Tea Journey to Kiewa Valley, VIC Aus.
Location: Victorian Alpine Region. (North-eastern Vic).
Just below Mount Bogong, the highest mountain in Victoria, tea is grown amongst the blueishgreen valleys, creating a captivating and vibrant atmosphere.
Camellia Sinensis is grown in many different countries and thanks to the advancement of technology it is possible to regulate certain factors to help the tea plant adapt to varying conditions. In spite of this, mother nature can’t be tamed and there are favourable climatic and geographic features that are inherent and propitious for quality-grown tea. So it is hardly by chance that this particular region in High Country Victoria has been chosen by Japanese tea experts.
Multi-cultural tea background.
Over many generations, green tea has been celebrated by Japanese culture and remains a meaningful daily practice. The Japanese tea industry has been at the peak of the market not only for its quality but also for its social and cultural significance.
At the beginning of the 1990’s, Japanese researchers travelled to several countries in order to find a suitable habitat to grow Japanese varieties of Camellia Sinensis. As a result of this pursuit, they discovered that Victoria’s High Country had the natural potential to imitate the much revered Japanese tea gardens.
After a decade, the planting process began with two main varieties of Camellia Sinensis known as Yabukita and Sayama Kaori. Both of these cultivars are popular in Japan, however, Yabukita is the most recognized tea crop by far.
It took time, patience and meticulous investigation of tea farming processes to succeed. After some trial and error, full production for commercial purposes began in 2014 under the management of ITO EN, a worldwide recognized Japanese tea company specialising in green tea.
Reaching the farm
In spring of November 2021, the resident tea farmer George Barel and I arranged a visit for me to tour the farm and meet the people who make it possible, in order for me to continue my tea education. The day after my birthday, I drove through several small rural towns to reach the tea farm which is approximately four and a half hours drive from my home.
My arrival was met by a pleasantly warm welcome from Antoinette, George’s wife, who led me to the tea bushes where I was introduced to George and Tim, his harvesting colleague.
I found myself contemplating the whole scenario and ready to have a conversation about tea. The two men generously explained to me facts and procedures related to the Camellia Sinensis in this region and its relationship with the Japanese tea industry. It was a perfect moment to share information, stories and different points of view. Moreover, I was right on time for being part of the most important harvest of the year: The first flush.
Even if the picking season is carried out three times a year throughout spring and summer time and each of them are significant, there is a reason to highlight the first one. Tea bushes are just arising after their winter dormancy (vernalisation); a key biological feature for survival.
During winter time, tea bushes go through a seasonal dormancy period for an average of 3 months surrounded at times by snowy mountainous peaks. This is not only caused by low temperatures (subzero) but also a sun-light shortage (photoperiod).
Under these unfavourable environmental conditions for tea plant growing, inner chemical compounds such as amino-acids and antioxidants accumulate at higher levels. Thus, concentrated flavours (better tasting) and properties are found in bigger proportions at this time of the year when the tea buds are full of energy, breaking the cold stress.
However, tea plants that face heavy frosts are not likely to survive unless a protection plan is implemented. Therefore, on George’s farm, a warm water spray irrigation system is the solution to avoid frost damage.
During 2021, this tea crop in the Alpine Region endured ten frosts whereas four is the annual average.
A mechanical harvester operated by George was going over the rows, cutting and sucking up the tea leaves towards the rear container. Once this was fully loaded, Tim was already waiting for George to unload the leaves from the harvester into a cool storage bin to prevent crushing or other damage that could lead to oxidation.
With great care, the fresh leaves are transported to the factory in Wangaratta (1 hour drive from the farm).
Now that the rows of green bushes are trimmed, the tea plants are also encouraged to keep growing and producing new leaves during the full summer sun from late December to early March, where the second harvest will be carried out.
Coming to the end of my visit to the farm, the four of us enjoyed an outdoor “smoko” just next to the tea plants. This is a traditional Australian way to refer to morning/afternoon tea. The break was accompanied by a cuppa, cake, and a nice relaxed chat.
Some of the last discussions pointed out that technology, strategies and growing procedures imported by the Japanese tea company was strongly supported by the Australian government. There was a great deal of mutual cooperation to develop the tea industry in Australia. Moreover, consistent quality improvements in tea have been recognised as imperative in terms of market competitiveness.
Although the production of tea in Australia is still relatively small compared to the main producing countries, the general consensus between the farm staff and myself is that more research about how to produce tea in sustainable ways is needed for making a quality Australian produced tea.
Towards the end of my visit I received two packages of fresh green Yabukita tea from this first flush. While writing this article, they are already being incorporated into the daily tea rituals I enjoy everyday with the benefit of the significant impression this experience left on my both personal and professional growth.