In the rich Mountain Top Estate, volcanic soils of Nimbin, some of Australia’s finest coffee is being grown by pioneers of the boutique coffee industry, and then processed onsite. baking business chats with mountain top estate all-rounder bernard Rooney about life on the land and how it all works.
Tell us a little bit about the mountain top.
Mountain Top Estate was originally set up by Andrew Ford in 1997 and I think the oldest tree here now is 17 years old. Andrew was ahead of his game and basically spearheaded the boutique coffee industry in Australia. We have about 80,000 trees here and we’re averaging about 15 tonnes per year now because the trees are older. We’re in the process of replanting and experimenting with different pruning regimes, and we’re working with the local coffee association and the university to develop different varieties.
You grow your coffee pesticide-free. what are the challenges that come with this?
We’re lucky here that we don’t have pests and really, there’s no serious fungi or anything that we would have to spray the trees for. The only thing we do is because the trees are not shade grown, we give them some nitrogen through the irrigation. We’re always cautious of pests and keep our finger on the pulse of what’s going on. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before something gets here. It would be very difficult with the amount of trees we have to control anything. But, we prune lightly and with the irrigation system we have in place, the trees are never under much stress. We try to keep the mulch up to them – our pruning gets mulched back in under the trees and we use manure, which provides nitrogen again.
Once harvested, what’s involved in processing the coffee?
We have a state-of-the-art facility here and there wouldn’t be another one in Australia up to the standard we have for processing. The designer of the processor came out from Brazil and they also came out and installed it. It took about two years to put it in, so there was a lot of attention to detail.
We have a wet mill and a dry mill. With wet milling, you’re doing it all in the one day. The harvester gets it off the tree and you have to get that outside fruit off to get to the seed, which is what we call the bean, and so we run that through a flotation tank. The red bean is just ripe so that’ll sink to the bottom. The coffee that has been on the trees for a while has shrunk, making it a bit lighter, so it’ll float. That’s how we get our two distinctive types of beans, the Bunja and the Bin 478.
The beans are dried after they’ve been through the water processor. Drying them down quickly is very important. Once they’re dry we hold them for a couple of months – they need time to settle in the dry mill before we start processing. Most of what we do after growing is processing, we don’t do a lot of roasting.
Can you tell us a bit about the type of bean you grow and the flavours of the coffee?
The Bunja is the bean that floats so that’s a very fruity, sweet and intense sort of coffee, so it’s very good with milk. The Bin 478 is the red cherry so it has a lot more nuances, it’s a lot more subtle and we get better prices for that, especially with overseas clients. The origin of the bean in the Kenyan K7. The K7 is grown all around this region as it’s the best one for the area.
What makes the area perfect for growing coffee and what’s the harvest like?
We’re on what we call a sweet spot here. Volcanic soils can be of all different shapes and sizes but here we’ve got that nice red soil and it’s quite an old soil, it’s well drained and it’s good loaming soil. It’s full of trace elements and minerals.
In terms of the harvest, because we’re low latitude, we get one flowering per season and therefore one harvest, whereas on the equator they can get two, or even up in North Queensland they can get two. So what that means is for us it’s a very slow ripening and it gets a very fruity, very sweet product and we have different temperatures so it just slows the whole thing down.
What do you think makes Mountain Top coffee so special?
It’s not only unique Australian coffee in this latitude, it has unique flavours. It’s smooth, low caffeine, but this particular patch of soil in this part of the world is, again, unique. You get a sweeter, fruitier coffee than what you would otherwise.