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Rooibos 101

Prized for its reddish color and robust flavor, rooibos is the sweetheart of fair trade purveyors and tea drinkers alike. Walk into any modern café and find the sweet, aromatic leaves starring as a solo act or billed as a caffeine-free alternative to coffee, espresso, and black tea. Your friends’ text messages and social media posts extol the virtues of rooibos and demand that you try it posthaste. But what is rooibos, exactly, and why has it ignited the world’s passion?

Here at Art of Tea, we’ve blended the origins, cultivation, and uses of rooibos into a balanced brew that demystifies the popular herb.

A South African Treasure

Hailing from and grown exclusively in South Africa, rooibos is a legume rather than a true tea. Unlike Camellia sinensis (the traditional tea plant), rooibos boasts yellow springtime blooms that produce bean-like seeds, which ripen and drop into the sandy soil surrounding the bushes. South African farmers gather these seeds and plant them in the mountains, where alternating dry and wet conditions promote their growth over 18 months. Each year, South Africa grows 15,000 tons of rooibos, nearly half of which is exported worldwide.

From Shrub to Shelf

Harvested by hand in the summertime, rooibos stems, and leaves are bundled and sorted to prepare them for the oxidation process, which determines their sweetness, color, and flavor. Varying oxidation levels yield two varieties of the rooibos herb:

  • Green rooibos: Steamed and dried right after harvesting, these stems and leaves are exposed to less oxygen, which keeps them slightly green in color. The result is an earthy, grassy flavor that isn’t as sweet as its reddish counterpart.
  • Red rooibos: These stems and leaves are exposed to oxygen for longer periods, which aids in developing the deep color, rich flavor, and characteristic sweetness we know as rooibos red tea.

Grades of rooibos teas are determined by ratios of leaf to stem. The more leaves and fewer stems a tea contains, the richer its flavor and the higher its grade.

Care and Keeping

Once rooibos moves from South African shrub and to your kitchen shelf, it should be sealed tightly stored away from heat, light, and moisture. While it’s tempting to store your rooibos with other shelf-stable goods, avoid placing it too near fragrant herbs and spices like curry powder, sage, and thyme. Since rooibos tastes best when brewed soon after processing, acquire your tea from a trusted company that includes dates on its packaging, website, or both. Rooibos may become stale after two years even though it doesn’t truly expire.

Brewing the Beauty

While your rooibos may come with brewing instructions printed on the package, you can follow these general guidelines to brew the perfect pot of rooibos magic:

  • Water: Start with cold, fresh spring or filtered water. Use 8 ounces of just-boiled water to brew 2 grams of loose tea.
  • Infusing and steeping: Keep tea covered during infusion, steeping for 4 to 5 minutes. In most cases, you can infuse high-quality rooibos more than once.
  • Taste-testing: Sample your rooibos after the initial steep to see if it matches your strength and flavor preferences. If not, infuse it a bit longer.
  • Add-ins: Once your steep is complete, add finishing touches like cream and sweetener, or simply enjoy your rooibos as is.

Looking to brew some of the World's Best rooibos blends? Art of Tea's Rooibos Chai is the perfect caffeine-free alternative to this popular Indian inspired blend of organic spices and herbs. Velvet Blend is a sweet enticing chocolate elixir, swimming in a deep velvety base of organic rooibos and refreshing mint leaves. It is the perfect answer to a dessert tea. The finish is smooth, complemented by a touch of vanilla. Vanilla Berry Truffle Blend, a delightful caffeine-free dessert blend, is a delectable infusion of enticingly sweet and tangy flavors harmoniously complimented by the soothing smoothness of fresh cream. 

More Than a Mugful

Rooibos is more than just a great hot or iced beverage. In recent years, rooibos teas have become popular as natural dyes in beauty and crafting and as flavor boosters in savory recipes. Makers of health and cosmetic products capitalize on the reported benefits of rooibos by including it as an ingredient in makeup and nutritional supplements. 

Rooted in South African tradition and celebrated for its exceptional color and flavor, rooibos is a stellar contribution to the worldwide palate. 

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