A tale of Tea

The Cederberg is the only place in the world where rooibos tea can be grown. To this remark, you'll either say "Amazing, the only place in the world?" Or "What on earth is rooibos tea?" Hopefully this article will enlighten you.

Yes indeed other countries (and also other areas in South Africa), have tried and failed to grow our remarkably healthy tea. So the Cederberg is rather unique in this regard. At Cederberg Ridge we happen to have an even stronger tie to the tea. The owners, Kate and Anton Bergh, are part of a family who've been involved in rooibos tea production for generations. You’ll notice the name Olof Bergh being mentioned in the history below. And Anton's brother Martin now heads up Rooibos Tea Ltd.

We’ve included all the interesting facts that our guests always ask us about. They are particularly intrigued by the fact that it is indigenous to the area…

The Start of Rooibos Tea

The story of Rooibos started over 300 years ago when the indigenous bushmen of the area, the Khoisan people, harvested the leaves from the Aspalathus Linearis plant. They used the leaves to make herbal remedies for many ailments. And they loved the delicious, aromatic taste.

Then 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 this 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.
Photo credit: Rooibos Ltd

The story continues...

All good so far. But rooibos farming was very small scale at this stage. Enter Dr Le Fras Nortier, the 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. She 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 in 2006. It was the first tea espresso in the world. 'Red cappucino'' is now a well-known drink in South Africa's coffee shop scene.

The production process

Traditionally, the bunches of leaves were rolled into hessian bags and brought down from the mountain by donkeys.

The leaves and fine stems were then chopped with axes and bruised with mallets before being left in heaps to ferment. Once fermented, the Rooibos was spread out to dry in the hot African sun, ready for use as a thirst-quenching drink.

And it seems that not much has changed in this whole process, although methods are now far more refined and mechanised.
Photo credit: Rooibos Ltd

The modern production process...

The production of rooibos starts with the planting of seeds in well-prepared seedbeds in the late summer months of February and March. After the first rainfall in the cooler winter months of July and August, they transplant the seedlings. And voila! The first crop harvest is 18 months later. The annual harvest is from January to April. They cut the branches at 30 to 40cm above the ground. On average, 3 to 4 crops can be harvested from the same plantation.

The cuttings are bound into bundles for transportation to the processing yard. Now by vehicle! Here, they cut it to even lengths, bruise it, water it and leave it to air. Then they leave it to ferment in low heaps.
Now for the sciencey part! The process of enzymatic oxidation takes place during which the product changes from green, to its characteristic brick red colour. It then develops the distinctive flavour and sweet aroma of rooibos. Again they spread out the rooibos over large open yards to dry in the hot sun.

Special machines collect the Rooibos and deliver it to the factory. Here they grade it according to length, colour, flavour and aroma. This guarantees a high quality across all grades. The last step is the screening, blending and steam treatment, now using state-of-the-art equipment. They actively monitor the process by laboratory testing to ensure bacteriological control. Then it can be certified as hygienic, safe, superior quality Rooibos tea.

They pack the finished bulk product into teabags or loose-leaf tea. ready for dispatch to wholesale customers all over the world. There it is often blended with other teas to make speciality teas. If you want to know more, see Rooibos Tea Ltd 
Photo credit: Rooibos Ltd

So why all the fuss about Rooibos?

What sets rooibos apart, besides its delicious taste, are its many health benefits. And there are plenty! 

• High in anti-oxidants – this aids in fighting cancer and other diseases, boosts the immune system and reduces aging (hooray!)
• Completely pure and natural as it contains no additives, preservatives or colourants.
• Naturally caffeine free and a low tannin beverage

So many health and beauty products use Rooibos extracts for these reasons. From face cream to dietary supplements.

Some of farmers in the Cederberg are smiling! And so they should be. The demand for rooibos has increased by nearly fifty percent in recent years. And it continues to grow in Europe, Asia and the USA. It is a wonderful industry for our little area. And the beauty of it is that seems to be ours alone!

Experience rooibos during your stay at Cederberg Ridge

Why do I say some of the farmers? Rooibos tea is only possible on the upland slopes of the Cederberg, not down in the valley. That's why our farm is a citrus and table grape farm! 

This tea story has charmed many guests here at Cederberg Ridge. So to give you the full "Rooibos experience",  we offer a guided rooibos tea farm tour that includes a tea tasting.

You can sample it in your room when making a hot drink. We also use it in a number of our dishes. Plus there's a variety of delicious rooibos teas for sale at the lodge. A stay at Cederberg Ridge wouldn't be complete without it!