With Australians embracing a coffee culture…wait scratch that…with Australians eating, drinking, living, breathing and worshiping at the altar of an all-consuming coffee culture, it’s of no surprise many of us look for something different in our coffee.
One very different enterprise in this space is Madella Coffee or as it’s sometimes known Madella by the River. This paddock to plate style business located at Mourilyan (near Innisfail) is owned and operated by third generation farming family Greg and Angie Sciacca who not only grow the Arabica variety beans, but process and roast them all within 15 kilometres (less than 10 Miles) of the paddock.
Whilst these are low food miles in any person’s language the distance travelled by this Coffee really pales into insignificance when compared to imported coffee brands. For example, much of the coffee imported from Italy starts its journey in countries where the beans are grown (Italy doesn’t grow coffee commercially) such as Africa or Brazil potentially around 9000 kilometres from roasting plants.
Once roasted the coffee is shipped to Australia approximately another 14 000 kilometres (over 8500 miles) for a grand total of around 23 000 kilometres or for our American friends over 14 000 miles.
Miniscule food miles aren’t the only point of difference with Madella Coffee. Greg says, “A lot of producers concentrate on growing a large bean because these attract a higher market price but our beans are smaller which I believe gives more flavour. After roasting there is also more oil in our beans and they produce a beautiful crema which a lot of people love”.
Growing methods are another area where Greg has broken with convention. Many experts will tell you well-drained friable (easily crumbled) soils elevated 900 – 1200 metres above sea level are required to grow great Arabica coffee. In stark contrast, Madella’s rich alluvial (fine grained) soil paddocks are only a stone throw away from the Johnstone River in one of the wettest parts of Australia, with an elevation of only 13 metres above sea level.
Now in his mid-seventies Greg’s history and the family’s contribution to the industry are major factors in the success of Madella. Greg says, “Not many are aware award winning coffee has been grown in Australia since the 1800s but around 1920, commercial production ceased due to a steep rise in labour costs and crippling shipping fees (to European markets). We’ve been involved with re-introducing coffee as a crop within Australia since the mid-1980s. At the time we were growing sugarcane but prices were very poor so with children to put through University we decided to try other things”.
Instead of taking things slow the couple along with their sons and their wives (Steven and Kelly and Joseph and Adriana) went into two brand new industries, coffee and prawn farming. Greg laughs, “It was a pretty busy time as nobody knew much about any of it in those days. We planted 80 acres of trees while we were still working out how to harvest the coffee cherries. This was all part of a research trial run by the Department of Primary Industries (DPI)”.
As part of the trial Greg, Steven and Joseph along with industry stalwart Bruno Maloberti (NQ Gold Coffee) and others developed the technology for mechanically harvesting the coffee cherries, a necessity for the industry to be viable within Australia. Greg says, “The first mechanical harvester we developed was towed behind a tractor before self-propelled versions were made. The last of the self-propelled prototypes was still in operation on Bruno’s place 25 years later”.
Today Greg and the family harvest using modern machinery. “We originally imported a Korvan harvester from the US but it was designed to harvest blueberries and raspberries amongst other crops so it had to be custom modified to do coffee. Overall it works beautifully for this job”, says Greg.
Whilst continuing to grow the Sciacca’s most recent investment has been in the form of a wet processing plant and dryer so the family controls the whole product cycle.
With Madella located in an area which receives between three and four metres of rain per year the Sciacca’s dryer and processing plant is all contained within an enclosed shed. No mean feat when you consider the dryer will take 10 tonnes of coffee bean at a time. Greg says, “It takes 60 hours to dry the beans and temperatures have to be strictly controlled to remove just the right amount of moisture so they can be stored”.
Once dried, coffee beans can theoretically be stored for up to 10 to 15 years which could be very useful in an area which has suffered two ‘one in a hundred year’ weather events (Cyclone Larry and Yasi) within five years of one another.
During both these events the Sciacca’s suffered substantial losses. When I asked Greg, what kept you going during what must have been an incredibly hard time he answered, “Family… it’s all about family, I’m not getting any younger and I want to get the brand to a point where my family can return to work the farm. Even the brand name ‘Madella’ comes from Steven and his wife Kelly’s children, Maddison, Ella and Lachlan”.
“My sons are the fourth generation of Sciacca to farm so if they chose to do it, their children would be the fifth generation to be on the land in this area…I think that is something special”.