THE smell of freshly picked and cut tea is quite intoxicating.
As you drive through the white gates of Madura Tea Estates nestled in the Tweed Valley you are surrounded by the vivid green of the tea bushes that wind around the estate. Up close the fragrant plants will envelope your senses in a cloud of sweet tea.
Madura Tea Estates is located just outside Murwillumbah and is the only Australian-owned tea plantation in the country.
Four local Tweed families - Bright, Ford, Richards and Davey - are the owners of Madura Tea Estates which was established by a third-generation tea planter from Ceylon in the late 1970s.
Madura marketing and public relations manager Ray Fien says the company first started producing Australian tea 31 years ago.
From the plantation to the teapot there is a great deal involved in producing fine quality teas, at Madura Tea Estates you get the chance to see it all first-hand.
“Here we have large- and small-leaf grown together, Camellia Sinensis and Camellia Assamica - similar to the tea grown in Assam in India,” Mr Fien said.
“At Madura we have 50 acres of tea and it is the only place where you can see from the tea plantation to the tea packet in the one location.”
Mr Fien said it took seven years for tea bushes to produce tea - and in China they have tea bushes more than 2000 years old.
“Here at Madura we harvest every week of the year (except during winter). Because tea bushes need plenty of water we have five dams on the property so we can completely self-irrigate,” he said.
“All our tea is insecticide and pesticide free. And according to a Choice magazine article published four years ago we were the cleanest and greenest.”
The estate currently has 50 Australian employees and produces more than five million cups of tea every week.
“We have three machines that each produce 450 teabags a minute -that's a lot of tea being sent all around the world,” Mr Fien said.
“Once the tea is picked it is placed on drying beds for 24-36 hours (to remove moisture). Then it goes through a machine that cuts, tears and curls the leaves before going into an oven. It is then sorted, before going through to the blending room.”
Mr Fien said Madura Teas have a three year “best before” date on its products. And the best place to store your tea? In an airtight container in the dark.
“Madura currently has 34 per cent of the market in the premium tea category and sits at number five in the list of the top six tea manufacturers.
“We are part of the specialty tea market and our major opposition in that area is Twinings of England.”
Mr Fien, who previously worked at Coles for 25 years, said Madura Tea Estates was flying the Aussie flag against the multinationals.
“We're getting support from Australians who believe in supporting Australian products . . . which is fantastic,” he said.
“We also get a lot of support from Woolies and Coles with positioning of products, as well as a lot more support from independents.
“And we have a great distribution team, right around the country.”
Mr Fien said he had learnt a lot about tea over the last six years.
“To go from one side of retail to the other was an amazing change,” he said.
“I've certainly learnt a lot about tea and I have to say I love the green tea with lemon myrtle. It'a a favourite.
“But to really enjoy tea you must brew it correctly.
“We experiment with new blends all the time. It takes around three to six months to get the taste right in a new blend. We have a professional tea taster - tea master Michael Sales - who is second generation in the tea industry, his father who worked on plantations in India,” he said.
“When tasting teas you start with the green and go down to the black teas and part of Michael's job is to ensure every blend is the same - consistent.”
Tea master or, as he prefers, technical manager of teas, Michael Sales has worked in the tea industry starting in India in 1978. But his association with tea goes back beyond that having grown up on a tea plantation in South India. “It was a beautiful existence out in the open and surrounded by the green of the tea bushes,” he said.
“I was married in 1981 and my wife and I moved to New Guinea where I managed tea plantations before coming to Australia seven years ago to take up the position at Madura Tea.
“I myself like a strong tea, like the pure Assam,” he said, “although I do start my day with a coffee but always end the day with a good cup of tea.”
Mr Sales said when tasting teas as part of his job he began by analysing the dry leaf on its own characteristics. And then he brews a cuppa. His method? Two grams of tea in 200ml of water infused for four minutes for a teabag (or five minutes for leaf style).
“Then it's poured into a translucent bowl to look at the liquid for brightness, then I sip it, spray it on to the palate . . . before spitting it out,” he said.
“My job then is to assess what the palate is telling me - the aftertaste. I also look at the thickness of the brew, whether it's cloudy and if there are any dust particles. Next I add milk and stir and see if it retains the briskness or sharpness on the palate.
“These are just a few of the many aspects to look at when tasting tea - it really is quite involved.”
Madura Tea Estates now has more than 24 tea styles in loose leaf, teabag and silk infuser - from traditional brews such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey, to exotic blends including Green Tea infused with locally grown Lemon Myrtle.
“All our teas are very low in caffeine and the quality of our leaf is a premium grade,” Mr Fien said.
“When making tea it should be infused for three-and-a-half to five minutes. If it's not brewed correctly, you're not getting the real flavour of the tea.
“And you should really take the time to have a cup of tea properly. It's a great stress reliever and promotes communication between people as they share a cup.”
Mr Fien says Madura was the first to market a green tea in Australia specifically made for Australian palates.
“When brewing green tea it should be 70 per cent “off the boil” otherwise you're stewing it,” he said.
“And it should be enjoyed without the addition of milk.”
Madura Tea Estates; which is Kosher, Halal and HACCP accredited; launched a new website last week which enables people to buy their tea online around the world.
“We export to many countries and there is particularly a lot of interest in the Asian countries as the younger generations search for different tastes from their traditional teas.
“However, loose tea is down to 13.5 per cent. It's a dying thing, with time being such a limited commodity . . . people just don't often brew a pot of tea.”