Known for centuries only to tribes in South Africa, rooibos tea (pronounced ROY-boss) has created a buzz among American herbal infusion enthusiasts for its healthy reputation and its versatility. This so-called “red tea” is really a caffeine-free tisane made from the leaves of the rooibos plant. In Afrikaans, the word rooibos actually means “red bush,” though the leaves of the bush are green until dried and fermented. If you’re curious about caffeine-free African tea, consider trying rooibos tea.
Production and Composition
The rooibos plant is Aspalathus linearis, native to the Cedarburg mountain area in western South Africa. When the leaves are harvested during the southern hemisphere summer, they are dried and fermented to produce what we know as “red tea.” Naturally caffeine-free, high in antioxidant compounds, and low in tannin, rooibos tea enjoys a special composition. Unlike regular decaffeinated tea, which is subjected to a process that nullifies antioxidant qualities, rooibos is able to retain these vital compounds because it is already free of caffeine. The low tannin content means that rooibos tea lacks overwhelming astringent qualities and is thus less bitter than other teas.
In recent years, unfermented leaves have been used used to prepared a different version of rooibos tea. This process (and the subsequent infusion) creates a green-coloured rooibos tea – in other words, green “red bush” tea. How’s that for a misleading name? Much like decaffeination, fermentation reduces the antioxidant levels, so the desire to produce unfermented rooibos is based upon maximizing antioxidant content. Regular rooibos, though, remains far more popular because of its taste.
Rooibos tea is especially versatile. Because of its low tannin content, it can be steeped for long periods of time, optimizing infusion of the tea’s healthful composition and enriching the flavour without bitterness. The taste is somewhat fruity, though not overpowering. Nutty undertones sometimes complement the sweet flavour, resulting in an even more subtle taste. Some commercially produced rooibos is flavoured with additional fruit elements to expound upon this taste theme. Mango and peach rooibos teas are especially popular, but the tried and true “plain” rooibos is just as enjoyable.
Served both hot and cold, rooibos tea can satiate year-round. Whether you’re hunkered down for winter with a hot cup or seeking summer relief with a cold cup, this tea is seasonally capable. Somewhere along the way, probably during South African colonial times, the British practice of adding milk to tea was extended to rooibos, and that remains a common preparation technique. All in all, rooibos shines with or without additives, long-steeped or short-steeped, hot or cold, and with or without milk. Talk about utili-tea!
Quasi-medicinal uses of rooibos run the gamut from digestive aid and allergy reliever to skin cleanser and immune booster. Rooibos tea is especially rich in polyphenol antioxidants known as flavonoids. Aspalathin, orientin, and rutin are just three of these substances prevalent in rooibos. In the 1970s, a South African woman successfully treated her infant for colic (excessive crying) with rooibos and began informal experiments aimed at correlating rooibos with colic reduction. While research is mixed regarding the exact health benefits of rooibos (other than its high antioxidant levels), the best reason to drink the tea may be its natural caffeine-free status.
Where to Buy Rooibos Tea
Most grocery stores are beginning to carry rooibos tea, and major tea manufacturers like Celestial Seasonings are using rooibos in their blends (African Orange Mango Rooibos, for example). Numerous websites sell rooibos tea, including www.africantea.com, www.strandtea.com, and www.adagio.com.