An explosion of aromas at “Woordfees” honeybush Science Caféby Grethe Bestbier
Sweet, floral or spicy. Rosy, fruity or woody. This science café at
the 2020 Woordfees at Stellenbosch University, was all about the magic
of honeybush tea. With its exciting variety of aromas, this indigenous tea is
more than just a soothing drink. From a small cottage industry to a fully
expanded research area, honeybush tea is on its way to taking its rightful
place on the local and international tea landscape.
From the first time honeybush was mentioned in the late 1700s as an
alternative to traditional Ceylon tea, the tea’s advancement has been very
gradual. It was not until the 1960s that honeybush tea was officially branded
(as Caspa Cyclopia Tea) for the first time. “Even then, honeybush tea
never really took off; but rather remained a cottage industry for many more
years,” said Professor Lizette Joubert, Principal Researcher at ARC
Infruitec-Nietvoorbij and extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University.
In the 1990s, honeybush tea was boosted by increased investments,
mainly from government. Now, more than 20 years later, researchers are doing
all they can to push the industry forward. Two such researchers are Dr Cecilia
Bester and Ms Nina Muller who, along with Professor Joubert, devoted a
considerable part of their careers to honeybush research.
Professor Joubert is also globally recognised for her work in the
field of other herbal teas, and in particular, for her work on rooibos tea.
Since 1993, she’s had her hooks into honeybush. Honeybush, just like rooibos,
is a fynbos species indigenous to South Africa. However, while rooibos tea is
produced from only one plant species, there are 23 honeybush or Cyclopia
“This makes honeybush very interesting,” says Joubert. “We can also
manipulate the processing of the tea to get different aromas.”
The tea, named after the honey-like aroma of the bright yellow
flowers of the honeybush shrub, is known for its variety of fragrant palates.
The science café audience had a chance to taste one of the species for
themselves, as Ms Muller talked them through the sensory experience.
“When you perceive the aroma of the tea you pick up sweetness,
fynbos, and a floral aroma,” she said. “The different species all have the same
generic characteristics, but the intensities of certain characteristics differ.
For example, Cyclopia maculata is woody and spicy, whereas Cyclopia genistoides
is fruity, floral and rose-geranium like.”
Ms Muller’s research is focused on the sensory profile of the tea.
Seventeen sensory characteristics of honeybush have been identified, including
taste and mouthfeel traits. Some of these are positive characteristics like the
aroma notes fruity, sweet or floral, while other aroma notes, for example
rotting plant water and dusty, are negative and result from processing
“From this, we have developed aids for the industry, like a
honeybush sensory wheel. The tool presents characteristics typical of honeybush
and can be used to determine tea quality and describe aromas to overseas
markets,” Ms Muller explained.
Professor Joubert also told the audience about her work on honeybush
tea quality. In the industry’s early days, there was no attempt to produce tea
of high and consistent quality. “For quality tea, we need both plants and
processes of high quality. After much research, and manipulating some of the
processes, the tea quality is definitely better today,” she said. However,
sometimes producers take shortcuts, which can lead to unwanted quality
variations. The early stages of the value chain are crucial for a high-quality
Dr Bester, a plant breeder and geneticist, focuses on the breeding,
seed production and cultivation of honeybush; areas that are showing much
promise. As part of three breeding programmes run by the Agricultural Research
Council (ARC), 30 kg of seed has been produced and sold to farmers, and about
200 ha of new honeybush plantations have been established.
“We are a small team of researchers with limited funds; we don’t
have all the answers yet”, Dr Bester reminded the audience. “The industry is
still relatively young and much work remains.”
Another aspect of Dr Bester’s work relates to the protection of the
various honeybush species, with the help of a targeted breeding programme and
gene bank. “We are trying to protect the seed of all the species, as many of
the species are threatened and may become extinct,” she explained. “We also
want to rely more on cultivating honeybush and selling seed to farmers, rather than
harvesting in the wild, in order to protect the natural habitats of
As part of a five-year programme funded by the Department of
Science, and Innovation (DSI), Dr Bester and her research partners are making
seed and seedlings available to five selected rural communities to help small
farmers establish their own honeybush plantations and become successful small
Three honeybush researchers (fltr) Dr Nina Muller, Professor Lizette
Joubert and Dr Cecilia Bester took to the stage at Woordfees 2020 in
Stellenbosch, with Professor Jannie Hofmeyr as the host of this science café.