Outside, the crisp and crystalline Montana winter day wears an exposed, austere face. The spine of the mountains in the distance rises sharply, but the glittering hoarfrost on the trees softens the landscape, adding dimension to the starkness of the cold. Much like the people that inhabit this countryside, there is more complexity to the scenery than meets the eye, in layers of something lying in wait beneath the stillness. Everything is quiet; a complete change from the buzzing of holiday shoppers and frenzied activity and travel. It’s the perfect time to do one simple action that often eludes me during these energized times- breathe deeply. It is on days like this that I want to wring out my kidneys from all of the caffeine drifting in my system from the copious amounts of liquid gold (aka, coffee) I consume during these peak times. Gone now are the traces of all of the samples of generously poured wines & beers from trade tastings and events, and the occasional indulgent treat of fine bourbon whiskeys. I am on a mission for tranquility, and my therapy of choice at the moment is a sweet, deep mug of rooibos tea. With every sip, I am exchanging one set of mountains for another, across the vast ocean to the magic wilderness of the Cederberg Mountains north of Cape Town, South Africa. And much like the ‘still waters run deep’ Montana landscapes, this simple red bush is literally steeped in history and pleasant surprises.
Rooibos (pronounced “roy-bos”) is the Afrikaans word describing the Aspalathus Linearis plant as a “red bush,” and it grows only in the very small Cederberg region. The Khoisans, the indigenous Bushmen of the Cederberg region, had been harvesting and using rooibos for centuries. They have used it not only for its vast medicinal properties but also for the delicious taste. Because it is not derived from the black, green, oolong and white tea varieties, it is not considered a “true tea.” However, because of how it is consumed in South Africa, served in the traditional styling of a true tea, it is not improper to make reference to it as “rooibos tea” in this context. Rarer than its true tea counterparts, there are fewer varieties of rooibos. The tea types are generally divided into red rooibos, green rooibos and flavored rooibos. Red rooibos is fermented & oxidized, giving it a rich red color, and has a sweet and nutty flavor profile. Green rooibos tea is made from unfermented leaves, and has a lighter more floral profile than the heartier red rooibos. With the increased popularity of the rooibos teas comes the infinite flavor combinations added, from everything to a sweet Rainbow Amaretto Rooibos to a Pink Peppercorn Rooibos. I have found it difficult to keep up with all of the varieties, but never tire of trying every sample I can get my hands on.
Rooibos, though gaining in popularity globally, is still relatively unknown to many tea drinkers. With the severe dwindling of the Khoisan tribes, the knowledge of rooibos almost disappeared. Through layers of traveling botanists, Russian immigrants, and the tea demand during World War II, however, the seeds of its existence scattered more globally. Rooibos really began to have a claim to fame when in the 1960’s a South African mother by the name of Annique Theron wrote an entire book on the health benefits of rooibos tea. Scientific studies ensued with fervent thirst, and once its qualities were proven to be beneficial, interest in rooibos tea skyrocketed.
Truly, rooibos tea is a wonder of creation. It has extremely high levels of antioxidants (and even more if you drink the green varietals), which are proven to be cancer-fighting and immune boosting elements. High levels of antioxidants also promote stronger bones and teeth, and because of its anti-spasmodic properties, rooibos tea is considered a “mother’s miracle” because it reduces stomach cramps and lessens colic in babies. Naturally non-caffeinated, it gives more antioxidants than even green tea without the tannic qualities of true teas. Its naturally sweet flavors make it appealing to even children, and it is terrific iced or hot, or made with any type of milk or milk substitute. Another marvelous quality of this herbal infusion is its ability to reduce tension, headaches and even insomnia when a cup is consumed before bed. As someone who personally struggles with insomnia, I have always found this to be a huge bonus in something so delicious and treat-like.
The medical science community is not the only place to find appreciation for this ‘wonder tea’. Alexander McCall Smith wrote a beautiful passage on behalf of his South African protagonist Precious Ramotswe in his novel Blue Shoes and Happiness. He described the soothing and necessary experience of drinking rooibos tea thusly:
“In the kitchen at the back of the house there was a packet of green beans that needed to be washed and chopped. There was a pumpkin that was not going to cook itself. There were onions to be put in a pan of boiling water and cooked until soft. That was part of being a woman, she thought; one never reached the end. Even if one could sit down and drink a cup of bush tea, or even two cups, one always knew that at the end of the tea somebody was waiting for something. Children or men were waiting to be fed; a dirty floor cried out to be washed; a crumpled shirt called for the iron. And so it would continue. Tea was just a temporary solution to the cares of the world, although it certainly helped. . . . Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things that could be done while tea was being drunk. And even if that did not solve problems, at least it could put them off for a little while, which we sometimes needed to do, we really did.”
Rooibos tea, though rare in origin, should be indulged by everyone who desires a refreshing and healthful beverage. For those who would like to be transported into a new world of exotic infusion, I recommend hitting up the African Latte’ at Liquid Planet for those who would like to try rooibos pulled like espresso shots (I will warn you, with the honey & vanilla, and the steamed milk, they are nothing short of non-caffeinated addiction!). For the tea ceremony enthusiasts, there are 9 varieties of loose leaf tea to choose from. All rooibos teas are not equal; some squelch the health benefits of the rooibos leaf by tossing in a bunch of cut stems and cutting dust, so try to buy bulk or whole-leaf sachet rooibos. You won’t regret it. While you’re decompressing inside and gazing upon a chilly winter landscape, you can transport yourself to the warm Cederberg Mountains and the sweet warmth of South Africa.