Why you should care
Because it’s “flippin’ cool.”
Until recently, rooibos tea — from a shrub native to South Africa — was as commonplace as the country’s cornfields and impala. Now, thanks to husband-and-wife team Pete and Monique Ethelston, this once-dull staple, which grows only in the Cederberg mountains north of Cape Town, is being used to make fancy espresso-based drinks in cafes from Cape Town to Copenhagen. Rooibos has never been cool, explains Soekie Snyman, formerly of the South African Rooibos Council, “but now it’s flippin’ cool.”
By grinding dried rooibos leaves into a fine powder, the Ethelstons’ company, Red Espresso, has elbowed this wild bush tea into the boutique coffee market. Put their powder through any high-pressure espresso machine and you’ll get all the intense flavor of a coffee-based drink and almost six times the antioxidants and other cancer-fighting properties of regular tea — with none of the caffeine. Of course, it tastes nothing like coffee, but the pressurized rooibos has a potent, aromatic flavor that’s miles from your mother’s cuppa Lipton — and it even forms its own crema. When it’s served with a swirl of honey and a hit of cinnamon, I’d choose it over a high-octane cappuccino any day.
The Ethelstons married “fairly late in life” after establishing successful careers — Pete as an SAP consultant in Asia and Monique as a marketer for large beverage brands in South Africa. Things veered from the script when Pete convinced his bride to hop off the hamster wheel in 2005 for an extended honeymoon in Nepal and Tibet. There, they ventured into the more remote and spiritual corners, and found themselves grappling with the bigger questions. “In our corporate lives we had this nagging feeling that we weren’t doing people or the planet much good,” says Pete.
Then, in a Kathmandu cafe, Pete received an email from Carl Pretorius, a friend and business partner (they own a tree nursery together). The message told how Pretorius — jittery after his sixth coffee that day, but keen for more — had opened a rooibos tea bag and put the contents through his espresso machine. Over several weeks, by using high-quality rooibos and tinkering with the exact grind, Pretorius had produced something that mimicked a real espresso. “Let’s do this thing together,” he emailed, knowing that Pete and Monique had the perfect skillset to bring his idea to market.
It’s a superfood that’s indulgent … I’m still looking for the downside.
Carolina Tristão, Tristão Coffee Company
Pretorius remains a partner in the business, but from day one it has been driven and financed by the Ethelstons. It hasn’t been easy — even with Monique’s marketing background — but they’ve always known they were onto something: “Coffee doesn’t agree with me,” says Pete, “so for years I didn’t go to cafes.” Red Espresso transcends the coffee and health markets like no other product (matcha, a powder made from green tea leaves, is its closest rival but contains about as much caffeine as java). Many of their most loyal customers are coffee junkies.
Their first big break came six months after receiving their friend’s email, when they partnered with the South African retail chain Woolworths to include red cappuccinos on its cafe menu. Since then, Woolworths and Red Espresso have worked together on a number of products, under Pete and Monique’s Red Espresso brand. “They were ahead of the health trend,” says Woolworths’ food product developer Claire Edwards, “and we’ve been able to help them on the retail side.”
The early years were difficult. And expensive. Teaming up with rooibos farmers working at the highest altitude in the world — where the most flavor- and antioxidant-rich leaves grow — they agreed on a pricing structure that, using fair-trade principles, rewarded these fourth-generation producers for their superior product. And they spent a lot of money to secure intellectual property rights all over the world patenting the exact grind of their product. Not to mention equipment costs (rooibos, harder and twiggier than coffee, is hell on grinding blades).
In the midst of the challenges were important wins. In 2008, Red Espresso was voted best new product by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. This prompted offers from major retailers, including Whole Foods, but Pete and Monique turned them down, worried the product would get lost on foreign shelves without consumer education.
The game changer came in 2014 with the arrival of Nespresso-compatible capsules, which eliminated the possibility of human error and allowed consumers to bring the cafe experience into their homes. Red Espresso capsules have seen 154 percent year-on-year growth since launch, according to Woolworths, and the company has added four flavored varieties, all sugar- and caffeine-free. The environmental debate surrounding single-serve coffee has not escaped the Ethelstons’ attention: Their capsules are recyclable (they’re testing biodegradable ones), and they’ve undertaken other green initiatives, including their Red Cedar Project.
And now Red Espresso is redoubling its efforts abroad — starting with its newly launched U.S. online store. The company has partnered with Carolina Tristão, from Brazilian coffee producer Tristão, who spent a decade in advertising in the U.S. before joining her family’s business. The first obstacle is getting consumers to understand the product: “At least everyone in South Africa knows what rooibos is,” says Tristão. And then there’s the fact that Keurig, not Nespresso, dominates the U.S. coffee-at-home market.
On the plus side, tea sales in the United States are projected to reach $9 billion by 2020 (up from $7 billion in 2015), according to market research firm Packaged Facts, and the National Coffee Association reports that single-serve brands in the U.S. have jumped from 21 percent of dollar sales to 41 percent in the past five years. By using “sniper tactics and micro-influencers,” Tristão is hoping to gain traction in select niches, from sports enthusiasts and yogis to pregnant women and nutritionists. “To understand how amazing Red Espresso is, you have to incorporate it into your life,” says Tristão, who makes red lattes for her kids and drinks red iced tea when she’s trying to cut back on the vino. “It’s a superfood that’s indulgent … I’m still looking for the downside.”
“How difficult can it be to stand out if you’re the only brand in your category?” asks Pete, before recalling just how difficult it’s been at times. But with a product that treats allergies, reduces blood pressure, improves bone health and much more, at least the Ethelstons are no longer dogged by regrets over their lives’ purposes.
* The original version of this story misstated Soekie Snyman’s current role.