If I say tea, you might think of China, Japan and Sri Lanka. But did you know that there are tea plantations in Australia? We have visited Australia's largest tea plantation – Nerada.
The road is narrow and winding and takes us between pastures, rainforest and fruit plantations. The houses are sparse and the most common mailbox is a discarded microwave oven. In just a few miles we have moved from coastal palm trees and coral reefs to highland agriculture and frosty winter nights. We are on our way to taste one of the world's freshest teas at Nerada's tea plantations.
Tea has been part of Australians' everyday lives ever since the English colonized Australia in the 18th century. Although coffee drinkers have increased in Australia in recent years, tea is still very much drunk in the same way as it is in England. Tea is simply not only British, but also very Australian.
Nerada's tea plantation is located on the great plateau southwest of Cairns, outside the small town Malanda. Here, at 700 meters above sea level, the temperature is always a little healthier and a little cooler than at the coast, and on the vast green meadows cows graze as far as the eye can see. The red soil is remnants of the area's volcanic origins and unlike most of inland Australia, it rains almost all year round. All these unique conditions make this one of Australia's most fertile areas. A perfect area for tea cultivation.
Nerada is Australia's largest producer of tea. Not only classic black tea is grown here, but also green and white tea. All this tea (regardless of color) comes from the same plant – Camellia Sinensis. The common tea plant that thrives in subtropical regions worldwide.
The leaves of the tea plant are always green. Younger leaves are light green, older leaves are dark green. Depending on when you pick the leaves, you get different quality of your tea. Here at Nerada, tea leaves are harvested in large quantities all year round. Here in the Atherton Tablelands alone, more than 6 million kilos (!) of leaves are picked every year. Completely organic and sustainable. Thanks to Australia's strict quarantine laws, there are no pests that feed on the tea plants and the plants can therefore be grown without pesticides, and the climate also means that the plants can only be grown on rainwater.
We drive through a large area of tea plants, most of the plants seem to be about as tall as I am tall. In the middle of the thick blanket of tea leaves, we arrive at Nerada's tea tasting room. This is not some fancy afternoon tea with lace tablecloths and silverware. Here, practicality wins over convenience. Typical Australian.
Before we can settle down for a cup of tea, one of the waitresses comes running and drags us to one of the trees next to the tea room. "Look! Up there!"High up in the tree we see something furry lying in a knot. One Lumbholtz's tree kangaroo. One of the Australian marsupials that is only found up here in North Queensland and is usually both rare and difficult to see. It turns out that several tree kangaroos live permanently in the trees around the plantation, but it's not every day that they lie and rest so close to the tea room. I would probably say we were a little lucky.
Here at Nerada's plantation, they mainly produce black tea, a manufacturing process that requires a lot of manual work, a lot of good sense and many well-balanced decisions. From the time a leaf is picked, it takes less than a day until the leaves are dry and ready for packaging. And there are no small amounts of tea to be packaged. Every year a whopping 1,6 million kilograms of black tea is produced, which is then shipped to Brisbane and packaged and distributed. It usually takes less than four weeks from plant to shelf at the store. You won't find such fresh tea in shops anywhere else in the world.
But how do you make tea from tea leaves? The tea plants grow for about 8 years before the harvest is at its best. The young light green leaves are picked selectively and left to dry for about half a day. The leaves are then cut down and broken/rolled to be able to react with the oxygen in the air in the next step - the oxidation. A chemical reaction is formed when the oil in the tea leaves reacts with the oxygen and it is now that the leaves get their characteristic tea flavor and turn dark. In the last step, the leaves are dried completely to stop oxidation, so that we can enjoy a tea that both retains its flavor for a long time and that lasts a long time in the pantry. Depending on the type of tea to be produced, the length of the various steps is extremely important. Some teas require longer oxidation, others require longer drying.
We sit down and order a pot of fresh Earl Gray tea, an iced tea and a soft cake with cream. I wonder if it's insulting to order milk, but without me having to ask, a small jug of milk arrives. It's time to taste. Do you feel any difference between a fresh tea and a "regular" tea from the store?
I take a sip and roll the flavors around in my mouth. It is almost easiest to describe what this tea is NOT. It is not bitter, earthy or peppery. It is rather a pure cup of joy with milk. Fruity and with a touch of bergamot. So this is what a cup of tea should taste like?
Before we leave here, we take the opportunity to buy lots of tea with us. Iced tea, cake and loose tea. It's not every day you drink a cup of joy with milk, so it's just as well to bring some happiness home with you to everyday life.
How do I get to Nerada?
Nerada is just outside melanda i Atherton Tablelands i Queensland, Australia. The tea plantation is open to visitors basically every day from 10-16:30, but check their website to make sure nothing has changed.
Read more: Nerada Tea
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