Lara Alexander is the Tea Doctor – or she will be as soon as she finishes her PhD. I chat with this tea connoisseur behind Mightea Fine about her incurable passion for tea, the amazing medicinal qualities of Fynbos, and natural hair dyes.
Q: When did you start your company and why?
LARA: I started Mightea Fine a few years ago. I am a food scientist, and I’m currently doing my PhD, working specifically on Honeybush tea and the chemistry of the tea. It occurred to me it’s a really good product, and I thought that marketing it as such would be a nice distraction from my studies. A friend of mine is great with graphic design, and she helped me to develop the brand. I already had a manufacturing connection in the industry from my studies, so creating the product was a natural extension of what I was already doing.
Q: So, you’re basically a tea doctor?
LARA: Essentially, yes! I’m graduating at the end of this year, so then I’ll officially be a tea doctor.
Q: What exactly is Honeybush?
LARA: Most people know Rooibos tea because Rooibos industry is big. Honeybush tea is also Fynbos and indigenous to South Africa, but it’s from a separate family of plant, and it has a completely different taste. It’s called Honeybush, but it doesn’t really taste like honey! It has a very sweet taste with more floral notes. It also has a whole lot of medicinal properties and was traditionally by the Khoisan and the Settlers centuries ago.
The South African Honeybush Tea Association (SAHTA) is doing a lot to boost the industry and in cultivating the Honeybush plant at the moment. They are in the process of getting a geographical indicator for Honeybush so that you can’t grow and sell it anywhere else in the world without accrediting it to South Africa.
Q: Where in South Africa does Honeybush grow?
LARA: Honeybush grows all the way from Jeffrey’s Bay on the East Coast to Malmesbury in the Western Cape. So, the growth area is big, and each area has its own distinct flavours. There are 23 identified species of Honeybush, but only four main species being sold to the market as Honeybush tea. 2 or 3 of the species are being cultivated, and some are being harvested from the wild. I source my tea from specific growing regions and farms where they occur naturally.
Q: Is there a big taste difference between the different species?
LARA: It’s like wine cultivars where is each species has slightly different flavour. It still has a predominantly sweet and fruity aroma, but then you get different nuances. For instance, Frutea is a species that come from Southern Cape coastal region and has a lot of apricot flavours. And then Fleurtea which comes from the Bredasdorp area has a mixture of Fynbos, Rose and Geranium notes that is much more prominent in the tea from that specific area. I don’t add anything to my teas, and they’re not flavoured; it’s just a natural flavour profile that comes through.
Q: How did you come to be so passionate about tea?
LARA: I took a gap year after my undergrad studies. After my return to South Africa, a friend of mine was doing her master’s degree at the Agricultural Research Council, and she was working in a research group that specialises in South African teas. She helped me to get a temporary job there as a research assistant. All the leading experts in Rooibos and Honeybush research were available to me and, being an avid tea drinker, their work caught my attention. They offered me a masters project with funding and when I finished that 2 years later, I decided to continue and do my PhD as well. I really do love tea! It’s so interesting how it affects the body. And the market is also ready for a product like this now because people are becoming more aware of the food they’re eating and how it’s impacting their health.
Q: What is your favourite tea?
LARA: I like Rooibos. I work with Honeybush so much in my day to day that I think sometimes I’m overexposed to it. But a good South African Rooibos – there’s nothing like it!
Q: Tell me more about the health benefits of Fynbos teas.
LARA: Both Honeybush and Rooibos have anti-inflammatory properties, are great for diabetics, have slimming properties, it’s great for colic and tummy issues and helps with stress-relief and then, of course, it’s filled with antioxidants. So, it’s a really good product, and it’s nice to drink something that makes you healthier.
Q: You also have some very interesting tea-inspired recipes on your blog. There’s one where you wash your hair with tea – does that really work?
LARA: Oh yes, it actually does work! I came across it on another blog, but I was a little bit sceptical. But it works well as an anti-frizz treatment, and it makes your hair feel great afterwards. I used Honeybush tea, but I think Ceylon tea essentially does the same thing, just providing that extra nourishment for your hair. The only difference is Ceylon tea has a lot more tannins which are great for covering grey hair. Apparently, it’s a traditional cure in India for grey hair. Honeybush is unlikely to stain your hair though.
Q: What is your favourite alternative use for tea?
LARA: I love to use tea to make little bath bags*. I add tea to and Epsom salts – it has such a lovely smell! It’s very relaxing, and it’s also great for your skin because it also absorbs UV rays and it has all the antioxidant properties as well. You can also mix it with coconut oil or put it in your bath. That’s pretty much my favourite thing to do with tea.
*NOTE: if you’re in the Western Cape, better stick to a foot soak!
Q: Tell me more about your instant tea powder because it’s incredibly concentrated. So, how did that come about?
LARA: You get a lot of instant Rooibos tea on the market. It’s a very convenient product for people who don’t want the hassle of using tea bags. The powdered tea concentrates that you can buy in the shops usually has maltodextrin added to it to stretch it a bit and to prevent clumping, but mine is completely additive and preservative-fee. It’s also great if you want to use it in baking and you don’t want to add liquid to your mixture. The extract can also be added directly to icecream, or it can even be used as a cosmetic ingredient.
Q: You’ve mentioned baking. So, do you use tea in cooking and baking as well?
LARA: I experiment! I use it in desserts mostly because I have a bit of a sweet tooth. But I have a friend who often uses it when she bakes rusks and cookies. I haven’t tried it yet with any savoury dishes, but I have some ideas about it… I’m thinking maybe the sweet flavours will go with something like pork. I’ll get around to it eventually!
Q: Sounds like a blog post in the making! What else do you have planned for your brand?
LARA: At the moment I’m still trying to finish my thesis, so until the end of the year I will still be going at the pace I’m going now. But I’d like to be an entrepreneur. I believe it is a really good product, I think people are not as well acquainted with Honeybush tea, but I like to get it out there and to get people interested in it.
Q: Where can people find you?
LARA: People are welcome to order online, and I will ship it directly to them. I also do small markets, and I am available at some shops as well: Anja’s Pantry – The Food Farmacy at Stellenbosch Square and if you happen to be George, you can find me at Aweh.
We’ve have been so inspired by Lara’s tea that Anélle is putting together a delicious Honeybush desert for us later this month. We’ll keep you posted! g
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