The history of tea in Australia & our vision for the future Part 1.
Australia is known internationally for its high-quality products, impeccable standards, as well as our green and clean practices. Tea, however, is not usually one of the products that most people would think of as Australian, in fact, most Australians would be surprised to know that tea grew here at all.
Over the past 20 years, the Australian Tea Industry, has been evolving and gaining momentum on their own merit, winning awards, year after year, nationally and abroad. Currently tea farming is an emerging industry, a quiet achiever of the agricultural export market. Be that as it may, if the visions of a few mavericks come to fruition, Australia may very well become a major player in the tea world. So, how did we get here?
To understand our current situation, we must go back to where it all started, to a time when tea culture was deeply ingrained in our social fabric and how tea, as a commodity, played an important role in our economic history.
During the 19th Century, colonial Australians were THE world’s highest tea consumers, knocking back an average of 4 to 5 kilograms of tea per person (compared with today’s average of just 0.8kg ). Then, mostly green tea was drunk, amongst other commonly available Chinese teas. Additionally, many of Australia’s early colonists grew and made their own tea.
James Inglis, was a politician, author and agent of the ‘Calcutta Tea Syndicate’, he was also the true pioneer of black teas in Australia- successfully promoting and introducing black Indian and Ceylonese tea to the colonies, during the 1880’s. It was also his company- James Inglis & Co- that marketed the brand Billy Tea, using an altered version of Banjo Paterson's song Waltzing Matilda for advertising- which later came to be known as Australia's "unofficial national anthem".
Drinking tea, such as ‘billy tea’, has become such a fundamental and intrinsic part of the Australian culture. “The billy was cheap, lightweight and versatile. But its elevation to symbolic status stemmed from more than its practicality. Australians invested it with human qualities such as reliability, hospitality and egalitarianism — qualities that were celebrated as distinctly Australian. The billy became a source of comfort and companionship; ultimately it became a mate.”
By the time World War II broke, some people were drinking between 8 to 12 cups of tea a day, and when the government started to ration their tea- which severely curtailed tea consumption- the general population was displeased and disgruntled. Members of the Australian public wrote, relentlessly, to their parliamentarians and Prime Minister complaining about the tea ration, “Never mind the Japanese invasion, this tea rationing is totally unrealistic and unreasonable..“ -one such letter reads. In fact, the historical records show that during that period, there was a surge in petty crime, with various reports of chests of tea being stolen from homes, and even the theft of an unattended truck loaded with tea. Another report recounts how police were called to break up a riot, which erupted in Melbourne, when a Bushell’s truck overturned, prompting people to rush onto the street to fill their hats with tea.
Eventually a ration black market emerged and thrived. People were swapping their other coupons for tea coupons. And people whom did not drink much tea, surrendered their tea coupons, for other services.
In 1970, Allan Maruff was producing tea commercially on his estate at Nerada, near Innisfail. Nerada Estates, is now the largest commercial producer of tea in Australia. Then a few years later in 1978, Daintree Tea company, was started by the Nicholas family, on the Cubbagudta Plantation, situated in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest, in Far North Queensland.
Although there’s a rich past between Australia and tea, it was only around 20 years ago, that Australia’s potential, as a producer, was first recognized- in a larger scale- by Japanese tea companies, looking for a place to grow their tea during the off season. Together with the Department of Primary Industries, several test plantations were set up with Japanese tea plants and using Japanese processing methods. Due to the nature of this original set up, all the tea produced from these plantations, was being shipped back to Japan to be sold under Japanese brands. In the last couple of years, several Australian tea companies were able to incorporate some of this tea grown nationally, in their own collections, as a way to introduce these products to the Australian audience, to help create a market focused on what Australia has to offer, and ultimately grow the industry.
We have seen this happen before, with the Australian Wine Industry, that grew from a grassroots movement to the international stage, needless to say that we- in the tea world- collectively believe that the same is possible, for tea. End of part 1