Crop to Cup: The Journey of Honeybush Tea
Discover the extraordinary journey of South Africa’s native Honeybush tea, from the vibrant bloom to the soothing cup. Explore the unique harvesting techniques, the enchanting fermentation process, and the art of crafting this exquisite brew that carries the essence of the Cape Floral Kingdom in every sip.
Picture this: Each vibrant yellow bloom on the honeybush plant cradles a tiny treasure - a single seed. Harvesting these seeds can be quite a challenging pastime as they have a habit of popping out when they are good and ripe. In the early days, resourceful farmers used the help of ants and their ant hills to collect seeds. Ants are notorious seed collectors and excellent purveyors of establishing seed banks! Nowadays, most farmers collect the seeds by carefully sifting the sand around the base of the plants to gather them up.
Honeybush has brown hard-shelled seeds that form snugly within small pods. As these pods mature, they undergo a fascinating transformation- drying, turning black, and splitting open within a matter of weeks.
To prepare them for planting, these seeds are gently cracked open and planted directly into seedling trays. The optimum time to plant seeds is between summer and autumn ensuring the best possible yield of seedlings. These seedlings are planted out during the winter months, and then it’s a waiting game of approximately 18 months of patience until the plants are ready for their grand debut!
Honeybush tea is a hands-on and physically demanding affair. Armed with sickles or pruning shears, dedicated harvesters gather leaves, stems, and twigs into bundles, known as sheaves. These honeybush plants can reach several meters in height, typically boasting only one to three long branches. The golden rule here is to be kind to the plant-harvesting around 50% allows it to recover and continue thriving. The recommended cutting distance from the base of the plant is about 50cm.
For more in-depth insights into sustainable honeybush tea harvesting, the Western Cape Government conducted a comprehensive study offering valuable guidelines. Click here to explore the study.
To maintain uniformity, the sheaves usually undergo machine cutting, resulting in pieces ranging from 1,5mm to 5 mm in length. This process also has a delightful side effect-it gently bruises the plant material, kickstarting the activation of natural phenolic compounds responsible for honeybush’s unique colour and flavour.
After a thorough rinse with water and some quality time in the fresh air, the harvested honeybush is left to ferment in tanks. Fermentation involves oxidation, a natural process driven by enzymes inherent in the plant.
The temperature during this process ranges from 34◦ to 38◦C, a critical factor for the tea’s development. This phase takes roughly 14 hours to complete, with the tanks being rotated up to four times to ensure every bit of tea gets its dose of oxygen. It’s during this transformation that honeybush reveals its enchanting aroma, shifting from a greenish hue to a rich inviting amber-brown colour.
For those who prefer a green twist to their tea, the process takes a different route by skipping the fermentation stage. Instead, the ‘green plant’ is dried directly without undergoing oxidation.
Following fermentation (or directly in the case of green honeybush), the sifted honeybush undergoes sun-drying, basking in the warm African sun to reach its perfect moisture level.
Next on the list is sterilization through steam pasteurisation, followed by a stint on hot air beds. Temperatures soar up to 135◦C and then descend to 94◦C, ensuring the highest microbial quality.
Grading & packing
The final act involves meticulous sorting and graded based on length, colour, flavour, and aroma.
Then it’s time to wrap up the honeybush journey. The tea leaves are either packaged as loose leaves or processed into convenient teabags, tailored to the preferences of suppliers, and primed for your sublime and delicious cup of tea!