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Rooibos Tea History: A Fascinating Origin Story

By The Whistling Kettle December 28th, 2021

We often take rooibos tea for granted, but this unique herbal tea has quite an interesting story. Rooibos is native to the rugged mountains of Cederberg, South Africa, and was first harvested by indigenous tribes. Recently, it has become a popular beverage worldwide. Rooibos tea has an impressive list of health benefits and is a prized agricultural success in its homeland of South Africa. Sit back and relax with a warm cup of rooibos tea, and let us take you on a journey through history.

What is Rooibos Tea?

Rooibos (pronounced Roy-bos) tea is made from a bushy, low growing plant, Aspalathus linearis. The linearis part of the botanical name describes the straight, needle-like leaves. It is native to the mountains of Cederberg, South Africa, and no other regions worldwide have been able to successfully cultivate it. The common name ‘rooibos’ means ‘red bush’ in Afrikaans, describing the deep red color of the tea. Sweet in flavor with notes of caramel and vanilla, rooibos tea is a popular caffeine-free alternative to black tea. Green rooibos is another variety that is more delicate in flavor and similar to green tea.

Where Does Rooibos Tea Come From?

The first people to drink rooibos tea were the Khoisan people, the indigenous tribe from the Cederberg region of South Africa. Over 300 years ago they were harvesting wild rooibos in the mountains to use as medicine for various ailments. They appreciated the healing qualities of the plant and the sweet, smooth flavor of the tea. Later, European settlers in South Africa became curious about the tea and learned how to farm rooibos for larger scale productions. Recently, the South African government agreed to give back 1.5% of rooibos industry profits to the Khoisan people to thank them for sharing their knowledge of the rooibos plant.

How is Rooibos Tea Made?

Originally, rooibos tea was wild harvested from the mountains of Cederberg. Early rooibos enthusiasts would have to gather the leaves and stems into sacks and carry it by donkey back down the mountain. It was then chopped with axes and beaten with mallets before leaving in piles to oxidize (sometimes referred to as fermentation). Then the rooibos plants were spread out in the hot South African sun to dry before using the leaves for tea.

Modern rooibos production is made from cultivated fields, still in the mountain hills of Cederberg. Seeds are planted from January-March, which is winter for South Africa. They begin to germinate a few months later, but it takes over a year for the first crop to be ready to harvest. Then the plants are cut evenly and processed with machinery in a similar manner to the original production method. Green rooibos is unoxidized and less processed, while red rooibos is fully oxidized to change the color to deep reddish brown. The last step is still drying rooibos leaves naturally in the sun. After drying, rooibos factories package the rooibos into either teabags or loose leaf tea packages.

The History of Rooibos Tea Production

In 1772, a European botanist named Carl Thunberg became intrigued by the wild harvesting of rooibos by the local Khoisan tribe. He observed their mountain expeditions to gather the plants and how they processed it into herbal remedies. Thunberg began drinking rooibos tea and got other Cape-Dutch settlers in South Africa interested in trying it. It became a local favorite, since it was much cheaper than the expensive black tea imported from Asian countries.

The local market for rooibos tea grew when Benjamin Ginsberg got involved in 1904. He was a Russian immigrant who moved to Cederberg, with connections within the tea industry. Ginsberg was a skilled marketing expert, and got more people excited to try his ‘mountain tea’ as a healthy alternative to other teas. But the rooibos trade at this time was still limited and only supplied by wild plants. It would take more research to figure out the secret to large scale rooibos farming.

Modern rooibos farming begins with the research of Dr Pieter LeFras Nortier, a medical doctor and botanist. After much experimentation, he unlocked the secret to growing rooibos plants from seed. The trick was to ‘scar’ the seeds by grinding them and planting them in acidic, sandy soil. By 1930 he developed a strain of rooibos that could be farmed. This opened up exciting new agricultural prospects for the Cederberg region. He partnered with Olaf Bergh, a local farmer, and soon the mountain slopes of Cederberg were lined with rows of thriving rooibos farms. Over the next decades, the rooibos industry expanded rapidly into the worldwide market.

How Did Rooibos Tea Become So Popular?

Once word got out about the impressive health benefits of rooibos, the global market started to pay attention to this humble South African plant. This interest was heavily influenced by Dr. Annique Theron, a South African mother who found rooibos helpful for her baby’s colic in 1968. She published a book called Allergies: An Amazing Discovery which highlighted how rooibos tea could soothe allergies in babies. It was very popular and spurred new research into the healing properties of rooibos tea.

More recently, rooibos became a trendy café drink in 2005 when a new company Red Espresso invented a coffee-replacement version of rooibos. This ground version could be brewed in a regular coffee maker to make a strong, rich tea. Still popular in South Africa’s café scene, ‘red cappuccinos’ make a delicious caffeine-free alternative coffee. Since the rooibos leaves are ground into powder, more antioxidants from the plant are released into the beverage. This makes the ‘red cappuccinos’ an exceptionally healthy version of rooibos.

Health Benefits of Rooibos Tea

From helping prevent heart disease to protecting against cancer, the antioxidants in rooibos tea have proved to be just as healthy as black tea and green tea. Yet it contains none of the caffeine, making it a safe choice for all ages and people who are sensitive to caffeine. Scientific research has found many potential healing properties of rooibos tea including:

  • Antioxidant
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Low in tannins
  • Regulates cholesterol
  • Balances blood sugar
  • Cancer prevention
  • Weight loss
  • Digestive health
  • Stronger bones
  • Immune system support

To get the most health benefits from rooibos tea, it is recommended that you drink 4-6 cups daily. But even drinking 1-2 cups of rooibos tea each day supports overall wellness. Follow our easy brewing instructions to make the perfect cup.

How to Brew Rooibos Tea

  1. Boil 8 oz. filtered water.
  2. Measure 1 tsp of rooibos tea leaves into an infuser basket in a mug or small teapot.
  3. Pour the water into the mug/teapot.
  4. Steep for 7-10 minutes.
  5. Remove the infuser basket and enjoy!

Tip: Using a fine mesh strainer to brew loose leaf rooibos tea is important, since the small leaves can easily fall through strainers with larger holes.

Rooibos Tea Today

With increasing demand for rooibos tea, South Africa now produces about 14,000 tons of rooibos per year. There are many varieties of rooibos to choose from and a variety of blends with other teas and herbs. We recommend sticking with loose leaf rooibos tea to ensure it is the highest quality. Loose leaf rooibos will have the most health benefits, and has the strongest flavor. You’ll get the smoothest, sweetest caramel notes with hints of vanilla in each cup. Experiment with different types of rooibos teas to see what you like. We have rooibos chai, lemon soufflé, and many more fun flavors to get you started!

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