Japan, a tea-drinking nation, is one of South Africa’s biggest importers of rooibos tea. In 2018, a record high of 2,000 tonnes of the homegrown blend was shipped off to the land of the rising sun.
A tea room filled with reverence for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
But first, the facts. To understand tea-drinking in Japan, it is important to go through the following motions, starting with the communal practice known as chadō (the way of tea) that is older than 800 years, in which, in a hand-decorated cast iron bowl, green powder, known as matcha, is whisked to make a dark green tea to be offered to guests.
Tea was first brought to Japan from China in the seventh century for medicinal purposes, and was regarded as a commodity that was exclusively accessible to the noble and elite.
According to Japanese historical beliefs, Myōan Eisai, a Buddhist priest who introduced the school of Zen Buddhism to Japan, was one of the first to inculcate the culture of tea in Japan.
He wrote a book on the health benefits of drinking tea, as well as the cultivation and preparation of green tea.
By the thirteenth century, the tea drinking culture grew in popularity among warriors and the elite, and by the sixteenth century, tea had become a favorite for all social classes.
Tea schools opened and the art of making tea gradually evolved to more than just being a spiritual practice in Japan.
It became one of respect with shared peace and friendship.
The tea room is traditionally surrounded by a garden with a tranquil atmosphere, emphasized by dull flowers without strong scents, to avoid distraction.
A low entrance into the tea room suggests that guests are to bow as a gesture of respect for the ceremony.
Every movement, gesture and aesthetic, from the preparation to the enjoyment of the tea, is designed to express friendship and harmony. Guests watch on as the host shares the moment and finally presents it to them, kneeling on cushions.
Once the bowl has circulated among the guests, it is handed back to the host.The tools are cleaned and the ceremony is closed.
The Red Bush
Over 14,000kms away, across the Indian Ocean, a South African enjoys a hot cup of ‘red tea.’
Its preparation may not be as dramatic as it is in Japan, but it evokes the same sense of calm and serenity. It’s simply made by adding tealeaves or a tea bag into a cup of boiling water, a few teaspoons of sugar and having “a date with time”, as Swaady Martin, the founder of Yswara, an African tea and teatime company, puts it.
Martin, who has been in the tea industry for seven years, with a focus on gourmet African teas, has tasted and sourced blends from Malawi, Kenya and Rwanda but the South African rooibos is her favorite.
“Rooibos is not a tea, it is a plant. I find it a miraculous and wonderous plant. The fact that it only grows in one region of South Africa, and that it has all these incredible properties, makes it a plant I love dearly. I drink rooibos almost every day,” she says.
Located in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD), Martin’s tea room, which is currently being refurbished, embodies what she calls a meditative appeal that coincides with the tranquil properties of tea.
Tea lovers step into a room filled with silence and walls done up in light pink hues representing a sunset in the desert.
This is to encourage focus on the tea, as it represents the removal of barriers between the different social classes.
“We have suffered in South Africa and also around the world, with so much exclusion, the one thing that was important for Yswara was to give inclusive luxury. For me, inclusiveness means being in a place where everyone could have access.
“Being in town (CBD) was just that expression of being in the midst of everything and everyone; and at the junction of what represents the new South Africa,” Martin says.
A South African Rooibos Council (SARC) industry fact sheet published in 2018 states that the country’s geographical areas provide the perfect environmental conditions for rooibos cultivation.
The plant can be found in the Cederberg and Sandveld regions of the Western Cape and the Bokkeveld area of the Northern Cape.
“The vital characteristics of this environment are the Mediterranean climate with a winter rainfall between 200mm and 450mm per year; deep, coarse and acidic sandy soils; and temperatures that can range from zero degrees Celsius in winter months, to up to forty-five degrees Celsius in summer,” the report says.
Due to the indigenous properties of the Rooibos bush, industry regulations stipulate that the term ‘rooibos’ be used responsibly.
“The terms ‘Rooibos’, ‘red bush’, ‘Rooibostee’, ‘Rooibos tea’, ‘rooitee’ and ‘Rooibosch’ may only be used when the dry product, infusion or extract is 100% pure rooibos. Furthermore, the notice stipulates that the above terms (referring to rooibos) can only be used when the product was grown in the geographic area as described in the application, i.e., the winter rainfall area of South Africa,” the SARC report states.
