A uniquely South African commodity, rooibos tea is one of those things that’s hard to explain to the uninitiated. Comforting and refreshing, rooibos tea can be enjoyed hot or cold and thanks to the green needle-like leaves of the rooibos plant being naturally caffeine-free (this is because it’s not truly a tea – who knew?), its appealing coppery colour and deeply distinctive aroma, rooibos is gaining popularity as a fantastic caffeine-free alternative to black teas. But what is rooibos tea exactly, and why do South Africans love it so much?
What is rooibos tea?
How do you pronounce “rooibos tea”? That’s easy. It’s “roy-bosss” and it’s literally the Afrikaans word for “red bush” so if someone offers you “red bush tea”, it’s the same thing. However, from a botanical perspective, rooibos is not a true tea at all because it does not come from the tea plant. Rooibos is, in fact, an evergreen shrub that belongs to the pea family, and it grows as a small bush in just one place in South Africa – Cederberg mountain region in the Western Cape.
How is rooibos tea made?
The needle-like green leaves undergo an oxidation process, which is known as fermentation in tea processing lingo. This process is what results in the distinctive reddish-brown colour of rooibos, enhancing the rich flavours. Unoxidised “green” rooibos can also be produced, but this process is similar to the process for green tea, which makes it more expensive than regular rooibos because the production is more demanding.
The name “rooibos” is legally protected
IN 2013, the South African Department of Trade and Industry issued final rules in order to protect and restrict the use of the names “rooibos”, “red bush”, “rooibostee”, “rooibos tea”, “rooitee” and “rooibosch” in that country, so that the name cannot be used for things not derived from the Aspalathus linearis plant, much like the rules on sparkling wine from the French district of “Champagne”.
Your cup of rooibos tea is under threat from climate change
The rooibos plant is native to a small, western coastal region of the Western Cape province in South Africa and because it can only be grown in a symbiotic relationship with certain local micro-organisms, scientists predict that climate change may threaten the future survival of the plant and that rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall levels may lead to the extinction of the plant in the next century.
What are the benefits of drinking rooibos tea?
- Caffeine-free and contains powerful antioxidants.
- High mineral content, improves circulation.
- Provides relief for stomach complaints, assists digestion.
- Aids iron absorption, which is necessary for red blood cell production.
- Can be used topically to relieve skin conditions.
- Is a natural anti-inflammatory agent, promoting healing.
How do you drink rooibos tea?
In South Africa, it is common to prepare rooibos tea in the same manner as black tea, adding milk and sugar to taste. Other serving suggestions include a slice of lemon, lime or orange, a few slices of ginger and honey instead of sugar to sweeten. Rooibos is enjoyed hot or cold, and is served as espressos, lattes, cappuccinos, or iced tea, and has in recent years become a popular cocktail ingredient.
Best enjoyed cold – Rooibos Tea Peach Punch:
This easy to make drink is refreshing and best served poolside in summer. Enjoy without the vodka for a virgin cocktail.
- 500 ml strong rooibos tea cooled
- 500 ml peach juice
- at least 100ml vodka
- 1 lemon thinly sliced
- a handful of fresh mint leaves
- 2 peaches thinly sliced
- Combine all ingredients in a large jug and stir well.
- Garnish and serve over ice.
Best enjoyed piping hot – Apple Cider Rooibos Hot Toddy
- 1 ½ cups apple juice
- ¾ cup of water
- ½ medium lemon, juiced
- 1 cinnamon stick (substitute ¼ tsp ground cinnamon per 1 stick)
- 5-6 slices fresh ginger (roughly a cm thick)
- 1 healthy pinch ground ginger
- 1 pinch each salt + pepper
- 2 rooibos teabags
- 1 pinch ground cayenne (for kick) (optional)
- 1 shot whiskey (optional)
- 1-2 Tbsp sweetener (coconut sugar or maple syrup //also optional)
- Add apple juice, water, lemon, cinnamon stick, fresh ginger, ground ginger, and salt and pepper to a small saucepan and heat over medium heat.
- Bring to a simmer, turn off the heat and add rooibos teabags. Steep for 10-12 minutes, still on the stove with heat turned off.
- Taste and adjust flavour as needed, adding the cayenne and booze at this time.
- If you find it needs more sweetness, add coconut sugar or maple syrup.
- Remove tea bags and divide between two serving glasses, with additional slices of lemon. Serve hot.
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