The manufacture of honeybush tea consists of four characteristic processing steps, harvesting, cutting, "fermentation" (oxidation) and drying.
Harvesting of honeybush tea was traditionally done during the flowering period, but with the increasing demand, some of the major producers were forced to extend the harvesting period to late summer. The gathering of material from natural field populations often takes days, since plants are harvested in the more mountainous regions of the production area, these areas are often inaccessible to normal transport. Different harvesting practices are used:
- Harvesting of only the young growth
- Cutting of the bush as low as possible from the ground with a sickle or pruning-shears
- Cutting it approximately 0.33 m from the ground.
In the case of Cyclopia intermedia, a resprouter, cutting of bushes to the ground facilitates future harvesting as it reduces the occurrence of stems that die after harvesting. Bushes previously harvested give better material for processing as the stems are softer and have higher leaf to stem ratios. Older bushes that are not regularly harvested give too much coarse material due to thicker stems. Bushes in a specific area are harvested every two to three years. After a fire the bushes of Cyclopia intermedia show more growth, have more flowers and often reach one to one and half meters in height giving good material for the making of tea.
The common method is cutting of the material before "fermentation" or curing. This ensures the disruption of cellular integrity and facilitates fermentation. Leaves that are not adequately cut often retain an unacceptable green to light brown colour. Mechanized fodder cutters are used to increase productivity and to deliver a more uniform product. Processed material therefore varies between 6 mm and 3 cm length. The effectiveness of commination depends on the tea manufacturer’s equipment since customized cutters have been developed.
There are currently two distinct methods used for honeybush tea fermentation, fermentation in a curing heap and fermentation at elevated temperatures in a preheated "baking-oven".
The common method of honeybush tea fermentation is the use of curing heap, especially when large quantities of tea are produced. A round oval shaped heap of approximately four to five meters in diameter and two meters high requires 1.5 – 2.5 ton of green honeybush material. The heap is packed firmly, covered with canvas or Hessian bags and left for three days to allow spontaneous heat generation and fermentation. Temperature build-up is quick since the heap is already warm when the final material is packed into heap.
During the fermentation period, the material changes from green to dark-brown and develops a sweet aroma. From the third day onwards the heap is turned every twelve hours to ensure that outer, cooler regions, are mixed with the rest of the material and to prevent oxygen deletion in the heap. The heap is therefore inspected after three to five days of fermentation, depending on the species used. If a sweet, honey-like aroma is present and the material has a dark-brown colour, the heap is spread open in a thin layer on canvas and allowed to dry in the sun.
The use of a preheated oven gives a product of better and more consistent quality since better control over the temperature of the fermentation process is possible and shorter fermentation periods (24-36 h) are needed to obtain fully fermented tea, either to inhibit mould growth.
The material after being cut, was placed in Hessian bags and scalded with hot water to increase the temperature of the material before fermentation. Fires were made in the drums and after the coals were removed; the Hessian bags were placed in the drums and the openings covered. The initial temperature was high (>90 Degree) during the first few hours, but rapidly declined. Temperatures reaching 60 Degree in the inner core of fermentation heaps have been observed. The "baking-oven" allows reheating of 11 bags (ca. 35 kg each) of honeybush tea during the fermentation process without having to remove the material. At the turn of the century, "baking-ovens" were already in use for the manufacturing of honeybush tea. Cyclopia intermedia and Cyclopia subternata are fermented in a "baking-oven".
It is believed that the final product’s appearance is improved by sun drying. The tea normally takes one to two days to dry, but this depends on the thickness of the layer as well as the prevailing weather conditions.
Honeybush tea is traditionally a very coarse product, which contributes to the belief that the unrefined product has certain health giving properties. The tea is therefore often sold as a mixture a short stems and leaves. The final product is put through an electrically driven, cylindrical sieve that has a 6.5 mm aperture screen, to remove all the pieces thicker than a matchstick. Sieved honeybush tea is generally bulk packed in large, woven plastic bags for local and overseas markets, but small portion is also packed in small plastic bags for sales.