Rooibos is made from the plant Aspalathus linearis and not from the Camellia family at all despite often being called bush tea or redbush tea. This is because its name means “Red Bush” in Afrikaans and is often drunk as an alternative to tea. It is naturally caffeine free and low in tannins with numerous health benefits. It has enjoyed several periods of popularity in Africa and is recently reaching a wider international market with all people.
History of Rooibos
Rooibos has been collected and drunk for centuries by the Khoisan tribe of the Cederberg region of South Africa who used it as a herbal medicine. They would climb the mountains and cut the fine needle-like leaves from the wild plants, take them home rolled into hessian bags, and have them chopped up with axes and bruised with hammers before being left to dry in the sun. In 1772 the Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg noted that the country people made a tea from a red bush plant and it begun to be used by Dutch settlers as an alternative to the expensive black tea that had to be imported from Ceylon.
In 1904 Benjamin Ginsberg, a Russian Jewish immigrant with a long family history in the tea market, begun to trade with the people of the mountains and opened rooibos to a wider market under the name “mountain tea”. He experimented extensively on the new bush to perfect the curing method, eventually settling on a method similar to that of making very fine keemun tea, by fermenting it in barrels, covered in wet, hessian sacks that replicates the effects of bamboo baskets. Then, in the 1930s, he persuaded a local doctor, Dr. le Fras Nortier, to experiment with cultivation methods at which he eventually succeeded against numerous difficulties, allowing the crop to be cultivated commercially.
During World War II imports of black tea from Ceylon were again expensive and rooibos had a surge in popularity but after the war the tea market in South Africa collapsed and the producers allied themselves into the Clanwilliam Tea Cooperative in order to save their industry in 1948. They requested a Rooibos Tea Control Board to be set up by the Minister of Agriculture in 1954 with the aims of regulating marketing, stabilizing prices and improving and standardizing quality. This board has enabled rooibos to be enjoyed around the world while refining its production methods.
Today it is enjoyed in any number of ways, as a standard tea, or in concentrated “espresso” forms, iced or mixed with milk to make “red lattes” or “red cappuccinos” and even uses as diverse as a meat tenderizer and marinade or base for soups in cooking, anti-allergic soaps and skin creams or as a bath infusion.
Health Benefits of Rooibos Tea
Rooibos is traditionally used for alleviative infantile cholic, allergies, asthma and dermatological problems. It has also been suggested to help with tension, headaches, insomnia and digestive problems. It is naturally caffeine free and has half the tannins of regular tea that are suggested to prevent absorption of iron in the body. It is very rich in antioxidants that give it an anti-spasmodic, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal actions, especially quercetin, which has been shown in trials to relieve the symptoms of prostatitis and cystitis.
By applying the tea directly to the skin, adding to the bath or rinsing the hair, rooibos has been found to be excellent for treating eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, nappy rash, sunburn and acne. Hospitals in South Africa regularly add rooibos to the baths of children as well as giving it in food and drink.
Types of Rooibos
Rooibos does not have the thousands of varieties that tea from the Camellia senensis plant has and all cultivation is done in just one small area of the Western Cape province of South Africa. There are only two significant varieties, the regular “red” variety and an unoxidized “green” rooibos. Due to the more demanding production methods required for green rooibos it is more expensive and less commercially available than the traditional variety and has a malty, grassy flavour rather different from the sweet taste of the red kind. There is also another bush used for making tisanes in South Africa that is similar to rooibos called Honeybush which fans of rooibos looking for an alternative beverage could try.
Preparation of Rooibos
Rooibos is most usually prepared the same way as black tea but is less delicate than normal tea and can be reheated many times, kept in a thermos flask for hours or cooled and kept in the fridge for up to two weeks without impairing the flavour. It is already sweet but can be sweetened further with lemon or honey or flavoured with spices and fruits.