Drinks Atlas: Rooibos Tea from Western Cape, South Africa - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Rooibos Tea from Western Cape, South Africa

Whether due to environmental causes or sheer luck, the flowering shrub rooibos wound up in South Africa’s Western Cape. Growing both wild and in cultivated rows, rooibos—which resembles the green cousin of a tumbleweed—is endemic to a slender range of the country’s Cederberg region. It flourished there exclusively for centuries. “It’s mountainous, airy, and just a little bit dry, which is what that plant needs to thrive,” says Alfonso “Ali” Wright, co-owner, with partner Jamila McGill, of New York’s Brooklyn Tea, which just opened a location in Atlanta.

A member of the Aspalathus genus, rooibos (an Afrikaans word meaning “red bush”) grows between half a meter to 2 meters high. For centuries, the indigenous Khoi and San peoples used antioxidant-rich rooibos as a drink (technically a tisane, though nowadays often called tea) and herbal remedy. After sharing their traditional knowledge of the plant with tea-drinking Dutch colonists in 1772, the KhoiSan were later marginalized by the profitable industrialization of rooibos in the 20th century. The rooibos plant’s needle-like leaves are harvested approximately December through March and processed similarly to the Camellia sinensis tea plant: They’re bruised, fermented, and then sun-dried, activating the leaves’ brick-red transformation. The resulting caffeine-free brew is beloved for its vibrant color and subtly sweet, nutty flavor.

For nearly 40 years, beginning in 1954, rooibos was monopolized by the government-run Rooibos Tea Control Board. Trade sanctions imposed on apartheid-era South Africa meant rooibos was largely unknown outside the country during this time. The country’s 1994 democratic elections spurred its introduction to foreign markets. Familiarity with and demand for the herb (which was granted geographical indicator status in 2014) has been further heightened by increased travel and access to South Africa. “With travel, comes cultural awareness,” McGill says.

Following advocacy efforts and decades of negotiation, a benefit-sharing agreement was announced between industry representatives and the National Khoi-San Council in 2019. The KhoiSan, plus a group of small-scale farmers harmed under apartheid-era regulations, now receive 1.5 percent of the value farmers get from processors. “I think it’s unheard of for most Indigenous folks, benefitting [from a product] years later, after it’s been marketed towards the world,” Wright says. While McGill notes she’s unsure of how life-altering this percentage actually is, the agreement offers an example of just compensation. “When we heard these people were actually, truly benefitting from the product, we were excited to be carrying it in our store,” Wright says.


*South Africa’s economic difficulties and the growing threat of climate change both pose challenges to rooibos. And land degradation is a chief concern of rooibos production. Hectares of the Western Cape’s Fynbos biome are plowed under to plant monocultures of the crop, threatening biodiversity. But recent conservation initiatives have helped raise awareness.

*Around 2000, a severe drought in the Cederberg region led to private trials of rooibos production in the small village of Elim, along the southern coast. Initial successes there led an increasing number of small-scale farmers to cultivate the herb.

*The Western Cape is also home to the herbs honeybush and buchu, which are prepared locally as tisanes. With rooibos leading the way, “I think that people are opening the door in learning and exploring,” says McGill. “It’s going to be fun to watch everyone learn more about all these untapped teas.”

5 to Try

Green Rooibos While rooibos is known for its red color, the tea is also available in its unoxidized green form. Brooklyn Tea’s founders describe this loose-leaf tea as grassier in nature than red rooibos. “It looks a lot like green tea, but it kind of tastes like its own category,” says Wright. From $5.99, brooklyntea.com

Vanilla Rooibos “Rooibos has a wonderful ruby color when steeped, and delivers a slightly sweet and nutty taste that is in no way overpowering,” says Wright. “This makes it an optimal base for combining with almost any other flavor.” Among their rooibos-based offerings, Brooklyn Tea’s Vanilla Rooibos is a crowd favorite. And Wright and McGill recommend it as a caffeine-free alternative to black tea. Combining rooibos with slivered almonds and bourbon vanilla, the cozy brew is best served with a splash of milk. From $5.99, brooklyntea.com

Hibiscus Rooibos Two legendary ruby brews unite in this Hibiscus Rooibos blend from Rishi. The blend leans into flavors that frequently complement the Caribbean’s famous hibiscus brew sorel, combining orange peel and pineapple with licorice root and lemongrass, while sarsaparilla root lends creaminess to the mix. From $3, rishi-tea.com

Rooibos If you prefer to brew in bag format, Numi has an unblended rooibos offering. The tea purveyor has been sourcing its rooibos from the same farmers since 1999. And the small-scale farming operation integrates wild landscape into their cultivated areas to promote and protect biodiversity. From $7.49 for 18 ct. box, shop.numitea.com

Mrs. Rooiboson This blend from Oakland’s Flowerhead Tea mixes the South African herb with refreshing peppermint and a warming spice blend of clove and cinnamon. Rose petals add a floral dimension to the tisane, which is mildly sweet, with a comforting character. $17, flowerheadtea.com

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