New ingredients come in every year in the tea world. If you consider the herbal tea world, there are half a dozen bases for all herbal teas. These include chamomile, mint, hibiscus, and rosehips, which form the flavor foundation for many herbal teas. They’re all many centuries old and used widely. But rooibos has only been a worldwide tea ingredient for 25 years.
In the early 1990s, rooibos began circulating into the United States. For many years, well before colonizers arrived in South Africa, local South African tribes had harvested rooibos leaves and made a beverage out of them. Over 100 years ago, a Russian immigrant with a tea background immigrated to South Africa, tried rooibos, liked it, and started popularizing it in the country. There wasn’t much trade with South Africa until political changes happened through the leadership of Nelson Mandela and the fall of apartheid. Then rooibos first made its way to Europe where there’s a rich herbal tea drinking tradition and later it came to the United States.
I first heard about rooibos from a German company. I had trouble saying the name, just like most people do when they first see it, but I liked the flavor. They said that four out of five people who try it, like it. And, I can concur that it’s a likeable herbal tea. Rooibos is now a common drink. Most people now know how to say it (roy-bus). It’s very much accepted and widely blended as a base in herbal teas. The key to its success lies in the exact reason why I drink it.
I’m not an herbal tea guy – most herbal teas are too… herbal. I can appreciate and cup herbal teas, but when I’m sitting down to a cup of tea, I drink mostly black tea like Darjeeling or Keemun. Rooibos is the perfect herbal tea for black tea drinkers like me. The color of rooibos is similar to black tea and its flavor is herbaceous and neutral. Not all rooibos is the same. A good rooibos will have sturdy body, a little bit of a dry kick to it though not astringent. And I differ with others who describe the flavor as earthy. Instead, a magical combination coalesces into tasting like a combination of vanilla, saffron, and redwood bark. If it’s low quality rooibos, it can taste moldy. When I think of rooibos, I think of red rooibos, but green rooibos also exists. Just like tea, rooibos leaves oxidize. So, when green tea became popular, someone had an idea to make green rooibos. I wouldn’t put green rooibos on the same level as green tea though. To me, green rooibos tastes raw and is missing the red color I enjoy. Only about 5-10% of rooibos leaves get reserved for green rooibos.
What makes rooibos a big deal is that it’s the only wildly consumed base herbal tea that’s recently come onto the market. It seems like it’s available everywhere and yet rooibos comes from one specific place in the world. To this day, it only grows in one mountain range in one country of the world, the Western Cape area of the Cedarburg Mountain range in South Africa. There have been attempts to get the seeds and plant them elsewhere in the world but those attempts have failed. Organic rooibos is available in large part because not much else grows in the dry desert-like climate where it thrives. The small seeds can be hard to propagate. Rooibos harvest happens during the Southern hemisphere summer where the leaves are cut with a hand-scythe from the fields or out in the wild to later be processed in a factory.
Culturally speaking, in South Africa, it has a reputation for being good for your skin and for babies. Apparently, it would help with colicky babies and babies with skin rashes. It became something nursing mothers would drink. That’s probably its biggest reputation as a healthy beverage. In South Africa, you can find shampoo and soaps with rooibos in them too. Recently, some studies have purported that rooibos is also rich in antioxidants.
At one time, a pocket of the population in the U.S. referred to rooibos as red tea, which is a bit confusing. Rooibos doesn’t come from the Camellia Sinensis plant and if you visit China, you will find that the Chinese refer to what we would call black tea as red tea because the term in Mandarin for what we know as black tea is “hong cha” which directly translates to “red tea.”
As a base for herbal teas, rooibos blends best with tastes that would go with black tea, like vanilla. That’s probably one of my favorite flavors to pair with it. Rooibos chai works well too, as our popular Coco Chai loose tea indicates. You don’t see it quite as often blended with chamomile and occasionally it is found in blends with mint like our Chocolate Mint Truffle. It doesn’t play as well with flowers. Rooibos is more on the fruit and spice side and is often the 80 – 90% base of a blend.
Appealing to a lot of people creates a platform to make a lot of intriguing herbal flavors. More Americans drink black tea than any other type of tea. It’s still number one. Rooibos is the only herbal that comes close to how black tea taste. If you think about it, rooibos is like everybody’s best friend. It tastes great hot or iced. It mixes well with other ingredients, making it accessible with a subtle taste for easy drinking.