The first thing you see is Jack Murat’s imposing warehouse. Sitting beneath a big Atherton Tablelands sky, it’s surrounded by rows upon rows of coffee trees that fan out towards a low ridge line.

As tall as it is wide and much longer again, inside the warehouse seems to go on forever. In the first space are two enormous coffee driers (plus a smaller drier for test batches) imported from Colombia. Next door there’s a huller and grader, an optical sorter, and a rotary screw compressor.

And then, through the final corrugated wall, is a cavernous temperature-controlled storeroom, stacked high with sacks of un-roasted coffee beans, ready to be shipped. Nic Theodore stands in the middle of the space, absorbing its scale: 13 metres by 18 metres by five. He says he’s never seen anything like it. It’s telling, because back in Sydney Theodore is Jack Murat’s in-house coffee roaster. He also runs a coffee roasting consultancy business and, before that, was head roaster at Reuben Hills, the respected Surry Hills coffee brand. In short, the guy’s seen a coffee farm or two.

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Jemal Murat says it’s not an uncommon reaction when he coaxes potential wholesale customers up to these luridly green Far North Queensland farmlands to sell them on Jack Murat’s Australian-grown coffee.

“Roasters have travelled to other regions globally,” Jemal says. “So they understand the conditions, they understand the infrastructure needed to grow coffee. And then they come to visit our farm, and I’m not sure what their preconceptions may have been, but maybe they think of it as more of a hobby-farm commitment.”

You can understand the reticence. Australia is known internationally for its coffee culture. Its roasters – an army of independent companies such as Sample, Axil, Single O, Parallel, Telegram, Elementary, the list goes on – are celebrated and argued over by the nation’s coffee drinkers, which number approximately 19 million a day.

Australian coffee farms, though?

“It’s a good question,” Jemal says. “There has been a lot of effort and energy invested in growing coffee in Australia. [But] perhaps those who have grown it to date have stopped short of entertaining cosmopolitan Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne as being viable markets for them. The reason being, the domestic market’s often relied on cheaper imports and the Australian-grown product has fetched a premium abroad (Agrifutures Australia estimates that approximately 50 per cent of Australia’s annual dried green coffee bean production is exported). So it’s quite an odd relationship. That just seems to be the state of play when it comes to coffee historically here.”

Earlier, we climbed from Cairns through the dense Far North Queensland rainforest and over the MacAlister Range, onto the tablelands. This is the largest coffee-growing region in Australia but like in most parts of the country where the crop is found, many operators are relatively small and tourism-focused.

Jack Murat has much bigger, more sophisticated plans. From the crisp red-and-black branding to the slick website with its burnished photographs and stories of the farm, it’s clearly pitching itself as a premium coffee brand.

The eponymous Jack is Jemal’s grandfather. Hymet “Jack” Murat’s story is typical of many 20th-century Europeans who migrated to the other side of the world to live in Australia. Arriving in Perth in 1929, he originally worked as a timber getter before moving to Far North Queensland to buy a small plot of land west of Mareeba and establishing a tobacco farm.

The tobacco farm lasted until after the turn of the millennium, when the local industry began to wind down in the face of cheaper imports, and the Murats began to experiment with other crops. It was at Jemal’s insistence that the family eventually landed on coffee in 2015. The Tablelands, 400 metres above sea level with rich volcanic soil and monsoonal rains, turned out to be an ideal environment.

“We’ve grown up in this vibrant Australian coffee industry, right?” Jemal says. “I enjoy it, it’s part of my day-to-day life, and I’ve always been curious about it.”

It was also a way for his generation to keep the farm in the family.

“My father and his brothers had been farming and were perhaps more looking towards next phases in their lives, which could well have been retirement. But in order for the farming operation to continue, we had to find something to sort of bind us and generate that commitment for myself and for others. We found it in coffee.”

The early years were tough. We sit down for lunch in one of the old tobacco drying sheds, a dusty deregistered XF Falcon parked in the corner, as Jemal’s uncles, Plum Murat and Paul Murat, go into storytelling mode. Compared to the laid-back and urbane Jemal, Plum and Paul are classic Australian farming types. Deeply tanned, with rough-hewn, sunspotted hands, they rarely waste a word.

Plum says there was little information available when the Murats first planted coffee, given the Australian coffee industry was so small at the time.

“We just learned through trial and error,” he says. “We actually hand-weeded the first plantation because of a weed called white eye that couldn’t be sprayed. That was about 15 hectares of weeding. It took us a couple of weeks. We’d only work 7am to 12pm because it was so physical.”

Now, the farm has 60 hectares of trees in the ground, with another 46 hectares cleared, ready for planting. Ninety per cent of Jack Murat’s combined output is sold wholesale to roasters around the country, with the remaining 10 per cent roasted and sold under the Jack Murat brand.

“It’s not a huge property but it’s significant in a domestic context as a grower, so we’re certainly on track to being one of the largest producers in Australia,” Jemal says.

Jack Murat’s coming of age as a coffee brand is coinciding with price rises across the local industry. The ABC recently reported that a cup of coffee may cost $7 by the end of the year due to global shipping constraints and damaging weather events in major coffee-producing countries such as Brazil. Jemal says Jack Murat is already price-competitive for a premium product, but also that there’s now an intrinsic attraction for local coffee roasters to secure a supply not so prone to the post-pandemic vicissitudes of international trade.

“We’re not asking you to compromise on quality of flavour,” he says. “We’re giving you complete traceability. We’re giving you access to the producer’s story and to the way the producer conducts themselves and their enterprise. Consumers will always have an interest in other regions of production, given the flavour profile does differ, but there’s a role for Australian coffee to play.”

Also, we live in an era of paddock-to-plate dining, where the ties that bind us to our best restaurants and in turn our specialist growers have never been stronger, where every second wine list seems to champion small-producer Australian winemakers, and where beers and spirits these days are often presumed to be craft and local. Some might ask why it shouldn’t be the same for coffee.

“I love the idea of localism in production,” Jemal says. “We take a lot of pride in having the product sold in one of the most vibrant industries in the world, which is our home, our backyard.

“Of the coffee consumed in Australia, less than one per cent would be Australian grown. Does Australia have the ability to represent 10 per cent? Probably not. But should you be able to find a cafe in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane selling Australian-grown coffee? I think you should.”

jackmurat.com

The writer was a guest of Jack Murat.