This May – in honour of International Tea Day (May 21) – we explore SA’s tea-drinking roots and how Rooibos made its debut.  

Our tea-drinking culture goes way back to the early Dutch settlers who made the Cape their home. They loved to sip on black tea from Europe, but over time importing it became impossibly expensive. That’s when locally brewed Rooibos caught their attention.

Carl Thunberg, a botanist from Europe who visited the Cape in 1772, reported on the tisane brewed from a unique plant, named Rooibos, which was indigenous to the Cederberg region of the Western Cape. A Russian immigrant to South Africa, Benjamin Ginsberg, recognised the potential of this unique tisane in 1904 and started trading with Rooibos, becoming the first exporter of Rooibos.

In the early 20th century, Rooibos caught the attention of medical doctor and nature lover Dr Le Fras Nortier. Drawn by this mysterious and aromatic tisane, he started researching its medicinal value and agricultural potential. However, the growing of Rooibos as a commercial crop only started in the 1930s. 

Today Rooibos’ health benefits are known the world over and the expanding global demand for it has resulted in production volumes of 20 000 tonnes per annum. That’s equal to just more than 6 billion cups of Rooibos, which is close to one cup per person on earth. 

Rooibos is fast becoming a household name across the nations of the world, yet it’s interesting to note how different cultures drink Rooibos. Let’s explore how South Africans and people of other countries like their Rooibos to be served:

In South Africa, it’s a hotly debated topic and people are somewhat divided on the matter. Half the population drinks Rooibos black, while the other half prefers to add milk. This divide can probably be traced back to our mixed European and British tea-drinking heritage. 

Countries with an English root, like the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand prefer to drink Rooibos with milk and sugar, just like they take black tea – a tradition that’s been engrained since the 1650s.

Asian countries, like China and Japan take their Rooibos black, quite weak, with no milk or sugar and no other flavours added. They prefer Rooibos in its purest most natural form. As a well-established market for tea, Japan has consistently ranked amongst the biggest importers of Rooibos for many years. More than 2 787 tonnes were exported to the region last year. 

Most Europeans like mixing Rooibos with different herbs, but they favour delicate flavours. Fruit and herbal infusions like Rooibos are rapidly gaining ground in Holland. Data shows that Rooibos ranks high among the new contenders competing for Dutch sales. In the past, most of the Rooibos sold to the Netherlands has been in bulk, but significant volumes of packed tea are now also being imported. 

Americans like drinking their Rooibos cold and sweet. In recent years, iced tea and tisanes have become very popular in the US. Traditionally, the non-alcoholic beverage segment in the US was dominated by coffee, but this all changed in the early 2000s when more consumers started seeking out caffeine-free beverages, with wellness benefits, like Rooibos. 

With Rooibos being exported to more than 30 countries and enjoyed in so many different ways, it just goes to show how versatile a drink it really is. 

Cheers to Rooibos and all those involved in the production of this wonder brew!