How Rooibos is processed
From the bush to your teacup: the journey of high quality Rooibos.
Rooibos tea is processed in three major stages. Each one has a decisive influence on the quality of the finished product: cutting, fermentation and drying.
The role of these processes is as important as the terroir in determining the quality and taste of the leaves in your teapot – the geological, climatic area that gives a distinctive taste to whatever is grown there – where it originates.
Let’s take a quick look at the plant itself. The Rooibos (the Afrikaans name means “red bush”) is a thorny bush of the Fabaceae family, like the acacias. Indigenous to South Africa, the scientifically named Aspalathus linearis grows in one region only, the hinterlands of the Western Cape province, around the Cederberg Mountains.
In spring – and because this is the southern hemisphere we’re talking about, this means October – attractive small yellow flowers appear on the slim stems of the Rooibos bushes, each one containing a single seed. These seeds are harvested from December to March and this constitutes the first step in the cultivation of Rooibos. The seeds are sown from January onwards, mainly in nurseries. After the first winter rains of June, the young seedlings are transplanted in fields. The bushes are pruned after about one year of growth, but besides this pruning, they require very little attention – no fertilizer, no irrigation. This hardy plant, acclimatised to the aridity of the Cederberg region, grows practically without any human intervention. Harvesting is carried out six months later, in summer, after the bushes have flowered. The parts of the bush that are above ground, the leaves and stems, are reaped with sickles. Only these are used to make the drink.
The harvest is arranged in bundles and taken to a processing area, where it is cut with a roller to liberate its aromas. The cutting of the bundles plays an important role in determining the quality of the subsequent fermentation. The leaves are then spread out in layers about 20 cm (8 inches) thick and left to ferment outdoors for about 12 hours, during which time the layers are regularly moistened. During this fermentation process, the Rooibos take on all of its aroma. A successful fermentation imparts the Rooibos with its characteristic flavours: sweet or dry, rounded or light, honey-flavored if all goes well, or bitter and vegetal if the fermentation fails or is not properly controlled. And because the process takes place outdoors, the result depends a great deal on weather conditions.
As the Rooibos oxidises in the intense heat of this sunny country, it takes on its red colour and characteristic flavour. It is then dried in the same processing area (the finest Rooibos are spread over flat stones), but this time in a very thin layer. Crucial to successful drying is the capacity to spread the Rooibos in the very thinnest possible layer. This halts the fermentation and allows the leaves to dry evenly. After that, in the middle of the South African summer, the sun does the rest of the work.