Through the 17th and 18th centuries, European travellers and botanists visiting the Cederberg region in South Africa commented on the profusion of "good plants" for curative purposes. In 1772, Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg noted that "the country people made tea" from a plant related to rooibos or redbush.

Traditionally the local people would climb the mountains and cut the fine needle-like leaves from wild rooibos plants. They then rolled the bunches of leaves into hessian bags and brought them down the steep slopes on the backs of donkeys. The leaves were then chopped with axes and bruised with hammers, before being left to dry in the sun.
The Dutch settlers to the Cape developed rooibos as an alternative to black tea, an expensive commodity for the settlers who relied on supply ships from Europe.

In 1904, Benjamin Ginsberg, a Russian/Jewish settler to the Cape, riding in the remote mountains, became fascinated with this wild tea. He ran a wide variety of experiments at Rondegat Farm, finally perfecting the curing of rooibos. He simulated the traditional Chinese method of making very fine Keemun, by fermenting the tea in barrels, covered in wet, hessian sacking that replicates the effects of bamboo baskets.

In the 1930s, Ginsberg persuaded a local doctor and Rhodes scholar, Dr. le Fras Nortier, to experiment with cultivation of the plant. Le Fras Nortier cultivated the first plants at Clanwilliam on the Klein Kliphuis farm. The tiny seeds were difficult to obtain, as they dispersed as soon as the pods cracked, and would not germinate without scarifying. Le Fras Nortier paid farmers to collect seeds. An aged Khoi woman had found a rather unusual source of supply. She came again and again, receiving a shilling for each matchbox filled with seed. She had chanced upon ants dragging seed one day, followed them back to their nest and, on breaking it open, found a granary. The attempts by Dr. le Fras Nortier were ultimately successful, which led Ginsberg to encourage local farmers to cultivate the plant in the hope that it would become a profitable venture. Klein Kliphuis became a tea farm, and within ten years the price of seeds soared to an astounding £80 a pound, the most expensive vegetable seed in the world. Today the seed is gathered by special sifting processes, and Klein Kliphuis is now a guest farm.
Since then, rooibos has grown in popularity in South Africa, and has gained considerable momentum in the worldwide market too. A growing number of brand-name tea companies sell this tea, either by itself or as a component in an ever-growing variety of blends.

In South Africa it is more common to drink rooibos with milk and sugar, but elsewhere it is usually served without. The flavour of rooibos tea is often described as being sweet (without sugar added) and slightly nutty. Rooibos can be prepared in the same manner as black tea, and this is the most common method. Unlike black tea, however, rooibos does not become bitter when steeped for a long time; some households leave the tea to steep for days at a time. Rooibos tea is a reddish brown colour, explaining why rooibos is sometimes referred to as "red tea". Unlike some higher quality oolong or green teas, rooibos is often only good for a very limited re-steeping as there is a sharp drop off in brewing after the first infusion.

Several coffee shops in South Africa have recently begun to sell red espresso, which is concentrated rooibos served and presented in the style of ordinary espresso (which is normally coffee-based). This has given rise to rooibos-based variations of coffee drinks such as red lattes and red cappuccinos. Iced tea made from rooibos has recently been introduced in South Africa as well, and in Australia as Lipton "Red Tea, Rooibos & Guarana".

THE PLANT
The plant (and the products made from it) is widely known as Rooibos (pronounced ROY-BOSS). In some countries it is also called “redbush” or “African red tea”. The Aspalathus plant group, part of the legume family, and to which Rooibos belongs, consists of more than 200 species which occur only in South Africa and of which only the species Aspalathus linearis has any economic value. Had it not been for the mountain inhabitants of the Western Cape, this species would today have been known merely as one of the many indigenous shrub-like bushes found in these mountains.
The plant is a shrub-like bush with a central, smooth-barked main stem. Near the soil surface the stem subdivides into a number of strong offshoots, followed by delicate side branches each bearing, singly or in clusters, soft, needle-like leaves some ten centimetres in length.

The plants height at maturity varies from one to 1,5 metres in its natural state, while the height of harvested plants varies from 0,5 to 1,5 metres, depending on the age of the plant, or the climate and soil conditions in the area of production.

Rooibos is a fynbos species within the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of only six recognised floral kingdoms of the world. Rooibos is a broom-like member of the legume family of plants.
Although the plant requires a production area with winter rainfall, its active growth only starts in spring, increasing towards midsummer after which growth declines. The plant is usually covered with small, yellow, pea-shaped flowers during October. The flowers each produce a small legume containing a single, very small, light yellow, hard-shelled, dicotyledonous seed. Rooibos seed is by nature very hard-shelled. The seed is scrubbed with mechanical scourers to increase the germination potential from approximately 25 - 30% to 85 - 95%.

Rooibos seed is a precious article, simply because each legume bears only one seed which pops open and shoots out as soon as it is ripe. For this reason the seed was extremely expensive before it was discovered that ants were its main harvesters. Today some farmers still collect seed from anthills, but more commonly by sifting the sand around the plants. One kilogram of seed yields approximately eight hectares of Rooibos.

PROCESS
Rooibos tea is steam pasteurized before packing. The Perishable Products Export Control Board (PPECB) of South Africa ensures that all exported Rooibos products pass a plant health and safety inspection and are certified to be free of bacteria and impurities.

Generally, the leaves are oxidised, a process often, and inaccurately, referred to as fermentation by analogy with tea-processing terminology. This process produces the distinctive reddish-brown colour of rooibos and enhances the flavour. Unoxidised "green" rooibos is also produced, but the more demanding production process for green rooibos (similar to the method by which green tea is produced) makes it more expensive than traditional rooibos.

The “fermentation” process involves oxidation, brought about by enzymes naturally present in the plant. During this process the product changes from green to a deep amber colour and develops its distinctive aroma. After fermentation the Rooibos is spread out to dry in the sun. The Rooibos is sorted and graded according to length, colour, flavour and aroma.

PRODUCTION
Rooibos seeds are sown between February to March and the seedlings transplanted a few months later. It takes about 18 months before plants can be harvested for the first time. Each spring the plant is covered with small yellow flowers. Each flower produces a small legume with a single seed inside. The Rooibos seeds pop out when they are ripe and can therefore be difficult to collect. Early Rooibos farmers got hold of the local wisdom that ants harvested the seeds and that they could collect Rooibos seeds from anthills. Today, most farmers collect the seeds by sifting the sand around the plants.

During the summer harvest, the plants are cut to about 30 cm from the ground. After three to five harvests, the Rooibos plantation must be re-established.

The harvested shoots are bound into sheaves and cut to less than 4 mm. The green leaves and stems are either bruised and “fermented” in heaps (to produce traditional Rooibos) or immediately dried to prevent oxidation (for green Rooibos).

All Rooibos, whether for domestic use or the export market, is steam pasteurized to ensure a product of high microbial quality. The product is then sent in bulk (loose tea leaves) to various packers and exporters in South Africa.

QUALITY
Every stage of the production process, from receiving Rooibos to final packaging is subjected to stringent quality control and laboratory testing to ensure that the final product exceeds the customer's most exacting specifications.
The production process conforms to the standards laid down by the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) system and the final product is inspected, prior to shipment, by PPECB (Perishable Products Export Control Board) of the Department of Agriculture.

Under supervision of the internationally recognised company Ecocert, a portion of the total Rooibos production is organically grown to meet specific customer needs. NOP, JAS, Kosher and Halaal certified products are also available.

 

 
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