Bushmen's brew is now world's haute tea

Getting to the root of rooibos – South Africa's unique red beverage

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

• • •

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.

With World War II limiting other tea imports, rooibos' popularity in South Africa exploded. The market collapsed after the war, but the industry rebounded with the help of cooperatives and control boards. And it grew, slowly and steadily, for the next few decades.

Until the 1990s, sanctions against apartheid South Africa kept the tea from breaking into the big international markets. Besides, tea drinkers were still not that adventurous.

Then, the end of sanctions coincided with a health and natural food craze in the West. Rooibos Ltd. saw a perfect opportunity. It hired public relations consultants to help spread the word: Rooibos is good for you. The tea, they pointed out, is caffeine free (most decaffeinated drinks go through a chemical process) and nutty sweet (no sugar needed). They publicized studies suggesting rooibos' health benefits. And sales started creeping upward.

"As you know, Britain is quite a nation of tea drinkers anyway," says Sarah Haynes, who runs roobois marketing campaigns in Britain. "But people are increasingly looking for healthier offers."

She says rooibos started as a health food in Britain, but soon spread to mainstream stores and cafes. Between 1998 and 2003, Rooibos Ltd.'s exports increased 400 percent. Today, the company sells to 40 countries.

In the US, the tea got an additional marketing boost in 2005, when a federal judge ruled that the word "rooibos" remain in the public domain; a Dallas company had trademarked the name a decade earlier, and had been threatening companies such as Republic of Tea with lawsuits. The US is the fourth largest importer of rooibos, behind Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands.

Still, says Mr. Redelinghuys, Rooibos Ltd.'s marketing manager, "it's a tiny industry." Rooibos makes up only a quarter of 1 percent of world tea production.

Producers hope that Western consumers – now familiar with the tea – will follow South Africa's lead, and start using the plant in other ways. Here, roobois is found in cosmetics – from bubble bath and lotion to soap and shampoo – and is said to improve skin tone and help hair growth. It is also an all-purpose seasoning, used in everything from crème brûlée to lamb chops to jellies, giving food a sweet, nutty taste.

"The next step will be to open people's eyes to the fact that it's an ingredient," says Haynes. "It's got a phenomenal flavor that you just don't get anywhere else.

• • •

Johan Brand knows all about rooibos flavor. At Rooibos Ltd, he, like many other employees, tastes about 18 cups of it a day between January and June.

Mr. Brand acts as a liaison between the company and farmers. Although Rooibos Ltd. deals with about 220 farmers, Brand advises all of the area's 450 growers – a way, he says, of keeping tea quality high and maintaining good relations. He talks with farmers about how to solve some of the peskier problems of the crop: bugs, moles, and fungus. He also helps farmers appease the growing Western consumer base with tips on growing pesticide-free and organic rooibos.

Some in the industry are pushing for a label to designate true rooibos – something equivalent to France's champagne label, where winemakers from the Champagne region are prohibited from calling their product "champagne" unless it meets certain standards.

"You know, it has to come from a certain region, but it also has to have a certain quality," he says, standing in a wind-swept field of scraggly green bushes.

You don't want people at Starbucks to be disappointed, he says.

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