Search & Distill: Slip Yourself a Rooibos

It's the seasonal comfort you crave.

The colder months have us pining for brown liquor, brown butter, brown port, and all their nutty, sweet comfort. Add rooibos to that list of tawny soothers. Rooibos is a caffeine-free, antioxidant-rich alternative to coffee and tea. Unlike yerba maté and its peculiar ceremony of the gourd and metal straw, rooibos carries no artifice, and can be found in most stores. Strangely, only now is this underappreciated beverage screaming up the health-food buzz charts.Rooibos falls loosely into the tea category, because to make it you steep dried plant matter in hot water. However, it's not tea in the literal sense, containing no actual Camellia sinensis leaves. Instead, it comes from a shrub-like plant distinctive to a small mountain valley in South Africa, where they also call it redbush. In dry form, rooibos looks like broken, burnished pine needles. South Africans have traditionally consumed rooibos tea as a health tonic, and the beverage is said to have many benefits, including being a natural anti-inflammatory.The flavor of pure rooibos runs toward the earthy and hearty, not unlike certain black teas, but the aftertaste lacks much of tea's mouth-drying tannins; as a result, it seems a little sweet. Rooibos has a naturally nutty aroma, and produces a rich caramel-colored brew the shade of rosewood. It fits into the realm of what you'd expect from a lightly brewed, very mild tea.Often, companies and teahouses blend rooibos with spices or dried fruit to offset the faint taste of bark the plant gives off when brewed. Unfortunately, these blends probably keep many people from taking rooibos seriously, tagging it as a novelty beverage the same way we would think of flavored coffees or premixed chai. Try a blend from a better tea retailer, and you'll see they're far from novel. Market Spice in the Pike Place Market, Remedy Teas on Capitol Hill, and World Spice Merchants on Western all carry great examples of rooibos. Stepping into the world of tea can be as intimidating as walking into a high-end wine shop, especially when you're not initiated into the specialized language. The Teacup on top of Queen Anne (2128 Queen Anne Ave. N.) helps ease fears, presenting a cool edge to counter the stuffy trappings of the tea "lifestyle" (aka chintz and doilies). The Teacup's Provence vanilla rooibos is almost too much by itself, like a big snort off a bottle of vanilla extract, and I'd recommend cutting it with half of the straight stuff. But they offer a very fine pure rooibos that shines with a splash of soy milk, bringing out an almond-like sweetness.Rooibos also makes an excellent base for a warm adult beverage. Adding a favorite liqueur or spirit to tea makes for a far better sensory experience than the basic whiskey, lemon, and hot water of a hot toddy. One of the greatest underappreciated cold-weather drinks has to be "blueberry" tea, brewed orange pekoe or Earl Grey tea poured over a shot of amaretto. Rooibos, especially one flavored with vanilla or sweet spice, adds dimension to a shot of Grand Marnier or spiced rum. Another brown for your autumnal drinking scheme, rooibos adds spice and health from morning to nightcap.msavarino@seattleweekly.com

 
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