Rooibos tea: The next yuppie food trend.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
June 21 2011 7:20 AM

Rooibos Tea

If you haven't heard of it, you will soon.

Loose rooibos tea.
Loose rooibos tea

The first time I drank rooibos (also called red bush) was two months ago at the most fashionable cafe in my Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood— Café Pedlar. It's a robust herbal tisane (not technically a tea), and its flavor has an almost tobacco-like, nutty quality. Dan Torres, the general manager of the cafe and a New York Times-anointed "tastemaker," called it a "coffee drinker's tea." Once I had rooibos at Pedlar, I started noticing it everywhere: It is an essential ingredient in a tea sold where I get acupuncture that promises to "sweep toxins away"; it's part of an organic-skin-care line's age-defying serum; it's even on the menu at the famous Russian Tea Room.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

These are just anecdotal observations, but there's also real data suggesting that rooibos is growing in popularity. According to Hugh Lamond, the President of Herbal Teas International/Rooibos Ltd., the major distributor of rooibos in North America, imports of rooibos to the United States from South Africa—the only country where Rooibos is grown—rose about 15 percent every year in the mid-aughts (save for 2009, when the recession hampered sales). Rooibos imports were up 30 percent last year, and are showing a similar increase this year. As Torres puts it, rooibos is "the new pomegranate juice"—which is to say, it could be the next craze to dominate the aisles at your local Whole Foods. Why is it getting so popular, and why now?

The rooibos bush, which is grown only in the Cedarburg Mountain region north of Cape Town, was barely imported to the United States before the year 2000 because of apartheid-based trade sanctions on South Africa. In the early aughts, natural food purveyors and premium tea companies began to sell rooibos stateside. Nira Levy Maslin, who runs the African Red Tea House in West Hollywood, has been importing Rooibos since 2000, and the Republic of Tea first introduced a Rooibos line in 2001. Fortuitously, the tea market as a whole flourished during the mid-aughts, a phenomenon attributed (by the Economist and the New York Times) to aging boomers turning to the beverage for its health benefits. U.S. tea sales went from around $5 billion in 2003 to nearly $7 billion in 2007. That was when Snapple introduced a rooibos tea into its "Good for You" super premium line.

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Emphasizing health has been key in the rise of rooibos. The marketing around it never fails to mention that it's brimming with antioxidants. The bush has been touted as a cure-all for everything from skin conditions to stomach cramps. One study from 2004 even suggested that rats and mice that drink Rooibos tea are protected "against a variety of cancers." Unfortunately, Rooibos isn't quite the magic potion that it's been made out to be: Tufts University scientists published a review of Rooibos' health claims in the journal Phytotherapy Research in 2006 and found that there wasn't any peer-reviewed research that showed the bush had a beneficial effect on humans. But science rarely gets in the way of trends.

If the buzz surrounding Rooibos sounds familiar, it's probably because it follows the same general narrative as the cultural ascension of the grain quinoa and the açaí berry. The trio is difficult to pronounce (it's keen-wah, ah-sigh-ee, and roy-boss), and all three are imported from vaguely exotic foreign countries. (Quinoa is from Bolivia and Peru; açaí hails from Brazil.) Açaí's magical healing properties, like rooibos', were touted from the get-go. In 1999, two American brothers found a book by a Belgian scientist touting the antioxidant goodness of the berry. They had the book translated and used the alleged healthiness of açaí to help create a nearly $50 million business. (Oprah.com even calls açaí "nature's perfect energy fruit," but there has been some notable backlash against the fruit's supposed nutritional value.)

Compared to rooibos and açaí, quinoa's climb in America has been slower and steadier. It was already a health food store staple by the late '80s; by the mid-'90s, it was "scratching the edge of the mainstream" (or so a quinoa importer told the Los Angeles Times in '94). At this point, you can find quinoa at Trader Joe's, and some rabbis have even certified it kosher for Passover. Quinoa's healthfulness rivals that of rooibos and açaí: Men's Health called it a "superfood."

If there's something that health-food trendsters like more than imbibing rooibos, açaí, and "life-sustaining" quinoa, it's reading about them. Pretty much whenever the New York Times has an article that includes the word quinoa—whether it's about how the pseudo-grain's popularity is bankrupting Bolivian farmers or a collection of quinoa-based "recipes for health"—it ends up on the newspaper's most-emailed list.

I predict that Rooibos will soon have quinoa's most-emailed powers, and I have some guesses for what else is on deck. My method is simple: I limit my guesses to food products that are a tad expensive, a little foreign, and claim to cure cancer. Raw milk is so last year. Agave is almost as ubiquitous and banal as plain-old white sugar these days. Is it coconut water? Lemon-flavored flaxseed oil? My vote has to go to the durian, the "potent-smelling" fruit from southeast Asia.

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