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Honeybush Tea

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Honeybush (Cyclopia spp.) is indigenous to the cape of South Africa (1, 2). It is used to make a beverage and a medicinal tea, having a pleasant, mildly sweet taste and aroma, somewhat like honey. It has become internationally known as a substitute for ordinary tea (Camellia sinensis). With the dramatic growth in the use of honeybush during the past five years, export of honeybush tea products is now a major industry, following up on the success of another tea substitute from South Africa-rooibos.

International interest in honeybush is traced back to the tea trade of the Dutch and the British. A settlement, which eventually became Cape Town, was established in 1652 as a supply base for the Dutch East India Company that was trading in Indian tea and Southeast Asian spices. Botanists began cataloguing the rich flora of the cape soon after; the honeybush plant was noted in botanical literature by 1705. Though there are no published reports at that time of its use as a tea by the native populations (the San and Khoi-Khoi tribes, known today as KhoiSan or Bushmen), it was soon recognized by the colonists as a suitable substitute for ordinary tea, probably based on observing native practices. In 1814, the British purchased the Cape Colony from the Dutch, and English became the official language a few years later, helping to spread knowledge of South Africa to England and America. In King's American Dispensatory of 1898, under the heading of tea, honeybush is already listed as a substitute, with reference to a report from 1881 indicating use of honeybush as a tea in the Cape Colony of South Africa. The Khoisan of the South African Cape were also using the tea for treatment of coughs and other upper respiratory symptoms associated with infections.

The plant is a shrub of the Fabaceae family (Leguminosae) that grows in the fynbos botanical zone (biome). It is a narrow region along the coast, bounded by mountain ranges. Fynbos is a vegetation type, characterized mainly by woody plants with small leathery leaves (fynbos is from the Dutch, meaning fine leaved plants).

The honeybush plant is easily recognized by its trifoliate leaves, single-flowered inflorescences, and sweetly scented, bright yellow flowers. The flowers have prominent grooves on the petals, a thrust-in (intrusive) calyx base, and two bracts fused at the base around the pedicel. The genus name Cyclopia alludes to the intrusive base of the calyx, which contributes to the flower's unique appearance. Honeybush plants have woody stems, a relatively low ratio of leaves to stems, and hard-shelled seeds. The most desirable components for the tea are the leaves and flowers; the relatively tasteless stems are included.

Leaf shape and size differ among the species, but most are thin, needle-like to elongated leaves. All the species are easily recognized in the field as they are covered with the distinctive, deep-yellow flowers, which have a characteristic sweet honey scent. Traditionally, the tea is harvested during flowering-either in early Autumn or late Spring-depending on the flowering period of the species. However, with the larger demand for products, some collection is extended into the summer.

The collection of honeybush in South Africa has grown significantly in recent years. In 1997, approximately 30 tons of the plant was processed, an amount that mainly satisfied the local demand. This is enough to make about one cup of tea (2.5 grams/cup) per week for the year for about 225,000 people (.5% of the South Africa population of about 45 million).

But, by 2000 the amount reached about 160 tons and the amount for 2004 is likely to exceed 300 tons, the increase mainly reflecting the development of the international market for the tea, though there has also been a substantial growth in consumption domestically.

Most of the honeybush tea is still collected from wild populations, but cultivation has become necessary with the rapid growth of the industry (forcing collectors to travel further into poorly accessible areas) and with the demand for more uniform product.

In 1998, a group of farmers formed the South African Honeybush Producers Association (SAHPA). In the spring of 2001, the first large scale South African plantation dedicated to honeybush began operation in the town of Harlem. The farm is the result of a joint partnership between South Africa and the U.S. (one of the potential large customers, along with Japan and Canada). The principal organizations involved are the ASNAPP (Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products), Rutgers University (New Jersey), and the Herb Research Foundation (Colorado). The goal is to develop a successful cooperative farm operated by local growers who will cultivate 100,000 or more honeybush plants. Based on a successful start of the Harlem plantation, another cultivation project was started in Ericaville.

The manufacture of honeybush tea consists of four processing steps: harvesting, cutting, "fermentation" (oxidation), and drying.

The gathering of material from natural field populations often takes days, since many of the plants are harvested in the mountainous regions. Cultivated fields make the harvest much easier. The bushes are often cut to the ground, as this facilitates future harvesting: the plant sprouts readily from the root base. Bushes previously harvested give better material for processing as the stems are softer and have higher leaf-to-stem ratios than older plants preserved by limited cuttings. By contrast, older bushes that are not regularly harvested give too much coarse material due to thicker stems. Ideally, the bushes are harvested every two to three years. Cyclopia bushes that have grown in an area subject to fire show more growth and have more flowers, thus giving good material for the making of tea.

The collected shrubs are brought to the factories where they are first chopped by mechanized fodder cutters before curing. Chopping ensures the disruption of cellular integrity and facilitates fermentation, a process that turns the herb material dark brown. Leaves that are not adequately cut often retain a green to light brown color.

There are currently two methods for honeybush tea fermentation: using a curing heap or using a baking oven. When large quantities of tea are produced, the common method of honeybush tea fermentation is the use of curing heaps. An oval-shaped heap of approximately 4-5 meters in diameter and 2 meters high is formed from 1.5-2.5 tons of the green honeybush material. The heap is packed firmly, covered with canvas bags, and left for three days to allow spontaneous heat generation and fermentation. Temperature build-up is quick. During the fermentation period, the material changes from green to dark-brown and develops a sweet aroma. From the third day onwards, the heap is turned every 12 hours to ensure that the outer, cooler regions are mixed with the rest of the material; this also prevents oxygen deletion in the heap. The heap is inspected after 3-5 days of fermentation, depending on the species used. If a sweet, honey-like aroma is present and the material has a dark-brown color, the heap is spread out in a thin layer on canvas and allowed to dry in the sun. The tea normally takes 1-2 days to dry.

The use of a preheated oven gives a product of better and more consistent quality since more precise control over the temperature of the fermentation process is possible. Further, shorter fermentation periods (just 24-36 hours) are needed to obtain fully fermented tea. Baking ovens have been used for more than 100 years. Originally, the material was pre-heated by scalding with hot water, and the drums used as ovens were pre-heated with hot coals before putting the herb material (in bags) into them. More sophisticated techniques are used today. As with the curing heap preparation, after fermentation, the tea is dried in the sun.

The final product is put through a rotating cylindrical sieve to remove all the pieces thicker than a matchstick. The finer tea material is used for making teabags, while the coarser material is supplied in bulk for brewing as loose tea.
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