Rooibos is the Sweet, Crowd-Pleasing Tea You've Been Looking For
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.
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.
When it comes to Rooibos, there is no singular preparation or special equipment needed, according to Jammal. The tea can be steeped for as short as a few minutes and as long as an hour, and the beauty is that, no matter how long you steep it, "it will never get that bitter taste that you might associate with black or green tea," she says.
Jammal encourages her guests to first try the tea plain, as it has a naturally pleasant sweetness; then, to add a touch of honey, which she says perfectly accentuates the tea's flavor. That said, Jammal thinks the tea works equally well with milk and sugar, or over ice. There is even a preparation called a red espresso, which is made by highly concentrating finely ground Rooibos needles. The espresso variation has become particularly popular, as Rooibos is naturally caffeine free—so it's the perfect substitute for (caffeine-laden) coffee-based espressos.
For those looking for a starter Rooibos, Jammal recommends the Crème Brulee Rooibos from David's Tea: "It really has those strong vanilla and honey flavors. It's also perfect for making hot toddies," she says.
Rooibos tea is most often drunk by itself, but Jammal loves pairing it with a "nice, white, nutty cheese," or even chocolate, as a sophisticated take on dessert. The tea also lends itself well as a flavoring for all types of sweets—she has seen it in éclairs as well as sorbets, the latter of which gets "this beautiful, light peachy color and honey-like sweetness" thanks to Rooibos. On the cocktail side, she highly recommends mixing Rooibos with gin, as the natural herbs in the spirit are a great match with the tea.
Rooibos Goes Mainstream
Rooibos is becoming a go-to option for people who are looking to reduce their caffeine consumption. It's also a central offering for any tea company in the United States, many of which sell lots of different variations on Rooibos, like coffee Rooibos, chocolate Rooibos, or even apple-infused Rooibos. It has also been touted by health experts as being high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, and great for fighting allergies. "My friend is pregnant, and she makes this awesome Java flavored Rooibos with coconut milk instead of coffee," Jammal says. "It is nutty and yummy and naturally sweet, so you can substitute it for dessert. It just goes to show how with Rooibos, everything is a possibility."