Wednesday

Travel South Africa. Visiting a Rooibos Tea Farm in the Western Cape

The Western Cape is the province on the southwestern coast of the southernmost country on the African continent. Citrusdal, only two hours from Cape Town, is a small town in the Cederberg region. You can go hiking in the mountains or surfing along the West Coast, the scenery is magnificent. There is lots of tranquillity in this part of South Africa; you would seemingly hardly ever find more than two handfuls of tourists at any given time. The Cederberg is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom of South Africa. According to the Conservation South Africa, that whole region has the highest known concentration of plant species in the world, its nearest rival, the South American rainforest, has only one third the number of species. Seventy percent of the Cape’s impressive 9,600 plant species grow nowhere else on Earth. It is a true paradise, and it is where farmers grow Rooibos tea.
 



Rooibos tea is quintessentially South Africa. It is like the country in a cup. Drinking Rooibos tea, otherwise known as red bush tea, is a lifestyle in South Africa. Just for the sake of completeness and nerdy-ness, its botanical (scientific) name is Aspalathus linearis. You might need that info for an upcoming pub quiz or TV show. Rooibos is the perfect alternative to coffee or tea, it does not contain caffeine, it has a pleasant taste, I drink it without sugar and it is perfectly refreshing in summer too: mix it with honey, fruit or herbs, cool it and serve it on ice.

The Western Cape is the only place in the world where Rooibos grows. Rather special. I simply need to find out why it grows only here and I have to experience the rooibos farming process. Who doesn’t want to see where the food comes from? I visit a farm to learn about the process from growing, harvesting the fields and preparing the tea for drinking. Best of all, almost, I find out about the difference in quality between tea bags and loose leaf tea. After my visit I see the world through rose-tinted glasses, who would have thought?

The Rooibos Tea Farm - Social aspects, Sustainability and Conservation

As I arrive at Carmien just outside Citrusdal, on the Bergendal farm, in a valley at the foot of the Cederberg Mountains I meet Ilze Bruwer at her office. In her role as the Quality Assurance Manager, Ilze wants the company to excel at tea producing, and that every day. She sees how to best fulfil the needs of clients and aligns processes, employees and products to get lovely results. When we start talking I soon realize that Rooibos is at the heart of this region, as coffee is to Salento in Colombia.


The company was founded over two decades ago by Mientjie Mouton and remains a family business. Instead of what most family companies do, that is, holding on tightly to their shares, Carmien works together with their employees, they care for the welfare and the health of their employees. Twelve percent of the agricultural holding is in the hands of workers. They are working with farmers and labourers to train them to become managers and they fully understand that they are this successful because of the people who made the company what it is today. The farmers are knowledgeable of the land and the environment and bring in their wisdom. Many community members work on the farm. Everybody is involved in the whole process and the company. In addition, they also partner up with several small local businesses; they believe that together they are stronger.

Together with social aspects, sustainability and conservation are important factors too. The farm signed up to become certified by UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance. UTZ means “good” in Quiche language (Guatemalan Mayan) and is a mainstream certification program operating in coffee, cocoa and the tea industry.

Rooibos Tea: In Eight Steps From the Farm To The Cup

Planting of Rooibos Seeds

The secret is the Mediterranean climate and the acidic sandy soil, which the seedlings, which are planted in the midst of autumn, thrive on. “No one has managed to grow the plant outside of South Africa. Australian farmers tried to plant the tea bush to no avail,” Ilze says proudly.

The tea bush has no problem to grow in times of drought. During serious droughts many farmers in the region suffer from damage, Rooibos plants can be destroyed; but often plants survive the harshest of conditions. Working together with the land allows farmers to thrive. So far there isn't a recipe for the cultivating success. 

After 18 months plants can be harvested. In spring the plant is covered with small flowers. Each flower produces a small legume with a single seed inside (I almost wanted to type 'single seed' in capital letters). One can well imagine that when the Rooibos seeds pop out when they are ripe they are difficult to collect. Farmers will need to sift through the sand around the plants to collect them. That is a labour of love.

 
Harvesting Rooibos

Harvest time of the then still green tea branches is in summer into early autumn. It is well known that monoculture is everything but ideal for the soil and a risk for future harvests. To not only cultivate the earth with a single crop every few years different crops get planted to let fields rest and recover. Ilze tells me “We work with the soil and consider what is good for the harvest, we work with minimum tillage of the soil and put biological material back into it.” Branches are cut 50 cm above ground and bound into bundles.

