Australia’s luckiest tea taster: Meet Nerada’s Tony Poyner

There are few people in the Australian tea industry who can claim to have as much knowledge and know how as Nerada’s Plantation Director Tony Poyner. Having worked at Nerada for almost 30 years he is the custodian of our Malanda Tea Plantation, ensuring the quality of the tea crop along with regularly tasting the teas to bring our customers Australia’s freshest tea.

“It is such an amazing and unique opportunity and very rare to be able to raise a family on a tea estate. It really is the opportunity of a lifetime.” Tony Poyner

Find out more about Tony, his background and his incredible work here at Nerada.

Where did you grow up?

I’m Queensland born and bred. We moved from Cairns when I was very young and I grew up on the Atherton Tablelands. I was a bit of a scallywag in my youth. I wasn’t really into school, I was more into growing things, making things and pulling things apart – a typical boy.

My grandfather used to grow a lot in his backyard in Cairns. Not just fruit, but anything that you could put on the kitchen table. He used to say to me, “Come on boy, start digging.” So that’s where my love of growing things started, and I was fortunate enough in my teens to be able to pursue that passion and experiment with tending to the land on our family property.

I left the Tablelands in my late -teens and moved around a bit. I tried my hand at quite a few things, but always came back to my passion for the land.

When did you first start working at Nerada Tea?

I settled back in the Tablelands in 1990 after meeting my wife. While I was looking for work I stumbled across an ad in the local paper for a Tradesman’s assistant at Nerada. I applied and was successful.

I started out building the factory, then started labouring in the factory, then running shifts, then trained as a tea maker and taster, then after a few years was promoted to Assistant factory manager and in time I was promoted to the Plantation Director.

Over the course of 28 years, I have worked in both the factory and field and experienced basically every job across the company. It does help me in my current position as Director that I have such a deep understanding of all the roles. I can empathise with all my staff, particularly when it comes to the mundane tasks because I know exactly what’s involved.

How did you get into the tea industry? Any relevant qualifications?

I basically learnt on the job. However, I also did a lot of training and courses as I moved roles. I was taught to tea taste, for example. A lot of training was done in-house at Nerada because you can’t just go down the road to do a course in this industry. The knowledge and skills are all handed down from generation to generation, from manager to supervisor, from supervisor to worker.

And that’s one of the reasons the staff are all so valued here at Nerada. We cross-train as many people as possible. Anything I learn, I pass on to my team. It really is one of the most special things about the place – it’s a very communicative, talkative organisation. It makes us a family – and that’s the secret to Nerada.

Any key developments or milestones given your time at Nerada?

We have seen huge developments in processing and the way the tea is made to ensure the consistency of our products, which is particularly important as a single origin estate. We’ve also seen great developments in the field with our own purpose-built equipment.

There are seasonal fluctuations we have to be mindful of, so not only is the design of equipment important, but also the processing to ensure we always produce a uniform cup. It’s also about having equipment that’s efficient and enables us to keep a small workforce employed through a 12-month period.

When you look back at where we were and how far we’ve come, in terms of sustainability and what’ve had to do to keep manufacturing, it really is amazing.

I’m very passionate about us being pesticide-free here at Nerada – it’s a personal philosophy of ours. You start with the soil, than look at the plants and the environment and the ecosystem. It’s a symbiotic relationship and you need to find that stability and balance, using minimal chemical input, in order to maintain that equilibrium. For me, achieving that is my passion.

What does a typical day involve?

I’m up early and have a cuppa first thing. I do have the odd cup of coffee, it has its place especially if I’m out and about, but I mostly drink tea. It doesn’t have the peaks and troughs coffee does.

Then I get down to work about 6.45am. The majority of shifts are changing over at this time, so I like to be there when everyone starts the day. We all grab a cuppa and chat for 10 minutes then it’s down to business. I go to the field first and inspect the paddocks that have been harvested and are going to be harvested. Good quality tea is made in the field. You can’t make a great cup out of poor quality leaf, and it needs to be picked at the right time and harvested at the right height.

Then it’s back inside to check emails and begin tea tasting in the factory. Brett and I will taste all the tea that’s been produced in the last 24 hours. I’ll walk through the factory where all the manufacturing happens, then it’s back to the more mundane tasks in the office. So my day is split up quite nicely.

How did you learn to taste tea?

I was taught to tea taste by the original tea taster here, John Collins, who took me under his wing. He had worked in Kenya for some 30 years prior to Nerada. Again, there isn’t really anywhere to go where you can learn these things, particularly here in Australia, so a lot of training was handed from one generation to the next.

The thing with tea tasting is that it’s a time thing. You can have all the books and all the terminologies, but to link the terminology with the flavour profile, and the feel on the tongue, and what the difference is between bitterness and briskness, and softness as opposed to over-fermented – and all these different terminologies – it takes years to understand and master.

After the first year you think, “oh yeah, I’m a bit of a gung-ho taster”, but you realise after you’ve been doing it for a few years that it takes quite a while to get your palate mature.

The greatest thing about it is that I get to come to work, drive through the fields that the tea has been harvested in, walk through the factory it’s been processed in, then have the task of evaluating and tasting 20 teas a day.

What’s it like living on the Nerada Plantation?

I have lived on three different estate homes over the time I’ve been here. It is a fabulous place to live and raise a family. It’s hard to beat walking through the tea fields in the afternoon and watching the sun set over the fields from your kitchen window at the end of the day.

I suppose there is a downside that you do drift off into thinking about work all the time. It gets into your blood, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

It is such an amazing and unique opportunity and very rare to be able to raise a family on a tea estate. It really is the opportunity of a lifetime.

What is the best thing about your job and working at Nerada?

The best thing is feeling like I belong to something and that I’m going to work to make a difference each day. There are no chemicals used here and it’s a friendly environment. And I can see Tree Kangaroos from my office window. And that all makes me want to get up and come to work.

Biggest challenges?

I would have to say farming and running a business. A lot of the time it’s easy in my role to look at the tea industry and forget about all of the good sides – who we are, where we are located, the type of crop we produce, the people and all our loyal followers.

You just need to keep it all in perspective. It’s a great industry, and all industry in this country comes with its challenges.

How would you describe the team at the Malanda plantation?

I describe them as real, true people that bring not only their efforts, but their hearts to work every day. They are happy to be here, they contribute willingly and there isn’t one of them that hasn’t said at any given time, ‘what can I do next?’

Who or what inspires you?

My team inspire me. They are on the coal face every day doing the hard work and they are the people that keep me going.

What is your favourite Nerada tea?

The factory fresh black tea that comes directly off the production line and the good old Nerada black tea is my favourite.

How do you take your tea?

It depends. Either black or with a dash of milk depending on my mood. If I’m travelling, I’ll have it black, but my first cup in the morning usually has milk. I usually have about 6 or 7 cups a day. Of an evening before bed, I might have a Herbal, but otherwise it’s black tea.

What is the best thing about living in Far North QLD?

The people and the weather.