Rooibos: It’s harvest time, and we have a front-row seat

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To have witnessed a rooibos harvest, must be among life’s greatest privileges. We meet some of the heroes behind Mzansi’s favourite tea in Clanwilliam in the Western Cape. Here, the passion for the herb has been passed down to many generations.

Most people don’t even realise it, but rooibos tea is as uniquely South African as milk tart, mogodu and bunny chows. The indigenous herb, first harvested by the Khoisan more than 300 years ago, only grows in the Western Cape.

Today, it is responsible for around 87% of Mzansi’s international tea exports. In fact, because it is high in antioxidants and caffeine free, it has fast become an international sensation.

A picture taken with a drone shows rooibos cuttings scraped into rows exposing parts of the dry yard in Citrusdal. This allows the dry yard to be heated by the sun to dry out the cuttings. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
A picture taken with a drone shows rooibos cuttings scraped into rows exposing parts of the dry yard in Citrusdal. This allows the dry yard to be heated by the sun to dry out the cuttings. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

For many years, our rooibos industry was even involved in global fights about the trademark of the word “rooibos”.

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And, if you’re big on Marvel comics, you will know that our favourite tea even once featured there.

Marvel Comics mentioned rooibos in an earlier edition of She-Hulk when psychiatrist Flo Mayer offered Jennifer Walters (also known as She-Hulk) a cup of rooibos tea to calm her down. Photo: Marvel Comics
Marvel Comics mentioned rooibos in an earlier edition of She-Hulk when psychiatrist Flo Mayer offered Jennifer Walters (also known as She-Hulk) a cup of rooibos tea to calm her down. Photo: Marvel Comics

In an earlier edition of She-Hulk, psychiatrist Dr Flo Mayer offers She-Hulk a cup of rooibos to help calm her down.

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Of course, it only makes sense that you’ll need a cup of rooibos after a tough day of saving the world. She-Hulk, and the rest of us, ought to be most grateful to our rooibos farmers and farmworkers who’ve just harvested their crop.

We meet the rooibos heroes

This usually happens in the summer between December and February, and most of the harvesting is done by hand.

Anna Brand (57) harvesting eooibos at Elandsfontein farm in Citrusdal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Anna Brand (57) harvesting eooibos at Elandsfontein farm in Citrusdal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

One of our country’s rooibos heroes are Anna Brandt, a Clanwilliam farmworker who says picking a tonne of rooibos per day allowed her to send her son to varsity.

She sings the praises of farmer Jacques Burger who also paid for her son’s residence fees.

“Before Jacques came to help his father on the farm, Mr Burger (senior) paid for my son’s university residence fees when I couldn’t afford it, and hasn’t asked for his money back. I will forever be grateful to him and his family.”

Clanwilliam is just two hours outside of Cape Town, and internationally known as the home of rooibos. In this town, the rooibos herb grows freely.

Rooibos tea accounts for a bulk of the country’s tea exports. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Rooibos tea accounts for a bulk of the country’s tea exports. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Growing in the sunshine surrounded by majestic mountains, rooibos farming has been sustaining generations of families.

Burger, who runs the farm Elandsfontein with his father, admits that rooibos farming can be tough.

“It comes with its challenges, but I’ve learnt to love farming and rooibos is my passion. We took a leap of faith and purchased the farm in 2018 which we started renting in 2005.”

Rooibos farmer Jaques Burger on his farm Elandsfontein in Citrusdal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Rooibos farmer Jaques Burger on his farm Elandsfontein in Citrusdal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Sixteen years later, 450 hectares of rooibos farming continues to sustain the lives of the 35 employees and the surrounding community.

A passion for the crop

Rooibos being aired during a fementing process at Bergendal farm in Citrusdal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Rooibos being aired during a fementing process at Bergendal in Citrusdal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

“In the next two years, we plan on adding another two hectares to the farm, which will create more jobs for the people,” he says.

Brandt was born on the farm and has worked there for 23 years.

She remembers a time where she used to pick one tonne of rooibos per day which allowed her to send her son to university.

