Rooibos Tea: A True Survivor

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February 2, 2011 by bethanjthomas

I arrived in the Cederberg mountains of South Africa during a heat wave, and as I stood in the 37 degree sun with red dusty soil gathering at my feet, I began to appreciate that rooibos, or red bush, was a tough plant.  Camellia sinensis wouldn’t have a hope in these conditions, but spread out in front of me stood row after row of green bushes waiting to be harvested in the first picking of the season.

Clanwilliam Rooibos Tea Plantations

Clanwilliam Rooibos Tea Plantations

The rooibos farmer explained to me that just like people, rooibos needed to suffer a little to gain it’s character.  If the plant received too much rain water it would produce a flat infusion, lacking body.  But if the plants were forced to search for their nutrients and survive in the sun, they would produce a sweet, full, rounded drink.  Their roots actually reach down into the earth for 3 metres, searching for everything that the sandy soil can offer and surviving against all the odds.

Rooibos is a uniquely South African plant.  Only found in a small stretch of land, 120km long by 60 km wide, in mountains 2 hours from Cape Town, this plant cannot survive in any other terroir.  It seems to almost define the frontier mentality of the men who first developed these plantations – hardy, determined and with high levels of endurance.

Rooibos tea bush

Rooibos tea bush

Whilst rooibos has been produced and drunk for hundreds of years by the mountain dwelling people of the area, it was only in 1904 that a Jewish Russian immigrant first developed large scale production of the plant.  Benjamin Ginsberg had worked in the tea trade before he arrived in South Africa, and when he saw locals picking, cutting, drying, bruising and oxidising leaves from local bushes, he saw a business opportunity.  With the help of a local doctor and farmer, he established nurseries to help develop wild grown seedlings, and then larger areas to cultivate older bushes in rows.  The rooibos trade was thus established and today the Ginsbergs still play an important role in rooibos cultivation.  The farmer that I visited is a direct descendent of Benjamin Ginsberg and proud of both his heritage and the tea he produces.

The production process of rooibos has remained almost exactly the same over hundreds of years, but machinery from the tobacco and wheat industry has relatively recently been adapted and developed to mechanise the drying, sorting and picking process.  As rooibos production is produced on small plots and in small scale, bespoke machinery has never been produced and the ingenuity of farmers in developing rooibos cultivation in the area is astounding.

Rooibos tea machinery

Rooibos tea machinery

Whilst rooibos has been the most popular tea in South Africa from many years, outside of the rainbow nation it has only recently been discovered.  The health benefits that the leaves are purported to hold have led to an increase in popularity across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.  Whilst rooibos does not contain the same anti-oxidants as tea from camellia sinensis bushes, the herbal infusion is naturally caffeine free and contains high levels of the flavanoid aspalathin, which has been linked to lowering cholesterol and reducing the likelihood of heart disease.

Rooibos tea tasting

Rooibos tea tasting

Despite the desire of many people to rooibos as a detox drink for the new year, I would, however, recommend it simply for its unique taste.  Honey sweetness of the leaves is combined with a slightly woody taste from the plant stems.  The infusion is extremely low in tannins but rich and full bodied.  Many South Africans add milk to the infusion, or add a drop of honey to heighten the sweet characteristics of the tea.  But for me this would be to detract from the hard earned character that the plant has sucked from the arid, red soil of the mountains.

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