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Rooibos: The South African “Tea” That Isn’t Tea

Posted on 06/20/2023

Rooibos: The South African “Tea” That Isn’t Tea

Of all the tea and herbals grown in the lush fields of South Africa, Rooibos is the rising star. More than triple the amount that was produced in the 1990s is produced today, with thousands of tons being exported each year. It is clear to see the appeal of this attractive infusion when you steep yourself a cuppa.  A heaping scoop of auburn red Rooibos stands out dramatically against the porcelain of a white teapot. As you pour your kettle of hot, bubbling water over the infuser, you notice a fragrant aroma somewhere in between cedar and vanilla. The beverage itself is a rusty shade of amber. Steam rises from the cup. Tea is a prominent export of South Africa, and this is the most iconic botanical grown in the region by far. Yet, Rooibos is not tea.


Most tea lovers know the legendary origin of tea, the story of an emperor in Ancient China sitting under a Camellia sinensis tree. Dried leaves fell into his pot of boiling water and steeped, and the rest was history. Though the most popular, tea is only one of hundreds of botanicals. For hundreds, even thousands, of years, humankind has been infusing leaves, stems and bark in water for medicinal purposes and for enjoyment. Rooibos is one of the most popular, in some cases desired as a caffeine-free alternative to tea.


Rooibos, (pronounced ROY-boss), means ‘red bush’ in Afrikaans. Archeologists are unclear when traditional tea production methods began, but the Khoisan people who lived in the mountains of the Western Cape discovered that when boiled, the dried Rooibos bush made a pleasant infusion. Rooibos was also enjoyed by early Dutch settlers, who relished that the  cheap beverage was grown locally, unlike expensive imported teas from other continents.


Rooibos grows only in the Western Cape region of South Africa. Did you know that the name is trademarked to preserve authenticity? Red bush grown in any other part of the world, or in any other part of Africa for that matter, is prohibited to be marketed as Rooibos. This cements the drink’s status as a local beverage.


When Rooibos is harvested, the plant is green. The leaves and young, freshly sprouted tips are used in making the tea. Leaving it in the sun to dry produces its signature rich, red color. The pigment is so strong that it is occasionally used in dye making. Like tea, Rooibos is also graded by leaf size and takes well to flavoring. This offers an interesting thought: what would the world be like if Rooibos caught on as a worldwide trend in the 1800s, rather than tea? We will never know. However, because this tea is increasing in popularity each year, it would not be surprising to see Rooibos offered more frequently as a beverage option at restaurants and cafes. If you are hesitant to drink herbal tea, we recommend that you steep yourself a cup of Rooibos with an open mind. Who knows? It may be the tea of the future! 


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