What is Rooibos Tea
While the early tea-drinking Dutch immigrants of South Africa…
…popularized the brewing of rooibos as an alternative to the more expensive, imported black tea of the time in the 1700s, rooibos as a commercial tea crop did not emerge until the 1930s. This rooibos tea, promising herbal tea-producing plant is still evolving. Green rooibos, a less oxidized variant of the more well-known red rooibos, was developed in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s, the business created powdered rooibos for cooking, concentrated rooibos for a tea-like “espresso” beverage, and rooibos extract for food flavoring and cosmetics product additives.
What is Rooibos?
The 300-year-old rooibos (pronounced “roy-boss”) plant is a baby in comparison to the 1,000-plus-year-old Camellia sinensis plant, which produces black and green tea. Rooibos is a South African plant that isn’t even really a “tea.” Rather, it’s a plant that, when picked and dried, may be brewed into a reddish-brown herbal infusion known in the tea business as “African red tea” or “red bush tea.”
Rooibos Tea is A Unique Tea
Rooibos is unique in that it is native to South Africa’s hilly Cederberg area (just north of Cape Town), where it still flourishes today. Cederberg is one of South Africa’s most biodiverse places, with a World Heritage protected wildlife area, 500-million-year-old sandstone formations, and a 6,000-year-old rock art heritage left by the San people, or Bushmen, who originally occupied the area.
For hundreds of years, locals in the Cederberg region have harvested and brewed naturally grown rooibos. While farmers continue to gather wild rooibos in this region, some commercially cultivated rooibos has been transferred to other parts of South Africa. In fact, South Africa is the only country in the world that produces rooibos, with over 450 farmers generating up to 15,000 tons of rooibos each year. Approximately 7,000 tons of South African rooibos are sold to over 30 nations worldwide. The plant is most commonly imported into Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The rooibos plant, Aspalathus linearis, is a member of the legume family of plants that thrives in arid, mountainous locations with frequent rainfall. The plant gets its name from its linear growth form, which produces long, needle-like leaves. The plant blooms with yellow flowers in early spring. Each flower develops a legume containing a single seed, which bursts out when mature and drops on the dry ground surrounding the plant.
Because the early gatherers of wild rooibos realized that ants collected these seeds, they generally searched anthills for the seeds required to repopulate rooibos bushes. Farmers sift the sandy dirt around the rooibos plant today to collect the fresh seeds that will start the new harvests in the spring. Rooibos plants take around 18 months to mature and are generally picked during South Africa’s summer months.
Rooibos Tea Processing
Rooibos is collected and processed in the same way as the Camillia sinensis tea plant is. The bushy rooibos plant is chopped by hand and its stems and leaves are tied into bundles when gathered. To promote oxidation, the bundles are sorted and then chopped or crushed. The process of oxidation, or exposure to oxygen, brings out the plant’s essential oils and allows the leaves to acquire their rich color and flavor. The more oxidized the rooibos, the redder the hue and the sweeter and fuller the flavor. This is the rooibos known as red rooibos.
Because less oxidized rooibos is steamed and dried quickly rather than oxidized, rooibos tea keeps a somewhat green hue and a grassy, mineral-like flavor. Green rooibos is a less oxidized form of rooibos. Rooibos tea is also classified in the same way that tea from the Camellia sinensis plant is, with the grade determined by the leaf to stem content ratio. Higher quality rooibos tea has more delicious leaves and less stem and dust.
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