From crop to cup: the life of an Australian coffee roaster pioneer


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John and Rebecca Zentveld walking through their coffee plantation farm

AgriFutures Australia has been profiling Australian farmers in the lead-up to National Agriculture Day. Today we meet farm pioneer roaster Rebecca Zentveld who explains that truly fine coffee is grown and roasted right here in Australia.

Byron Bay in Northern NSW is the gateway to beautiful beach fronts, lush hinterland, subtropical rainforests. It is also home to coffee farm pioneer and roaster Rebecca (Bec) Zentveld who continues to achieve many firsts in the hills behind Byron Bay – which, it turns out, has the terroir and perfect sub-tropical cooler microclimate to grow truly fine coffee.

Coffee, which has no pests and diseases, is presently grown in select pockets only across Australia. Besides Bryon Bay, Northern Rivers, coffee is also grown in the Tablelands behind Cairns Queensland, and pockets of good soil and subtropical conditions across South East Queensland but has potential to grow to other areas of Australia.

“Being so few in number, we are genuinely friendly and supportive of new growers,” said Bec.

“There is room for more! Australian needs more growers and we want them to grow well – and grow quality. That is good for all of us, to showcase to the world the high standard of coffee we can grow here. We really do share our developments and innovations amongst coffee growers and continue to seek and support research for the good of the wider coffee industry to help it grow into the future,” said Bec.

“We trade ideas on sustainability, cover crops, pruning, and the like as well research opportunities arising for the good of the industry.”

AgriFutures Australia has identified the Australian coffee industry with strong growth potential as part of the AgriFutures Emerging Industries program and is currently investing in three coffee industry projects focused on the selection of best performing cultivars for improved productivity, assessing quality parameters to define the value of Australian-origin coffee as a global-niche product and creating a plan for a compelling industry-wide environmental sustainability system.

“We are really proud to be chosen as a rural industry, worthy of Government support – a crop that has a good future, deserving of suitable research into new varietals, terroir and processing quality parameters; as well as identifying  sustainability factors that will help ensure our solid future of high value and interest to  new growers,” said Bec.

John and Rebecca Zentveld walking through their coffee plantation farm


The Zentveld family story

In the late 80’s the Zentveld family were the first landowners to take up coffee growing seriously in the NSW Northern Rivers. Taking advice from the NSW Department of Agriculture, they kickstarted the local NSW coffee industry.

“In our early 20’s we left Melbourne, to start our new life on the family coffee farm at Byron Bay. John gaining a good position as Programmer with Southern Cross University in Lismore and I set about putting my savings into setting up a wholesale coffee roasting business on our family farm to present Australian coffee at its best. It was very much an unusual profession for someone at 23, but I wasn’t daunted. John and I both grew up with entrepreneurial families.” said Bec.

Living in Melbourne, Bec learnt to drink good coffee and pay attention to the nuances – so it set the benchmarks for flavour and complexity that she was striving for. Bec set about learning through trial and tastings how to roast and unlock the flavour potential of Australian grown coffee.

“In the early 90’s I was told numerous times that ‘the best coffee is Italian”. Well how times have changed! We’ve really grown and developed along with the rise of Australian roasters and consumers who are increasingly quite discerning.”

Bec is now a long-standing pioneer of offering Australian estate coffee. She’s been dubbed the Roast Mistress or Coffee Queen, but whatever the title – is always focused on the end game which is “to please tastebuds”. Roasting for flavour profile consistently. Vacuum packing for lasting freshness.

Bec is particularly chuffed that after the drought and fire season of 2019-20, the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chose Zentvelds coffee and chocolate beans to be sent to the Australian Embassies of Paris, London and Kuala Lumpur. NSW Government House has also been a fine supporter of NSW produce, choosing Zentveld’s Ernesto and Reserve 01 for many years now.

As President of the Australian Subtropical Coffee Association (ASTCA), Bec says growing coffee is not dissimilar to growing grapes.

“Firstly it is about the soil and terroir: the micro climate. They are the building blocks for quality. So choosing suitable land is obviously key,” said Bec. “Then as growers- just like vineyards, it takes time and hard work to nurture the vineyard for years and that’s exactly what my parents-in-law did 30 years ago with coffee. You’ve got to focus on quality across all the stages. They were at the forefront of the developing industry of growers – investing in a harvester and processing equipment and figuring out all the nuances of quality – the determinants along the way from seed to green bean.”

An entire coffee experience

It is in the roasting and blend development, (and the sharing the story of coffee from seed to cup) – that Bec’s shine. Taking the ‘washed’ and ‘naturals’ (raw coffee) from their farm and others, and creating roast profiles and interesting blends for cafes, guesthouses and home consumers.

The Zentveld family are quite unique in offering the entire coffee experience from crop to cup.

“We were the first proper coffee farm in NSW and I am proud to have value-added to the crop, and encouraged many a new grower over the years by roasting well- really bringing out its natural sweetness.” said Bec. There’s chocolatey flavours too – inherent in the rich red soil and cooler climate.”

Eco-tourism has become a growing part of the business. Especially in COVID times.  They are responding to demand by developing a coffee house along with revamped training room and office to become a specialised space to welcome visitors. “We have created a real Australian farm experience where people are welcome to step out amongst the coffee trees, taste the fruit fresh off the trees, and learn a few facts about the processes coffee goes through, before we get to take a first sip. It helps people to not take their daily cup for granted – experiencing where coffee comes from and what it goes through. It can’t help that the land is so picturesque. “

Meanwhile, the online store business is picking up orders from across Australia and beyond. Small orders have been sent off to Portland USA and Japan, but they say their heart is in having Australians enjoy Australian coffee – “so we are not seeking export orders.”

“We are happy to keep Australia’s finest, here and while I don’t want to be parochial, I am rather proud that with so little grown here, why not offer it direct to home consumers to enjoy – they are seeking it after all, and shouldn’t miss out to exports.”

What does it take to be a modern farmer? 

Your eye always has to be on the end game and for us and our consumers, and that is making beautiful coffee, said Bec.

“The landscape, soil and microclimate produce the elements of quality – but the farmer needs to nurture that through looking after the coffee from seed to tree and soil care, through to harvest and processing to raw ‘green bean’ coffee. All stages affect quality. Growers need to maximise their profit potential through offering a truly high-quality coffee, to pay for their efforts and compete against much cheaper produced, imported beans. “Poor quality coffee just won’t do and wouldn’t be worthwhile.”

Bec has led the way to show that drawing out the flavours of Australian coffee is a worthwhile pursuit – maximising the crop to its best potential and meeting demand.

Coffee is more than just drinking something out of a cup. It is much more complicated than people think (the journey of coffee to their cup) but for us, it is about putting a smile on the people’s faces when they drink our coffee,” said Bec.

For more about AgriFutures Australia Emerging Industries go to:

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