Whisky, wasabi, saffron and Bobbie Bear lead Tasmania’s niche charge

By Jane Wardell

NABOWLA Australia (Reuters) – Half a dozen older ladies, all kitted out in lilac shirts, chat affably as they rhythmically stuff and sew up cuddly purple-colored bears, cups of tea littering their workspace.

It could easily be a women’s club gathering anywhere in middle Australia, but these women are producing a teddy bear that has become one of the most sought after commodities in China.

Bridestowe Lavender in Tasmania is the headquarters of “Bobbie Bear”, a lavender and wheat stuffed soft toy that became a craze after sultry actress and model Zhang Xinyu said it was her favorite bedtime companion.

In the year since Zhang’s endorsement, sales of the bear – created by the 90-year-old company to use up offcuts of dried lavender – have soared and Chinese tourists have inundated the small farm on the remote northeastern coast of Tasmania to buy from the source.

“We were run off our feet and people were changing clothes in the parking lot because we imposed a limit of one Bobbie per customer,” said Bronwyn Bishop, sales and marketing manager at Bridestowe.

Bridestowe’s “lilac ladies” pumped out 40,000 bears last year, currently selling for A$89.95 ($84.33) a piece – still well short of a demand that saw some 300,000 counterfeit bears produced elsewhere in Australia and China.

The problem with those copybears was that they couldn’t replicate Tasmania’s reputation for clean produce. China temporarily banned all imports of the bears after one of the fake bears was found to contain moths and weevils.

Bridestowe Lavender is one of a number of niche producers in Tasmania taking advantage of the export gold star afforded by the state’s genetically modified organism free status.

The rapidly growing whisky industry also benefits from the squeaky clean image that status brings.

From a standing start just over two decades ago, there are now eight distilleries across the island.

“We’ve got perfect water, an ideal climate temperature wise and from a moisture point of view and incredible barley and grains from the field,” said Phil Fitzpatrick of Redlands Distillery, which is working on a special vintage for a Japanese client.

This year, a whisky from the Sullivans Cove distillery in the state capital of Hobart was named best single malt at the prestigious World Whisky Awards in London, a prize that has been dominated by Scottish and Japanese distilleries.

Elsewhere in the state, Tasmanian Saffron Pty Ltd is building up a following in Asia for exports of the most expensive spice, gram by gram, in the world. Shima Wasabi Pty Ltd now makes up the biggest wasabi crop in the southern hemisphere, producing fresh wasabi for both Australia and small export volumes to Asia. ($1 = 1.0667 Australian Dollars)

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)