Rooibos: Uniquely and proudly South African as tea boosts economy

Rooibos tea is uniquely South African and an important part of our heritage. Only grown locally, rooibos is enjoyed all around the world and is now growing in stature as a ‘superfood’ due to its myriad health benefits. Supplied image.

Rooibos tea is uniquely South African and an important part of our heritage. Only grown locally, rooibos is enjoyed all around the world and is now growing in stature as a ‘superfood’ due to its myriad health benefits. Supplied image.

Published Sep 25, 2021


Johannesburg - As Heritage month draws to a close and despite the many upheavals the country is facing, there is one thing South Africans can be proud of – rooibos tea.

The story of rooibos started more than 300 years ago when the Khoisan people harvested the leaves of the Aspalathus Linearis plant.

They used the leaves to make herbal remedies for many ailments and loved the delicious, aromatic taste.

In 1772, European botanist Carl Thunberg observed the way the indigenous people climbed the mountains to find wild rooibos plants. His captivation with this practice revived a more widespread interest in the tea drink.

Early Cape-Dutch settlers started drinking the tea as a cheaper alternative to expensive black tea from the East. Fast forward 200 years to 1904 when Benjamin Ginsberg appeared on the scene. This young Russian immigrant, (considered the father of commercial rooibos tea), joined his tea-trading father on the farm Rondegat in the Clanwilliam district of the Cederberg. Ginsberg had a fascination with the plant so he began marketing the drink as a “Mountain Tea” , a herbal alternative to tea.

All good so far. But rooibos farming was very small scale at this stage. Enter Dr Le Fras Nortier, a local medical doctor and amateur botanist. In 1930 this crafty man was the first to research the agricultural potential of Rooibos. He discovered the secret of germinating the seeds. Together with Olof Bergh, a commercial farmer, they developed a new cultivation method. Soon the production increased all along the slopes of the Cederberg mountain range. (Olof Bergh is an ancestor of the owner of Cederberg Ridge.)

And then in 1968, Dr Annetjie Theron, a South African mother, struggling with an allergic infant, put the spotlight on rooibos. Theron claimed that it soothed her baby’s colic. She published a book called Allergies: an amazing discovery. After the book’s release, hundreds of studies found out more about rooibos tea’s antioxidants and other health advantages.

And so, with this new medical understanding of rooibos, the tea’s popularity exploded, especially in South Africa. Then production of green rooibos tea, an unfermented form, began in the 1990s.

And in 2006, a new rooibos innovation in the form of an espresso made headlines. It was the first tea espresso in the world. “Red cappucino” is now a well-known drink in South Africa's coffee shop scene.

Earlier this year rooibos became the first African food to be granted PDO and GI status by the EU. PDO stands for protected designations of origins and GI is the protection of the geographical indications. It is recognised that rooibos/red bush tea sold in the EU can only be called rooibos if it is grown in the Cederberg area in South Africa.

The plant is indigenous to the Cederberg, a mountain range about three hours north of Cape Town and a number of developments in the industry in the past two years has increased its significance to our heritage landscape. Supplied image.

Just like sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it’s made in the Champagne region of France, so can you only call rooibos tea rooibos if it comes from the Cederberg.

Dawie de Villiers, the South African Rooibos Council’s legal director, said: “While rooibos was already included as a GI under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and the EU, its inclusion in the register of PDOs means that protection becomes permanent. The PDO logo is also well-recognised by consumers in Europe and its use will provide an indication of the value of rooibos as a unique product.

Another important development in the role of rooibos in our country’s heritage is that there has been a Traditional Knowledge Levy in place since November 2019. The rooibos industry and the Khoi and San signed an access and benefit-sharing (ABS) agreement and the Khoi and San communities can benefit from the commercialisation of rooibos tea. The processors of the tea pay 1.5% of the average price of the raw rooibos, which currently equates to roughly R12 million a year.

Will Battersby, chief operating officer of BOS Brands, the makers of BOS Ice Tea and other organic rooibos based beverages, added: “BOS signs a benefit-sharing agreement and a material transfer agreement in order to gain access to this indigenous resource. The process is facilitated by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and is audited by external auditors. It is important to acknowledge the source of the deep knowledge we have of rooibos today.”

Protecting the environment where rooibos is grown is vital. BOS Brands sources all of its hand-harvested organic rooibos from Klipopmekaar Farm, which is a 6 000 hectare organic rooibos farm and nature reserve in the Cederberg. Some 800 hectares are utilised for rooibos production and conservation tillage is practised; they don’t plough the fields and no irrigation is used. Organic rooibos farms like Klipopmekaar place as much emphasis on protecting the biodiversity of the region, and the integrity of the rooibos plant, as it does on producing the best quality rooibos tea.

“Our heritage comes from our people and their cultures, but also from our natural environment, which we must also conserve and protect,” said Battersby.

The Saturday Star

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