Rooibos (Anglicized pronunciation: // ROY-bos; Afrikaans pronunciation: [rɔːibɔs], meaning "red bush"; scientific name Aspalathus linearis) is a broom-like member of the legume family of plants growing in South Africa's fynbos.
The generic name comes from the plant Calicotome villosa, aspalathos in Greek. This plant has very similar growth and flowers to the rooibos plant. The specific name linearis comes from the plant's linear growing structure and needle-like leaves.
The leaves are used to make a herbal tea called rooibos or bush tea (especially in Southern Africa) or sometimes redbush tea (especially in England). The product has been popular in Southern Africa for generations and is now consumed in many countries. It is sometimes spelled rooibosch in accordance with the old Dutch etymology.
Production and processing
Generally, the leaves are oxidized (often termed 'fermentation' in common tea processing terminology). This process produces the distinctive reddish-brown color of rooibos and enhances the flavor. Unoxidized "green" rooibos is also produced, but the more demanding production process for green rooibos (similar to the method by which green tea is produced) makes it more expensive than traditional rooibos. It carries a malty and slightly grassy flavour somewhat different from its red counterpart.
In South Africa, it is common to prepare rooibos tea in the same manner as black tea and add milk and sugar to taste. Other methods include a slice of lemon and using honey instead of sugar to sweeten.
Several coffee shops in South Africa have recently begun to sell red espresso, which is concentrated rooibos served and presented in the style of ordinary espresso. This has given rise to rooibos-based variations of coffee drinks such as red lattes and red cappuccinos.
Iced tea made from rooibos has recently been introduced in South Africa, Australia, and the United States. A variant of the drink London Fog, known as a Cape Town Fog, can also be made using rooibos steeped in steamed milk with vanilla syrup.
It is becoming more popular in Western countries, possibly due to its lack of caffeine and low tannin levels compared to black tea or green tea. Rooibos contains polyphenols, including flavanols, flavones, flavanones, and dihydrochalcones.
Rooibos grades are largely related to the percentage "needle" or leaf to stem content in the mix. A higher leaf content results in a darker liquor, richer flavour, and less "dusty" aftertaste. The high-grade rooibos is exported and does not reach local markets, with major consumers being the EU, particularly Germany, where it is used in creating flavoured blends for loose-leaf tea markets. In development within South Africa are a small number of specialty tea companies producing similar blends.
Through the 17th and 18th centuries, European travellers and botanists visiting the Cederberg region in South Africa commented on the profusion of "good plants" for curative purposes. In 1772, Swedish naturalist Carl Thunberg noted, "the country people made tea" from a plant related to rooibos or redbush.
Traditionally, the local people would climb the mountains and cut the fine, needle-like leaves from wild rooibos plants. They then rolled the bunches of leaves into hessian bags and brought them down the steep slopes on the backs of donkeys. The leaves were then chopped with axes and bruised with hammers, before being left to dry in the sun.
In 1904, Benjamin Ginsberg, a Russian Jewish settler to the Cape, riding in the remote mountains, became fascinated with this wild tea. He ran a wide variety of experiments at Rondegat Farm, finally perfecting the curing of rooibos. He simulated the traditional Chinese method of making very fine Keemun, by fermenting the tea in barrels, covered in wet, hessian sacking that replicates the effects of bamboo baskets.
In the 1930s, Ginsberg persuaded local doctor and Rhodes scholar Dr. Le Fras Nortier to experiment with cultivation of the plant. Le Fras Nortier cultivated the first plants at Clanwilliam on the Klein Kliphuis farm. The tiny seeds were difficult to obtain, as they dispersed as soon as the pods cracked, and would not germinate without scarifying. Le Fras Nortier paid the local villagers, some of whom were his patients, to collect seeds. An aged Khoi woman came again and again, receiving a shilling for each matchbox filled with seed. She had found an unusual seed source: having chanced upon ants dragging seed, she followed them back to their nest and, on breaking it open, found a granary. The attempts by Dr. Le Fras Nortier were ultimately successful, which led Ginsberg to encourage local farmers to cultivate the plant in the hope that it would become a profitable venture. Klein Kliphuis became a tea farm, and within 10 years, the price of seeds soared to an astounding £80 a pound, the most expensive vegetable seed in the world. Today, the seed is gathered by special sifting processes, and Klein Kliphuis is now a guest farm.
Since then, rooibos has grown in popularity in South Africa, and has also gained considerable momentum in the worldwide market. A growing number of brand-name tea companies sell this tea, either by itself or as a component in an increasing variety of blends.
US trademark controversy
In 1994, Burke International registered the name "Rooibos" with the US Patent and Trademark Office, thus establishing a monopoly on the name in the United States at a time when it was virtually unknown there. When the plant later entered more widespread use, Burke demanded that companies either pay fees for use of the name, or cease its use. In 2005, the American Herbal Products Association and a number of import companies succeeded in defeating the trademark through petitions and lawsuits; after losing one of the cases, Burke surrendered the name to the public domain.
Legal protection of the name Rooibos
The South African Department of Trade and Industry issued final rules on September 6, 2013 that protects and restricts the use of the name Rooibos in that country. Similar legislation (protection of the names Champagne and Port, for example) already exists in Europe.
Threat from climate change
The rooibos plant is endemic to a small part of the western coast of the Western Cape province of South Africa, forming part of the fragile fynbos biome. It grows in a symbiotic relationship with local micro-organisms, and past attempts to grow it outside this area, in places as far afield as the United States, Australia, and China, have all failed. Scientists speculate that climate change may threaten the future survival of the plant and the R600-million rooibos industry. Some claim that increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall may result in the extinction of the plant within the next century.
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- South African Rooibos Council
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