Discovering Tea in South Africa
December 2019 - Cape Town, South Africa is a complicated place. Rolling majestic mountains and breathtaking crystal blue waters collide with a history of harsh oppression and a legacy of classism. We've visited other parts of Africa before, but Cape Town eerily felt more like a mash up of American cities with a backdrop of African beauty. Its problems, its people, its complications felt... like home.
One of the struggles with writing about travel is that you can easily tangent from one subject matter to the next without ever scratching the surface of any one topic. So, while it interests us to speak deeply and candidly about the social dynamics and structures in South Africa, we have chosen to dedicate this blog post to tea and tea culture in Cape Town and its surrounding municipalities.
Clanwilliams, South Africa
Originally discovered centuries ago by the indigenous KhoiSan people of the Western cape of modern day South Africa, rooibos, honey bush and buchu were primarily used as herbal remedies.
The KhoiSan are South Africa's oldest inhabitants and are made up of a number of related communities: The Cape Khoi; the Nama; the Koranna; the Griqua and the San - who also often refer to themselves as bushmen.
The industry behind the rooibos explosion has agreed to pay the KhoiSan people 1.5% of the value farmers get when they sell to the tea processor --roughly $650,000 a year. The lawyer representing the San people told the BBC the industry-wide agreement is a "world first".
Buchu, The Miracle Plant
As tea fanatics and an herb enthusiasts, we were elated to find an herb that we've never heard of. Buchu sometimes spelled and pronounced Boegoe, Bucco, Bookoo is a miracle plant. The fresh leaves emanate a rush of rosemary, mint and eucalyptus. Just touching one leaf bathes your hand in a lingering perfume for hours.
In the early 1700’s, the Khoi San people introduced Buchu to European colonizers. Buchu was highly prized and a scarce commodity, and the Khoi San considered the herb to be a cure for all ills as well as an aid to longevity - so much so that a thimbleful could be exchanged for an entire sheep.
The Cape Colonists introduced Buchu into Europe in the latter part of the 1700s. This herb grew in notoriety, and the drink made from its leaves soon became known as ‘Royal Tea,’ and as a result was highly sought after overseas. Evidence of its fame and widespread use can be found in the cargo manifest of the Titanic, which was carrying 8 bales of Buchu when she went down.
Health Benefits of Buchu
Thankfully modern science has now caught up with what the Khoisan already knew. According to WebMD, Buchu is used for urinary tract infections (UTIs), including infections involving the urethra (urethritis) and kidneys (pyelonephritis). It is also used by mouth for treating inflamed prostate (prostatitis), benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), high blood pressure, fever, cough, common cold, upset stomach, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gout, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
At Brooklyn Tea, we have an array of rooibos blends including vanilla, chocolate, blueberry, lemon, and mango --likely more to come. As one our top sellers -- both as a loose tea and as a latte, rooibos has always intrigued us. Our fascination with this tea made us eager to visit the place where it's grown and meet the people who grow it.
Harvesting and Processing Rooibos in Photos
The Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) shrubs are harvested, carefully bound in bundles and transported for cutting.
The plant is then cut and sorted and prepared for oxidation.
The tea is then spread out and dried on a drying plane under the African sun.
Once dry and collected, the tea is subsequently sieved, sterilised and packed for export.
The tea is then warehoused according to international HACCP standards.
Health Benefits and Popularity of Rooibos
While back in Cape Town, we bounced from tea room to tea shop to see how South Africans enjoyed this magical beverage. To our delight, every restaurant, cafe and tearoom offered rooibos alongside its traditional teas. Locals tend to drink rooibos and its sweeter cousin honeybush with milk and sugar --much like a black tea. We did find a few new (to us) variations of the drink that were very popular as well --red espressos, lattes and cappuccinos.
Rooibos tea by itself gained popularity for its slightly sweet flavor, low tannins, high antioxidants and lack of caffeine. South Africans are using a somewhat concentrated version of rooibos as base for a caffeine free version of the world's favorite coffee beverages. I must say, it's very good.