Red tea is a popular South African beverage made from the oxidized and dried leaves of the Aspalathis linearis plant. Technically, it is a tisane, not a tea, since it does not contain the leaves of Camellia sinensis, the tea bush. Several South African companies produce red tea for export, since it has become popular in many other parts of the world as well; it is a common offering at tea houses and restaurants, and it can also be found in many markets.
This beverage is also sometimes called rooibos, a reference to the parent plant. In Afrikaans, the hybrid Dutch language spoken in South Africa, “rooibos” means “red bush.” Native Africans have been using the leaves of this bush to prepare tisanes for centuries, and when European explorers were introduced to red tea, they acquired a taste for it. While the common name of this beverage is technically incorrect, it has become so pervasive that it is generally considered acceptable, except by tea purists.
The rooibos plant only grows in a small region of South Africa. In the summer, the leaves are harvested, lightly bruised, and allowed to oxidize, which turns them red. After a period of oxidation, the tea is dried and packaged for sale. It is also possible to find green rooibos, made from fresh leaves which are immediately dried without oxidation. In South Africa, red tea is a readily available and very popular drink.
The flavor is mild and earthy, with faint mineral tones and a natural sweetness. Red tea has no tannins or caffeine, so it is safe for people on restricted diets and individuals with health concerns. When steeped, the tea acquires a rich red color, and it can enjoyed plain or lightly sweetened and dressed with milk. Some people enjoy this tea iced as well, and it is often offered as a thirst quenching drink in hot weather.
Some people also believe that red tea has health benefits. South Africans often offer it to colicky or restless babies, or drink a cup before bed to calm down and promote healthy sleep. This popular African tea also has lots of antioxidants, which appear to promote general health while helping the body resist heart disease and other potentially harmful conditions. Red tea is viewed as a ubiquitous cure-all in South Africa, and it is commonly offered to guests and people who feel restless or upset.