The local people of the Western Cape region of South Africa have recognized and enjoyed the benefits of the rooibos tea bush for centuries. In the last few decades, awareness of this plant and its amazing potential has spread throughout Europe and the Americas. In the mid-1700s, a Swedish botanist observed that the leaves of this bush could be harvested, processed, and steeped into a hot beverage similar to black tea. Locals would pick the leaves from the bush, which grows exclusively in the mountainous terrain of this small area in South Africa, and then bring them back to level ground for a primitive curing process. The leaves were chopped and bruised, and then left out in the sun to dry. Once fully dried, the leaves could be steeped and served in place of black tea, which was in limited supply and very expensive.
While rooibos infusions remained a very popular drink in South Africa, it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that advancements in cultivation of the rooibos bush made increased production and distribution a possibility. A special sifting process was developed to isolate the rooibos seed, and thus the bush could be planted and raised under the watchful eye of local farmers. Further developments in the curing process enhanced the flavor and appearance of the final product, making it even more popular in South Africa and the rest of the world.
When steeped into a tea-like infusion, rooibos has a pleasing, naturally sweet and slightly nutty flavor. Dried rooibos is graded for quality, with higher grades containing a larger proportion of leaves to stem pieces. The highest grades of dried rooibos have the darkest, richest, and boldest flavor. A rooibos infusion tastes great on its own, and also mixes very well with a variety of other herbal infusions and true teas to create a countless array of blends and flavors. Many people enjoy the taste of rooibos; is it rich and complex like a black true tea, but lower tannin levels leave rooibos without the slight bitterness that many black teas have.
Beyond its pleasant flavor, rooibos contains a number of compounds that make it a healthful drink; its growing popularity is largely due to its health potential. Rooibos is packed full of powerful antioxidants, which help to neutralize and destroy harmful free radicals in the body. It also boasts a wealth of phenolic compounds and is completely caffeine-free. It has long been used to ease tension, relieve the symptoms of allergies, and to combat digestive issues. Although there is no scientific evidence to support the efficacy of rooibos in these medicinal applications, it is a relative newcomer to the Western world; research is ongoing. Even if further study proves that rooibos is ineffective in treating anxiety or digestive problems, the antioxidant properties alone make rooibos a valuable addition to a healthful life. With its health benefits, delicious flavor, and numerous blending possibilities, rooibos is sure to continue to rise in popularity and consumption in the U.S.