This uniquely-grown product is becoming a big deal across the globe, and the tea-drinking nation, Japan, has fallen in love with the health benefits that the South African tea provides.
In 2016, rooibos exports increased to over 30 countries across the globe; with Germany, Netherlands, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States (US) being the biggest importers.
In 2018, one of the largest tea-drinking nations recorded over 2,000 tonnes that were shipped into the Japanese shores, making it the largest export since rooibos was first introduced to the Japanese 39 years ago.
For Martin Bergh, the Managing Director of Rooibos Limited and the Chairperson of the SARC, the tea has been up against competition in the Japanese tea market, which has over 26 different types of teas to consume, ranging from the traditional green tea varieties to Jasmine and Barley, or the sacred Mugicha.
“The general trend toward natural health and wellness products continue to exert a growing influence on purchasing patterns in the region and as more of Rooibos’ health benefits become known in the East, we anticipate the demand for the product to grow,” says Bergh.
Bergh points out that the Japanese are purists and therefore prefer to drink rooibos tea unflavored, without milk or sugar.
“In the past, rooibos was consumed more in summer for hydration, but has now become an all-year-round tea product consumed by all age groups. A market as big as Japan’s 126 million-strong tea-loving population, is always eager to experiment with new products.
“Local retailers like Peacock Coffee & Tea Traders have adapted to the experimental flavors to quench the insatiable thirst of the local and international market.”
Kelebogile Monyaysi, the manager at Peacock Coffee & Tea Traders in Rosebank, Johannesburg, attentively prepares a cup of tea when we visit.
The loose tea leaves are cautiously stirred in a tea pot and served at a small coffee table.
One half of the store is dedicated to coffee and the other for tea.
The smell of freshly-brewed coffee overpowers the aromatic smell of tea.
Tea sets range from vintage English style ceramics to Japanese cast iron teapots.
A selection of rooibos tea blends with various flavored options, ranging from organic rooibos to creamy caramel, as well as herbal blends.
This includes a Nelson Mandela range.
The caffeine-free tea, according to Monyaysi, is popular in the Japanese markets because of its natural healing qualities.
Despite coffee being a popular beverage for sit-in customers, rooibos tea is the most sought after locally too.
“It (rooibos) is the center of attraction. This is a word that they (tourists) can grab and not forget, so when they walk in here, it is all they ask for,” she says.
It took some time for Monyaysi to be stirred by tea.
“I was not much of a tea-drinker. I only started to enjoy tea when I began working here. Now, the first thing in the morning, I have to drink a cup of tea and in the evening, before I go to bed. It is a habit – if I don’t drink tea, I get a headache,” Monyaysi says, preferring the original rooibos blend.
Jessica Bonin, the founder of Lady Bonin’s Tea, a Cape Town-based company that sources, blends, packages and distributes full leaf teas, either loose or in biodegradable tea bags, offers more on the world’s fetish for rooibos.
Lady Bonins’ teas and herbals are sourced locally and internationally from farms that are organic without adding additives or products that harm the environment.
The rooibos is sourced by using a method known as “wild pickings” – the process of collecting the rooibos that grows naturally in the mountains. Due to the increase in demand for rooibos and rooibos products globally, commercial farmers have scaled production unsustainably, leaving environmental and societal damage in their wake.
Bonin says that in countries like Japan and Thailand, black tea is preferred, and it is predominantly used for the health benefits – making it a herbal infusion.
“They are buying it solely on the principle that it is a caffeine-free, non-tea beverage. People are buying it as an alternative and they are transfixed by its health properties.
“It is enabling people who naturally use plants as medicine for many years. In any Western country, you will need to justify the health benefits, but in the Asian countries, it is the medicine they are interested in. People are very healthy in Japan,” she says.
Although Bonin is facing difficulties entering the export market in Japan due to the high number of monopolies and conglomerates in the industry, small amounts of exports also go to Germany and the US.
Rooibos is a unique product that has infused the signature South African taste and its ambience with the rest of the world.
The Japanese may have their unique tea-drinking ceremonies and traditions but in Germany and the other countries that import the plant in millions, rooibos offers a cupful of experience that is incomparable and uniquely South African.
– Gypseenia Lion