Did you know rooibos tea is an anti-ageing beverage? At least this is what the San and the Japanese say. It is not only thanks to the San people we are drinking the sweet and healthy brew today but they also found out that rooibos tea relieves allergies and helps heal damaged skin. Centuries later in the 1980ies the Japanese discovered rooibos and called it ‘Long Life Tea’. They say six cups of rooibos tea a day will help slow down the ageing process of the drinker. Well then, get an extra big Freshpak and enjoy it six times a day!
Back to history: The Khoi and San people were the first to enjoy wild grown rooibos as a herbal tea. They cut the plant high up in the mountains with axes and bundled the branches. At home they chopped it and bruised the tea with stones before putting it in heaps to ferment in the sun. After this oxidation process they spread it open to let it dry. Now it was ready to brew as a tasty herbal and aromatic tea. Even though this is a long time ago the process is still the same just slightly modernised.
Rooibos grows in one region in the world only. Namely in the area around Clanwilliam in Cederberg just north of Cape Town. ‘Rooibos’ is a protected geographic indicator and is only allowed to be used for red bush products growing in South Africa’s Western Cape.
Red bush is part of the Fynbos family and therefore known as quite delicate to grow. It does not only need the ideal conditions to grow but also it is not easy to collect seeds. The plant spits the seeds out and spreads them in a distance of more than one meter around itself. Due to the sandy soil the seeds are not easily seen by eye and the ants are quick. The busy ants collect the seeds and store them in there nests. The easiest way to collect rooibos seeds is therefore not to search for the seeds but for the ants nests where you can spoon them out.
A rooibos’ life cycle
A rooibos plant’s life cycle stretches over up to six years. Seeding time is in February and March and after a couple of months the seedlings are replanted into the fields. After another 19 months the rooibos plants can be harvested for the first time. The bushes get harvested once a year during four years.
The bushes are cut with sickles about 30 cm above ground and then bundled. To produce tea the branches get cut into pieces which are spread on a big tar field where tractors roll over it to bruise them – also called the fermentation process. Then mother nature gets her part again: the tea must be dried by the hot summer sun. When asking rooibos farmers when the harvest season begins, they won’t give you a simple answer. They aim to harvest when the plant is ripe. Depending on how soon winter comes this point cannot always be waited for. Days must still be hot and long enough to dry the spreaded mass within eight hours. This is by the way the moment in the process where rooibos gets its red colour.
Then the tea gets sifted, assessed, sterilised and packed in the nearby factories. Before packing the tea can be flavoured or blended optionally. Do you know the difference? We didn’t. Flavoured means that the tea gets sprayed with some kind of syrup or perfume. Blending means that another tea is mixed to it, i.e. honey bush, camomile or lemongrass.
Around 15 000 tons of rooibos tea are produced every year. 50% are exported to more than 30 countries worldwide.
Where to go
Clanwilliam is rooibos country. Surrounded by rooibos farms there is the Rooibos Tea House
right in its heart. Their tea tasting is one hour of pure joy. Sitting on their beautiful veranda you can choose seven teas from more than a 100 different flavours and blends while learning about rooibos history, the tea making process, health benefits and interesting facts of the unique South African product. Their shop ranges from tea to cosmetic products and simply everything that is made from rooibos. The next day we went on rooibos safari with Annette and Chris Du Plessis on their farm Elandsberg
. They showed us the plantations, the packaging process and explained about farming and harvesting rooibos.
After two days in rooibos country we hit the road again with plenty of stock that should last until Europe.