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Everything you needed to know about red tea.
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We’ll drink to that
It may not have the pomp and circumstance of an Earl Grey, the smoky draw of a lapsang souchong, or the relaxing serenity of a chamomile, but rooibos has a certain charm worth lifting your pinky for. Grown only in the Cederberg Mountain region of South Africa, it has a robust, woodsy flavor with vanilla-like notes with a rounder, fuller body than a typical black tea.
Rooibos (Afrikaans for “red bush”) has become a fixture on café menus in Europe and the US in recent years, but it has long been sipped in South Africa, first by the Khoisan peoples and then by Dutch, British, and Russian colonists who turned indigenous knowledge of the plant into a thriving industry. While the legacy of colonization and apartheid has left rooibos production almost entirely in the hands of white growers and processors, South Africa has taken potentially ground-breaking steps to compensate Khoisan communities. Let’s spill the tea.
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By the digits
16,000 tons: Annual rooibos production in South Africa
4,000 tons: Annual production in 1993, during the fall of apartheid
2-3 minutes: Recommended steep time to brew red espresso—a coffee-like version of rooibos—in a French press
>8,000: Varieties of wild flowers and herbs that grow in the Cederberg conservancy, home to rooibos
70%: Increase in sales a rooibos company credited to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and its rooibos-drinking heroine, in a letter to series author and tea fanatic Alexander McCall Smith
210: Calories in a Starbucks grande rooibos latte
£2.75 ($3.55): Price of a red apple rooibos latte at Starbucks in 2018
32: Size, in hectares, of the Audacia winery in Stellenbosch, which makes rooibos-wooded wine
5.6 billion: Cups of tea the annual rooibos harvest could brew
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As with most recent foodie “discoveries”—see quinoa, açaí, chia seeds—rooibos has been around for a long time. It first gained international exposure with Dutch settlers in the 1770s.
Russian native Benjamin Ginsberg began selling rooibos in 1904. By the 1920s, overharvesting became a major problem. Production greatly expanded in 1930, when botanist Pieter Le Fras Nortier found a way to cultivate the rooibos seed on a larger scale.
In 1954, a control board was established to stabilize the small industry during a market downturn. In 1968, a South African mother, Annique Theron, claimed that rooibos tea cleared up her infant daughter’s allergies; she started a company that expanded into 250 products, and sparked interest in its potential medical benefits.
When the apartheid regime fell in the early 1990s, rooibos began to find an international audience. Today, about half of the annual crop is exported to more than 30 countries.
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“It smells like a mix of NyQuil and my grandpa’s pipe and tastes very mildly of both. But, and here’s the thing: not in a bad way.”
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The way we 🍵 now
Long before the industrialization of rooibos production, South Africa’s indigenous Khoisan peoples consumed it. When it went commercial under colonial rule, the Khoisan lost much of their access to the plant, and to the land on which it grew.
In 2019, South Africa agreed that when farmers sell their rooibos to tea processors, an annual “traditional knowledge levy of 1.5%” will go to Khoisan communities. The total could top $800,000 yearly. That’s a very small share of the industry’s estimated $23 billion annual revenue, but the agreement was more about recognition than finances.
“This is the first time since knowledge was misappropriated over 150 and 200 years ago that the communities are firstly recognized as traditional knowledge holders and, as a result of that, qualify for benefit sharing,” Lesle Jansen, an attorney who represented the National Khoisan Council in the negotiations, told Quartz. The documentary Rooibos Restitution shows how the decision came together.
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Rooibos received GI (geographic indicator) status in 2014, meaning that tea can only be called rooibos if it was grown in the Cederberg region of South Africa. Other GI statuses include Champagne, Stilton cheese, and Vidalia onions.
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Explain it like I’m 5!
While our impulse may be to reach for an icy beverage when the mercury rises, a series of studies conducted by the University of Ottawa has found that hot drinks cool us down better.
“When you ingest a hot drink, you actually have a disproportionate increase in the amount that you sweat,” researcher Ollie Jay told Smithsonian. “Yes, the hot drink is hotter than your body temperature, so you are adding heat to the body, but the amount that you increase your sweating by—if that can all evaporate—more than compensates for the added heat to the body from the fluid.”
Jay and his team measured the amount of oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide produced by cyclists in a lab, while also tracking air temperature and humidity. Afterward, the studies showed that the bikers who drank water heated to about 122°F stored less heat in their bodies than those who drank cool water.
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Million-dollar question: Is rooibos actually tea?
Like other herbal “teas,” rooibos isn’t truly tea. In the strictest sense of the word, tea comes from Camellia sinensis in the plant family Theaceae. Rooibos doesn’t come from this plant family—neither do chamomile, echinacea, mint, and lavender. None of those are technically tea, but rather, tisanes, also known as herbal teas.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food, true tea is classified first by its level of fermentation after the leaves are harvested (rooibos is also fermented). The level of oxidation and the method of drying and fermentation also contribute to the nuances of their flavor. White and green teas are unfermented; oolong is semi-fermented; and black and pu-erh teas are fully fermented. Classifications like Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon, and Formosa indicate where the tea was grown. Some varieties, like Earl Grey, jasmine, and orange pekoe are blended with oils or leaves from other aromatic plants to produce their signature flavors.
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Rooibos isn’t just for sipping from a mug. Bartenders have been using it as a buzzy cocktail ingredient—its distinct flavor mixes well with everything from shochu and blackberries, to gin and vermouth, to whiskey and honey in a twist on a classic hot toddy.
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