What you might not have known about our rooibos heritage

2019-09-12 15:00
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Inside every South African's cupboard you'll find at least a handful of rooibos teabags. It's a staple of any grocery list, and when visiting friends and family you'll be almost guaranteed that they will have the aromatic tea ready for a cosy brew.

While it's such a big part of our society, many might not actually know all that much about where this national treasure is grown, how it's harvested and its fascinating health properties.

The SA Rooibos Council (SARC) hopes to educate South Africa a bit more about the tea over Heritage Month and help people foster a newfound appreciation whenever they sip on it heartily on a cold early morning.

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Know what a rooibos flower looks like?

Every spring the rooibos bush is covered in beautiful tiny yellow flowers, which after pollination forms a seedpod with a single seed inside.

It grows up to 1.5 metres in height and has thin branches that carry bright green, needle-like leaves. And, like the people of our country, rooibos is a hardy shrub that can survive the toughest of conditions.

yellow flowers on rooibos bush

Each spring, rooibos farmers are greeted by a field of yellow flowers growing on the bush, which carries the next generation of Aspalathus Linearis – the botanical name for rooibos. (Photo: Rooibos Ltd)

yellow flowers on rooibos bush

(Photo: Rooibos Ltd)

Ever seen a rooibos seed?

They are tiny and sown between February and March each year. It takes roughly about 18 months before the bush can be harvested for the first time. 

rooibos seeds

Collecting rooibos seeds can be tricky as they spontaneously burst out when ripe. In the olden days rooibos seeds were collected from anthills as ants harvested the seeds. These days, farmers collect the seeds by sifting the sand around the plants. (Photo: Rooibos Ltd)

It only really grows in one region in SA.

Rooibos only grows in the Cederberg region of the Western Cape. Although farmers have tried to grow it elsewhere in the world, the climate, soil and conditions just aren’t conducive, and the SARC likes to think that nature intended it that way.

map of where rooibos is grown in the cederberg

(Photo: Rooibos Ltd)

Rooibos goes through a lot of purity testing.

The purity of rooibos is also a tightly controlled process. From the time the crop is harvested to when it is pasteurised, various tests are conducted to guarantee that every single cup (no matter which brand you drink) is 100% pure. 

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How does it turn into tea?

Once the crop has been harvested, it is cut to lengths of between 1.5mm and 5mm. The cuttings are then bruised and moistened to 60% after which fermentation takes place (fermentation is defined as enzymatic oxidation) for eight to 12 hours at a temperature of between 34°C – 38°C.

During this process the characteristic aroma and red colour develop. Rooibos is then spread thinly on concrete drying yards to dry. Once this process is complete, the tea is sorted and graded by length, colour, flavour and taste before being pasteurised by steam.

rooibos being harvested

Rooibos develops its characteristic aroma and red colour during the fermentation process where it is spread thinly on concrete drying yards to dry for up to 12 hours. (Photo: Rooibos Ltd)

There are several different rooibos grades.

The ‘superior long cut’ is ideal for blending with pieces of fruit and flowers, while an ‘extra fine cut’ lends itself for use in confectionery and espressos.

A ‘super cut’ is mostly used in a standard rooibos tea bag, which makes the tea softer in taste and helps to release more active substances in the cup.

fine cut rooibos

(Photo: Rooibos Ltd)

What's in rooibos?

Each cup of rooibos tea is packed with healthy flavonoids, including aspalathin – a powerful antioxidant unique to the plant. Rooibos is also caffeine-free, low in tannin and contains no fat or proteins and is therefore kilojoule-free. Up to six cups can be enjoyed daily.

Only rooibos grown in Cederberg can be called rooibos.

In 2014, rooibos received geographical indicator (GI) status, which means that tea can only be called rooibos if it comes from a defined area in the Cederberg and surrounds. It’s a proudly South African product, which is exported to more than 30 countries across the globe.

The rooibos brand is 115 years old!

The first rooibos brand was launched by Benjamin Ginsberg from his general dealer shop in Clanwilliam and is still sold today. 

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*Compiled by Gabi Zietsman

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