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Rooibos: South Africa’s Natural Nectar

Story & photos by Pearl Dexter

Rooibos (pronounced “roy-bos”), a plant native to only the Cederberg area of South Africa, is defined by Wikpedia and nearly 2,000 internet sites as Aspalathus linearis - a broom like member of the legume family of plants. In South Africa many know the plant and the beverage as “red bush.”

Rooibos Limited is a familiar name to most in the tea business. They have been a reputable supplier since 1954 with 80% of the domestic market and well over 60% of the international market to China, Japan, Germany, Holland, UK, Eastern Europe and the U.S. They not only provide bulk sales, but also blending, flavoring, extracting and private labeling. More than 250 farms in the Cederberg area contribute to making this company globally renown. A farmer needs 240 hectares to grow rooibos. They need 140,000-160,000 seedlings just to cover 15 hectares. If they planted two years ago, then last year they would have pruned the bushes, and harvested this year. When a field of rooibos has a silvery look when blowing in the wind, it is a sign of a good harvest to come. As it ripens the stems are red at the top. In the South African summer (February) only the rooibos is planted, but come June, farmers plant rye and or oat in between the rows of bushes. Sustainable farming is key to continued use of the land.

Recently I traveled with my colleague Jane Pettigrew to South Africa to learn about rooibos. Shortly after arriving in Cape Town we drove up to Clanwilliam with Arend Redelinghuys, Group marketing manager for Rooibos Limited. The scenery was stunning as we traveled north 200 kilometers to the Cederberg Mountains, stopping along the way for lunch at a winery near Paarl.

The next day Johan Brand and Gerda de Wet took us to see an experimental nursery where seeds and cuttings are planted. The dusty roads led us to a field where we saw Tswana tribe laborers from the northern part of South Africa cutting the plant in swift, deliberate strokes with a scythe, stopping only to sharpen their blades every few minutes with the goal of cutting nearly one ton per day. They bound their cuttings into bundles ready for weighing before loading them onto a truck to be transported to the Rooibos Limited facilities in the town of Clanwilliam. The driver records the weight. An average bundle weighs 14-18 kilos.

Later we toured their state-of-the-art factory and witnessed many of the steps that the plant went through before it was packaged and sent abroad. A rotary blade machine cuts and removes the stalk, sparing the stem and four or five axles (which hold two or three leaves each) to lay out in the sun to oxidize (two different times), sorting, blending, screening, blending again, grading, pasteurizing and finally packing. Some of the processing was similar to the multiple steps with fresh tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. A small percentage of green rooibos is processed, eliminating the oxidation steps. The factory meets strict HACCP specifications. A portion of the rooibos production is organically grown under the supervision of ECOCERT, meeting the standards from Japan, Netherlands and the European Union. Fair Trade, Halaal and kosher rooibos are made available also.

There is a sophisticated quality control department, using gas chromatographs to ensure that any levels of chemical pesticide residues are well below the guidelines accepted by authorities. The Perishable Products Export Control Board for bacteriological and microbiological content monitors the product.

Near the end of our factory tour, Jane and I were happy to taste the different grades of tea in their immaculate Quality Control Center.

Rooibos has been cultivated for over 50 years and has been a favorite beverage for South Africans for more than a century, and even earlier for native tribes. It became popular in Europe long before the U.S. and is increasingly added to tea menus across America.

Aware of the growing demand, Rooibos Limited built a gigantic warehouse to prepare for the future needs of their customers, which will guarantee quick shipment of orders. The packed product has a shelf life of over three years.

Along with being versatile in beverage recipes, it is a natural addition and/or liquid substitute for desserts, soups, salads and main course recipes. Its versatility extends into the cosmetic and beauty products industry. I brought back rooibos scrub, soap, moisturizer cream and shampoo. The cream aids irritated eczema-like skin and improves overall complexion. For the health conscious consumers, the beverage is positively attractive. Naturally free of preservatives and added color, the major appeal is that the drink is caffeine free and rich in antioxidants. It blends well with other flavors and is delicious iced, hot or as a frothy rooibos cappuccino.

Pearl Dexter is the editor/publisher of TEA A MAGAZINE (www.teamag.com). For in depth information please visit: www.rooibosltd.co.za.

Tea & Coffee - May, 2010

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