Fermenting Rooibos – From Green to Red

Bundles of wet tea get machine-cut to lengths from 1.5 up to 5mm large pieces and are left to sweat. During the process of enzymatic oxidation the tea turns red in colour and develops its distinct taste. Otherwise it would stay green.


Drying Rooibos

After the sweating, the tea is sun-dried. I have to put on a hairnet the moment we are entering the producing hall; Ilze is wearing her net already. No one wants to find any alien particles in their tea. The length and colour of the product decides over the flavour and taste of the drink, therefore machines grate and sort the cut accordingly. There is a lot of red dust as the tea gets sifted through sieves.



Sterilisation of Rooibos

As I have seen firsthand the Rooibos was grown and harvested on this farm in rural South Africa. It developed its flavour by fermenting in the sun, open air drying and sifting through grading machines. Even with utmost care, bacterial contamination could have happened already, be it for example from water, or from birds or rodents. Consequences can be serious. Using steam pasteurisation for a few minutes, the tea is sterilised and dried over hot air beds.

Grading Rooibos

In one hall workers sort and grade the Rooibos according to length, colour, flavour and aroma before it gets steam pasteurized to ensure a product of high microbial quality. Ilze won’t allow me to enter the room, for hygienic reasons but I have a proper view from just outside.

Packing Rooibos

The product is now ready to be sent in bulk or retail packs, either as teabags or loose leaf, to packers and exporters worldwide. I am surprised to learn what the difference in quality between teabags or loose leaf tea is. Ilze throws me a short look as I ask. She understands that I'm eagerly awaiting a somewhat spectacularly ground-breaking information and says dryly "None, there is no difference in quality between the two."

Drinking Rooibos Tea

While we taste different Rooibos tea varieties I wonder where the tea gets shipped to and Ilze fills me in on a secret “In the Netherlands and Germany, the farm’s rooibos tea is largely bought in bulk and sold under a different brand name, whereas in Japan it is sold with the original name.” When I ask whether it wouldn’t be only fair to sell it under the right name so that the brand can grow bigger and the community participates even more from it, Ilze answers with a hopeful smile.

It is a long process to create new tea blends and when Ilze creates new ones she presents them to a panel of experts and together they decide what gets produced in the future. One can create their own unique tea blend when visiting the farm.


Seeing the World Through Rose-Tinted Glasses

To make life sweeter, I buy delicious Rooibos tea for cosy moments at home. Masala-Chai-Turmeric, Cookies and Cream and Green Rooibos with Lemon Grass, Ginger and Mint. As I leave the farm and jump into my car to go on that trip to drive back to Cape Town, I see the world through rose-tinted glasses. There are two reasons for it: The first reason is that I feel all cheerful after having experienced all the passion and love that goes into the producing of Rooibos tea and secondly, I have fine Rooibos powder on my glasses.


Info Carmien Tea Farm Bergendal Boerdery, Paleisheuwel Road, Citrusdal, 7340, South Africa. Please contact the farm directly to ask for tours on offer, prices and hours.

Best Time To visit a Rooibos Farm

The best time to visit a Rooibos farm is late summer and early autumn (February to March, April), when the harvest is in full swing.

How To Get To Bergendal Farm

There is no public transport available; you would need to get there in a car.

From Camps Bay 180 kilometres over the N7, please calculate 2.5 to 3 hours travel time.
From Cape Town 175 kilometres over the N7, please calculate 2.5 hours travel time.
From Stellenbosch 170 kilometres over the N7, please calculate 2.5 hours travel time.
From Bloubergstrand 165 kilometres over the N7, please calculate 1.5 to 2 hours travel time.
From West Coast National Park 165 kilometres over the N7, please calculate 2 hours travel time.
From Langebaan 145 kilometres over the R399 and N7, please calculate 1.5 hours travel time.
From Ceres 120 kilometres over the R46, please calculate 1.5 hours travel time.


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From Berlin with love

P.S. I dedicate this article to Marlize, who doesn't understand why I love Rooibos so much (and hope she changes her mind after she read it).

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Greetings stranger. I always try to be myself and to be a tourist as often as I can. I would love to get in contact with lots of hard travelling tourists who love to be out and about as much as I do. I am looking forward to all your comments. Thanks so much in advance.