Bushmen's brew is now world's haute tea
Getting to the root of rooibos – South Africa's unique red beverage
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Clanwilliam is a sleepy town of less than 5,000 people in rugged, rural South Africa. Not long ago, bushmen foraged a living in the arid scrubland around town; today, farmers drive over dusty roads in 4x4s to check on their crops.Skip to next paragraph
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It's not exactly trendy.
But in upscale cafes in the US and Europe, consumers are clamoring for something only Clanwilliam has. They want rooibos – a naturally sweet and caffeine-free tea that has become the new "in" drink for the health-conscious, a plant only grown within a 60-mile radius of this town.
Centuries ago, rooibos was a drink of the bushmen, who chopped the bush's stalks, bruised them with hammers, and let them ferment and dry in the sun – to be sipped later in a warm brew over cooking fires. Today, customers pay almost $3 for a cup of rooibos, or $16 to $24 for a pound in bulk retail. (The wholesale price is less than $3 a pound.) The popular Tea Spot in New York's West Village sells a variety of rooibos blends – including one with cinnamon, ginger, vanilla, and lemon grass. Last year, Celestial Seasonings sold about 350,000 boxes of its rooibos-based teas, including "Red Safari Spice" and "African Orange Mango." Even Starbucks sells rooibos.
"It was probably eight or nine years ago that we added rooibos to our menu," says Michelle Brown, the co-owner of Teaism, a Washington, D.C. shop that sells a "Star of Africa" blend that includes rooibos, yellow plum, orange, apple, papaya, and pineapple. "Since then the popularity has increased tremendously. It's just got good flavor: it's good iced, it's good hot, it's good with milk and sugar, it's good so many different ways."
For Clanwilliam, this means business. In 2004, growing demand pushed up roobois prices from 70 cents a pound to over $2, encouraging more farmers to grow the bush. Now, there are more than 450 rooibos farmers – up from about 220 three years ago. This year's was the biggest harvest ever: 15,000 tons, now heading to distributors in Germany, tea houses in Japan, supermarkets in England, and cafes in the US.
"Rooibos has been very good to the farmers lately," says Arend Redelinghuys, group marketing manager at Rooibos Ltd., the world's biggest supplier of rooibos tea and one of the region's largest employers.
Although prices dropped this year due to increased supply, people in the business say farmers are still keen to go on planting. And they're confident the demand for the bushman's plant will keep growing.
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The story of the little plant that made it big starts here in the Cedarberg Mountains.
At first glance, the rooibos bush is unremarkable. It is almost spindly, with needle-like stalks, and looks like just another scrub in the fynbos – the ecologically rich heathland of western South Africa.
Despite its name, it's not red but earthy green. Rooibos, or "red bush" in Afrikaans, refers to the plant after fermentation, when its stalks turn a deep auburn.
According to local lore, it was a Russian immigrant named Benjamin Ginsberg who first recognized the plant's economic potential. In 1904, he started trading with local bushmen, and then sold it as "mountain tea" across South Africa. Three decades later, a doctor named P. le Fras Nortier convinced local white farmers to cultivate it themselves.