Tea, for many, is an acquired taste—English breakfast can be acrid, mint can be sharp, and Japanese sencha can be earthy. Not so, however, when it comes to Rooibos, one of the most crowd-pleasing varieties of tea.
Rooibos—technically an infusion (the tea comes in needle form from a bush plant, as opposed to leaf form) is a mild tea with a deeply red hue. It is native to South Africa and, as of the past decade, it's wildly popular in the United States. According to Gabrielle Jammal, a tea sommelier for the Baccarat Hotel in New York, Rooibos is one of the most "accessible and delicious" varietals available. "It's got notes of honey and vanilla, it's a little bit herbal, you can have it super light or super strong, and it's got this beautiful color," she says. "It's always really enjoyable." In fact, she says that Rooibos is the most popular tea that she sells at the hotel.
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Rooibos has long been the national drink of South Africa, as the bush where the tea comes from thrives in the western cape of the country. The tea caught westerners' attention in the mid-seventeenth century, during Dutch settlement of South Africa. "Black tea from India and China was the trendy thing at the time," Jammal says. "But when the Dutch went to South Africa, that tea became expensive to import." Rooibos, she says, became the tea of choice among the Dutch not only because it was the most geographically accessible, but also because it was so drinkable. Word spread about the tea throughout Europe, and Rooibos soon became a mainstream beverage offering in restaurants and cafés.