It all started with a coffee addiction. Carl Pretorius drank five to six shots of espresso a day until the caffeine started affecting his health. He looked for an alternative, but he didn’t want decaf, nor tea.
“One late morning, I was about to have another espresso, but was feeling jittery. I literally tore open two Rooibos tea bags and popped the leaves into the espresso machine. That wasn’t really good, but the idea started there,” says Pretorius.
It took him several weeks of refining his attempts to get from the strong tea that came out of the espresso machine that day, in 2005, to the world’s first ‘red espresso’, which today sells all over the world.
“I experimented with different grinds. Every time I tried a variation it got better, until one day, the consistency was perfect,” says Pretorius.
The flavor was intense, smooth and nutty. And the ritual of drinking a shot of something hot and sweet was similar to that of having an espresso. Then Pretorius added milk to turn the Rooibos espresso into a cappuccino.
“After I tasted it, I knew this really had potential. I got goose bumps,” he says.
Pretorius’ entrepreneurial instinct kicked in. Only six months after putting the first batch of Rooibos into his espresso machine, he filed an application to patent the cut of the tea leaves and preparation method. He then hired an attorney to verify that he was indeed the first person to come up with the idea.
“They did a very thorough global search but there was nothing like it,” he says.
Next, Pretorius checked if there was a market for a tea-based espresso. He visited a friend’s coffee shop in Paarl, in South Africa’s Western Cape province, wrote ‘Rooibos Cappuccino’ on a small chalkboard, sat and waited.
Within a couple of hours, a range of customers had ordered the new beverage. Everyone loved it, giving Pretorius the boost he needed.
He got his friend Pete Ethelston onboard, who invested several million rands, and the two founded Red Espresso. Just a few weeks later, the naturally caffeine-free beverage was sold in the cafés of South African upmarket food and retail chains Woolworths, Mugg & Bean and @Home throughout the country. Suddenly, old-fashioned Rooibos tea was new and sexy.
Pretorius believes it is the product’s authenticity that led to its fast commercial success. Red Espresso is made from 100% export-grade, wild, hand-harvested Rooibos tea. Because it is grown organically, it has a small environmental footprint and is extremely healthy, with 10 times more antioxidants than regular Rooibos tea and five times more than Green tea.
Within six months of serving the first Rooibos cappuccinos in cafés, the demand for a retail product came. Customers liked the coffee alternative so much they wanted to brew their own red espressos at home. Today, the multi-award-winning “tea that plays by coffee’s rules” is available in more than 600 South African stores and 16 countries around the world, with Canada, Portugal and South Korea being the biggest export markets. A move into Germany is planned for the second half of this year.
Expansion plans weren’t always straightforward, though. While Rooibos can be found in almost every South African kitchen, people in most other countries had never heard of this particular herbal tea, grown only in a small region of the Western Cape. As a result, red cappuccinos were a much harder sale overseas.
“We basically have to educate the customer base first,” Pretorius explains.
The company gives Rooibos virgins a taste experience by first introducing red cappuccinos to the food service and only later move into retail.
Early expansion into the United States taught Pretorius and his team a tough but invaluable lesson. Whole Foods Market, a major American chain of natural foods supermarkets, listed Red Espresso as one of their products that would be sold in thousands of stores throughout the country.
“That was a real achievement, but the product didn’t go off the shelves, because nobody knew what it was. We realized that you need to go in slowly, go through food service to create the demand and then go into retail. We had put the cart before the horse and eventually had to pull the product. Now it’s a matter of going back into the US market, but more slowly and probably state by state,” Pretorius says.
The Americans’ increasing affinity for healthy drinks could give Pretorius an extra advantage. According to Beverage Digest magazine, coffee consumption in the United States fell for the first time in decades by 2.3% between 2006 and 2009, while tea drinking increased over the same period by 4.5%.
Pretorius, who still indulges in the odd espresso, says: “We are very excited about that trend. While we don’t try to compete with coffee, we offer coffee drinkers an alternative. And that’s happening.”
He is also eyeing a range of other markets like China and the Far East, where tea drinking has a long tradition and people don’t need to be seduced into trying coffee alternatives.
“Those are exciting markets for us because people there are herbal tea drinkers and keen to try new options,” says Pretorius.
He’s painting the world red, one cup at a time.