Her passion for rooibos was passed down to her children, who also worked on the farm. “One of my sons also worked on the farm, and left the farm with high regards from the Burger family.”

Burger adds, “I identified the leadership qualities of Anna and promoted her to a managerial position.”

Line manager Wilfred Booise is taking temperature readings early morning at Bergendal farm in Citrusdal where Carmién tea is produced.
Line manager Wilfred Booise is taking temperature readings early morning at Bergendal farm in Citrusdal where Carmién tea is produced. After watering and airing, the rooibos tea is left overnight to ferment. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

The tea is harvested in the same minimalistic manner it has been for the past 23 years.

Carmién Tea, whose story started in 1998 at a small farm stall on the N7, has continued to consistently naturally produce rooibos tea, becoming an internationally renowned tea.

The farm, which is covered in a sea of red throughout harvest, is filled with workers who work “nine hours per day and 45 hours a week,” according to line manager Wilfred Booise.

Booise explains that he doesn’t have a matric, but “through hard work and dedication, with the opportunities we have on the farm, you can make something out of your life.”

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The harvesting process

Quality assurance manager Ilze Bruwer at Carmién Tea in Citrusdal.
Quality assurance manager Ilze Bruwer at Carmién Tea in Citrusdal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Ilze Bruwer, quality assurance manager at Carmién Tea, says the tea is popular overseas, especially among Canadian customers.

“Of the tea that we make on this farm, 87% is exported internationally,” she says.

Booise’s eyes light up with excitement when describing the harvesting process.

“Rooibos seeds are put into the ground between February to March and the seedlings transplanted a few months later. It takes about 18 months before the plants can be harvested for the first time.”

Line manager Wilfred Booise and production manager Clemend Bird at Bergendal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Line manager Wilfred Booise and production manager Clemend Bird at Bergendal. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Clemend Bird is the production manager who specialises in the harvesting and fermentation.

He says, “The rooibos crop is harvested once in a year during summer and early autumn by cutting off the branches above the ground.

“Branches are cut and bound into sheaves and transported to the drying yard.

“’The sheaves are machine-cut to uniform lengths of between 1.5mm and 5mm. The cuttings are bruised to facilitate the natural plant phenolic activities which develop the characteristic colour and flavour of the tea which is loved around the world.”

What happens next?

Then the fermenting process starts, which is done by spreading the rooibos across massive plains of land before being ploughed over by a truck for many hours.

Farmworkers at Elandsfontein in Citrusdal harvesting. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Farmworkers at Elandsfontein in Citrusdal harvesting Rooibos. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

“After watering and airing, the tea is left to sweat in heaps. The fermentation process involves oxidation, brought about by enzymes naturally present in the plant. This is when it gets its deep-red colour and its strong smell,” Bird says.

All rooibos tea, whether for the local or international market, goes through the same cycle to ensure consistent high quality. Once that is completed, the product is finally sent to packers and exporters around the world.

How is rooibos made?

Rooibos is produced from an endemic South African fynbos plant, Aspalathus linearis. It become popular on the global markets as a caffeine-free herbal tea and antioxidant food ingredient.

Tea pairing at De Tol Farm Deli in Citrusdal. Carmién Tea has developed an interesting tea paring experience for visitors. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Rooibos tea pairing at De Tol Farm Deli in Citrusdal. Carmién Tea has developed an interesting tea paring experience for visitors. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

The rooibos crop is harvested once a year during summer and early autumn by cutting off the branches 50cm above the ground. Branches are cut and bound into sheaves and then transported to the drying yard.

The sheaves are machine-cut to uniform lengths of between 1.5mm and 5mm.

Cuttings are bruised to facilitate the natural plant phenolic activities which develop the characteristic colour and flavour of this tea, hence the name rooibos.

After watering and airing, the tea is left to “sweat” or ferment in heaps. Temperature during sweating 34°C – 38°C for 10 – 14 hours. The “fermentation” process involves oxidation, brought about by enzymes naturally present in the plant.

During this process the product changes from green to a deep amber colour and develops its distinctive aroma.

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