assessment of wine terroir. But coffee currently does not have a formal definition, which is what the researchers at SCU have set out to create. Based on the terroir definition of wine, terroir is fixed once the coffee cherry is harvested. But compared to wine, coffee undergoes many more steps in its pathway to our cup that affects our final sensory experience. After a mature red cherry is harvested, it is processed, roasted, and brewed, with each of these steps having a significant impact on the experience of terroir.

The scientific team at SCU will ultimately develop biochemical markers associated with terroir, which is the outcome they have been funded for. But another important outcome of their research from an Australian coffee industry perspective is the recognition of the importance of processing methods, roast profile, grind size, and brew methods on the consumer’s ultimate experience.  

This gives Australian coffee growers much scope to partner with roasters and cafes to uniquely combine varietal, environmental and agricultural parameters, with both harvest and post-harvest methods to create a unique cup of coffee, reminiscent of the place the coffee was produced.

This sophistication may finally take coffee grown in Australia from its first humble plantings believed to be at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane in 1832 to a vibrant industry producing a beverage highly sought after by coffee lovers world-wide.

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