Language evolves. I get that. Sometimes changes make communication easier, clearer, or shorter. Sometimes, however, the evolution of the meaning of a word does exactly the opposite. The subject of this blog is a good example.
The word “tea” refers to the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), the dried leaves of that plant, or the drink that is made by infusing those leaves in water.
The word “tisane” refers to any drink made by infusing leaves in water. Synonyms include “herbal tea” and “herbal infusion.”
Technically speaking, all teas are tisanes, but most tisanes are not teas.
In today’s culture, however, practically anything (except coffee and cocoa) that’s made by putting plant matter in water is called a tea. What’s my problem with that? It makes communication more difficult, less clear, and less terse.
- There is no other single word that means “a drink made with Camellia sinensis.” If we call everything tea, then we have to say “real tea” or “tea from the tea plant” or “Camellia sinensis tea” or something similarly ludicrous every time we want to refer specifically to tea rather than to all tisanes.
- There is a perfectly good word for “leaves infused in water.” There is no need to throw away “tisane” (or “herbal tea” or “infusion”) and replace it with a word that already has another meaning.
“But Gary,” I hear you cry, “people have been calling herbal infusions ‘tea’ for a long time!”
That’s true. I sometimes slip and call rooibos a tea myself. “Herbal infusion” is even an alternate definition of tea in the OED. I still maintain, however, that it makes clear, precise communication more difficult when trying to differentiate between tea (made from the Camellia sinensis plant) and drinks made from chamomile, honeybush, and willow bark.
Other words that go through this process are forced through it. Rooibos, for example, is the name for a specific tisane and the plant it’s made from (Aspalathus linearis). The word is Afrikaans for Red Bush. Despite the longtime use of the term in South Africa (the only place the rooibos plant grows), it was almost unknown in the United States in 1994 when Burke International of Texas registered “rooibos” as a trademark. This meant that in the United States, only Burke and its subsidiaries could use the common name of the plant. Had Burke not surrendered the trademark after starting to lose lawsuits, people would have been forced to come up with a new word.
As more people in the U.S. discover green rooibos, the name “red bush” becomes more confusing anyway. Rooibos, in my humble opinion, should remain the generic term here.
Oxidation vs. fermentation
There are other words in the tea industry that suffer from ambiguity and questionable correctness. You will find quite a bit of tea literature that refers to the oxidation of tea as “fermentation.” I had a bit of a row with Chris Kilham — The Medicine Hunter on Fox News — about this subject (it starts with “Coffee vs. Tea: Do your homework, Fox News” and continues with “Chris Kilham Responds“).
Fermentation and oxidation are closely related processes. That’s certainly true. But oxidation is the aerobic process that is used in the production of black and oolong tea, and fermentation is the anaerobic process that’s used in the production of pu-erh tea. Using the word “fermentation” to describe the processing of black tea may fit with a lot of (non-chemist) tea industry writers, but it makes it difficult to explain what real fermented tea is.
In chatting with friends, imprecise use of words doesn’t matter. If someone asks what kind of tea you want and you respond, “chamomile,” it’s perfectly clear what you want. But you’re an industry reporter, medical writer, or marketing copywriter, your job is to communicate unambiguously to your readers. Using the most correct terminology in the right way is a great way to do that.
How have I been at this blog for so long without writing about rooibos? Oh, I know this blog is about tea, and I did write a post about green rooibos last year, but I haven’t covered straight red rooibos yet.
Rooibos comes from a bush called Aspalathus linearis, which grows in the west cape of South Africa. The name “rooibos” is from the Dutch word “rooibosch” meaning “red bush.” The spelling was altered to “rooibos” when it was adopted into Afrikaans.
Rooibos is also often called “red tea,” but most tea professionals shy away from that name for several reasons:
- The term “red tea” is used by the Chinese to refer to what we call “black tea.” No sense having two different drinks with the same name.
- Rooibos isn’t tea, since it doesn’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Instead, it is a tisane or herbal infusion.
- Rooibos only has that rich red color when it’s processed like a black tea. Green rooibos is more of a golden honey-colored infusion.
Rooibos is a tasty drink that is also good for cooking. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance sometime soon to write a review soon of the cookbook A Touch of Rooibos. I have been looking through it lately and it’s filled with interesting ideas. Generally, when used for cooking, the rooibos is steeped for quite a while and then reduced to a thick syrupy consistency. Unlike black tea, it can be steeped for ten minutes or more without becoming unpalatable and bitter.
Unlike “real” tea, which all has caffeine, rooibos is naturally caffeine-free. Since the flavor is similar to a mild black tea, this makes it a favorite bedtime beverage for many tea drinkers. Rooibos is also high in antioxidants.
Herbalists make many claims about the health properties of the rooibos tisanes. The Web site for the South African Rooibos Council (SARC), in fact, has very little information that isn’t in some way tied back to health claims. There are more and more studies being done, but available data are lacking in specifics (in my opinion, anyway) so I’m not going to quote any of those there. Feel free to check SARC’s site for lots of studies.
I don’t mean to imply that rooibos is only about the health benefits. It is, in fact, a very tasty drink. Most rooibos drinkers in the U.S. enjoy it straight or with a bit of sweetener (honey or sugar). In South Africa, it is commonly served with a bit of milk or lemon as well as honey. A group funded by SARC and Stellenbosch University has recently developed a “sensory wheel” for rooibos, describing both the desirable and undesirable aspects of flavor and mouthfeel. If you are interested in more information, click on the wheel below.
Compared to tea, rooibos is a pretty small market. South Africa’s annual rooibos production is about 12,000 tons. That output is about equivalent to annual tea production of the Darjeeling region of India, or about a tenth of the tea production of Japan (the 8th largest tea producing country). Nonetheless, rooibos is important to South Africa, employing about 5,000 people and generating about $70 million in revenues.
The leaves of the rooibos bush are more like needles than the broad leaves of a tea plant. To produce red rooibos, the leaves are harvested, crushed, and oxidized using a process based on the one used in making Chinese black tea. Typically, the leaves are sprayed with water and allowed to oxidize for about 12 hours before being spread out in the sun to dry.
Green rooibos, as the name implies, is unoxidized or very lightly oxidized, and is processed more like a green tea.
For more information about the rooibos industry, I recommend the article Disputing a Name, Developing a Geographical Indication, from the World Intellectual Property Organization.