Our History

At the Heart of the Tea Trade
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History of Tick Tock Tea

The fascinating story of Rooibos (also known as Redbush) has its roots in the 18th century, when the tea trade between Europe and the China was booming. Located at the southern tip of Africa, Cape Town was a bustling port at the heart of the Tea Route, harbouring the cargo-laden ships of the Dutch East India and English East India companies as they made their way back to Europe.

As in Europe, Chinese-style tea drinking became fashionable within Cape Town society. But tea was expensive and hard to come by outside of the city, and the Dutch settlers who had established their small farms in more isolated frontier communities like the Cederberg yearned for the delicious herbal and China teas they had enjoyed back home.

At the same time, a number of European botanists were busy exploring the mountainous Cape for new plants for food and medicine. It wasn’t long before local ‘tea’ substitutes (‘bush’ teas) became popular amongst rural populations for both medicinal and leisure use. They developed basic artisan techniques to process these products, which were often blended as traditional tea ‘taste-a-likes’. In 1772, this was documented by the famous Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg who noted that "the country people made tea" from a plant related to wild Rooibos.

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Benjamin Ginsberg, the Founder of Rooibos Tea

Grandfather Benjamin Ginsberg, the Founder of Rooibos Tea

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And thus things might have stayed, were it not for Benjamin Ginsberg, a young man from a Moscow tea merchant family, who joined his trader father in the Cederberg in 1903. Benjamin quickly became fascinated by the potential of this crude ‘mountain tea’. He realised that the drink cherished by the locals would find favour far beyond the region’s borders and started buying Rooibos and reselling it in other areas.

But he was more than just a commercial pioneer. Drawing on his tea knowledge, he sought to refine the rough and uneven tea, which could vary in colour from yellow to black, and in flavour from pleasant to undrinkable. In a series of experiments, he applied ancient Chinese tea curing techniques to the wild plant, placing ‘bruised’ Rooibos leaves in barrels to control the curing or fermentation of the tea.

He soon perfected these bruising and oxidising techniques, also incorporating newer methods garnered from Indian tea growing plantations. The tea was no longer sold loose from chests or bags, but packed in small packets or tins, as a mark of selectivity and guarantee of quality. Over 100 years later, we continue to make Tick Tock to Grandfather Benjamin’s original specifications.

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Planting the first Rooibos Farms
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Growing Rooibos

Growing interest in Rooibos followed, sales increased and unsustainable harvesting in the 1920’s soon exhausted the limited availability of the wild tea, which was found only in sparse plant populations on the slopes and valleys of the Cederberg, its traditional harvesting area.

Around 1930, Ginsberg encouraged his friends, a local doctor, Dr Le Fras Nortier, and a local farmer, Olaf Bergh, to experiment with propagating the never before cultivated wild Rooibos seeds. The plant’s hard-shelled seeds proved quite tricky, but Nortier soon discovered that the seeds would germinate if they were cracked open first– imitating the effect of mountain fires in dry climates.

Nortier cultivated the first plants on the KIein Kliphuis farm near Clanwilliam. He learnt that the seeds should be sown in January and that the best time to transplant the tiny seedlings is just after heavy rain when more rain is due. In 1944, Grandfather Benjamin’s son, Henry Charles Ginsberg, laid out the first dedicated large-scale Rooibos plantations on two nearby high mountain plateau farms, scaling it for the first time into a major agricultural crop.

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Old Rooibosch tea poster
Henry Charles Ginsberg Puts Rooibos on the Map
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After the Second World War, Benjamin Ginsberg’s son, Henry Charles Ginsberg, became known not only for his contribution to domesticating Rooibos, but also for his pivotal role in popularising it. Under his guidance, Rooibos was transformed from a niche item sold only in country stores to a modern day consumer product with a vast national following. The family “Eleven O’Clock” brand, which had originally been conceived by Benjamin several decades earlier, flourished as South Africa’s biggest selling Rooibos Tea.

He developed new technologies for drying the tea, large scale curing courts, and disposing of the original chaff cutters his father had encouraged, introduced more sophisticated cutting machinery used by the tea industry in India.

He personally lobbied and encouraged other farmers to plant Rooibos as a crop and became Chairman of the Rooibos Tea Packers Association, a role he held for several decades. During this period he continued the slow process of exporting tea to new markets, registering for the first time, overseas trademarks as early as 1955.

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Bruce Ginsberg Takes Rooibos to the Tea Loving Nation

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Ginsberg tea family

Following in the family footsteps, Benjamin’s grandson Bruce also caught the tea bug. He was able to build on his father’s achievements and continued to farm and cure finest grade Rooibos. As he learnt more about tea – even spending time training at a Zen monastery in Kyoto where the Japanese tea ceremony was formulated 500 years ago – he realised just how special Rooibos actually was.

His desire to introduce this unique drink to tea lovers all around the world led him to form a UK company in 1976. At the time few in Britain had ever heard of Rooibos, but Bruce was determined to convince the tea-loving nation of the brew’s virtues. And after years of touring health shops, writing articles, lecturing at trade shows, and handing out endless thousands of free samples, it slowly caught on and became a British favourite.

“Because Rooibos can be enjoyed in much the same way as regular tea,” says Ginsberg, “it’s perfect for those who want to give up caffeine, without having to give up the sacred ritual of the smooth, full bodied cuppa."

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Tick Tock Tea today
2005-present day
Tick Tock – Britain’s Favourite Rooibos Tea
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Over 110 years since Benjamin’s first Rooibos adventures, we are still very much a family company. Bruce Ginsberg, Benjamin’s grandson, and the Tick Tock family personally taste every batch of Rooibos tea that we put on the market.

Tick Tock has proudly become Britain’s favourite Rooibos tea, and its iconic pack can be found in kitchen cupboards across the country. With the addition of new Rooibos launches including Organic Green Tea, Vanilla Chai, Earl Grey, Restore & Renew, Vanilla and Honey, Lemon & Ginger, our brand has truly become the nation's 'Tea for Anytime'.

Thanks to our generations of passionate tea making experience, we are able to maintain the high levels of quality for which Tick Tock has become known. This desire for the best taste and quality has helped to keep alive the ecosystem, traditions and skills that have created them.

Even with its ever-growing popularity, cultivated Rooibos is still cured in much the same traditional way, dried out in the warmth and fresh open air of the mountains without any chemicals or additives. After all, if it’s always worked well, why change it?

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