Tinted shortcuts? Or just shortcuts.

Okay, it's come up once again...

I had an aquarist ask me- or maybe it was even to lecture me- about why I don't offer/endorese/extoll the virtues of Rooibos tea or so-called "blackwater extracts." And of course, I had to address the issue without sounding too self-serving or even "defensive" of my viewpoint on NOT utilizing these things in my personal practice. 

Of course, I could tell after the first two minutes of DM with this guy that part of his goal was to elicit some sort of "sound bite" from me trashing the stuff, and being sort of self-promotional and defensive, extolling botanicals over anything else to achieve "blackwater" solely because I sell them and have built a business around them. You know, me trashing any idea that didn't' involve buying stuff from my company- the kind of juicy "expose" aquarium industry conspiracy stuff that some self-proclaimed hobby "activists" love to "expose." 

Yeah, I smelled this pretty fast.

And you know what? I told him pretty much my whole reasoning without histrionics or over-the-top rhetoric. Because it's what I believe.

I've talked about this kind of stuff before- let's revisit it again.

If you haven't heard of it before, there is this stuff called Rooibos tea, which, in addition to bing kind of tasty, has been a favored "tint hack" of many hobbyists for years. Without getting into all of the boring details, Rooibos tea is derived from the Aspalathus linearis plant, also known as "Red Bush" in South Africa and other parts of the world. 

(Rooibos, Aspalathus linearis.  Image by R.Dahlgr- used under CC-BY S.A. 2.5)

It's been used by fish people for a long time as a sort of instant "blackwater extract", and has a lot going for it for this purpose, I suppose. Rooibos tea does not contain caffeine, and and has low levels of tannin compared to black or green tea. And, like catappa leaves and other botanicals, it contains polyphenols, like flavones, flavanols, aspalathin, etc. 

Hobbyists will simply steep it in their aquariums and get the color that they want, and impart some of these substances into their tank water. I mean, it's an easy thing to do. Of course, like anything you add to your aquarium, it's never a bad idea to know the impact of what you're adding. 

Like using botanicals, utilizing tea bags in your aquarium requires some thinking, that's all. 

Lest you accuse me of some hypocrisy about this, let me go into this in more detail. I admit I'm biased towards my personal approach and philosophies, but I'm open-minded enough to at least understand the appeal of these things to many hobbyists.

Now, the things that I personally dislike about using tea or so-called "blackwater extracts" are that you are simply going for an effect, without getting to embrace the functional aesthetics imparted by adding leaves, seed pods, etc. to your aquarium as part of its physical structure, and that there is no real way to determine how much you need to add to achieve______.

And sure, as I've said 18,000 times before, using botanicals isn't exactly a precise science, either. However, utilizing botanicals in the aquarium forms part of an approach- a philosophy, and more of a "methodology", really. Adding tea or an additive is- well- just sort of that. Adding something. 

You might disagree, of course. Here's my thinking on this:

It starts with my overriding philosophy behind the botanical-style/blackwater aquarium. I mean, the very term, "botanical-style" should be a tip-off, right? Not "Rooibos Tea-Style Aquarium", right? So, yeah..


A lot of hobbyists are curious about the use of commercial "blackwater extracts" and Rooibos tea for these purposes, and if we at Tannin plan on carrying them.

Short answer:  We don't. We won't.


It's NOT because these are not "cool" or because they "accomplish the same things as the leaves we sell", don't work, or whatever...

It's because I feel that they are "shortcuts" which hobbyists tend to use in place of a "system", "approach",  or methodology to accomplish the same thing on a continuous basis.

Read that sentence two or three or six times, okay?

As you know, I tend to look at "hacks" or whatever you call them, when used in place of procedures, as a "band aid" of sorts- used to quickly provide some desired result, without a long-term approach to managing your aquarium ("C'mon, Scott, you just brew another cup of tea...").

I am just sort of "hard-wired" to hate most hobby shortcuts, particularly when they are proferred as a way around some more methodical, long-term approach.

Now, as a long-time reef aquarist, I'll tell you that there absolutely is a value to use of appropriate additives and such which, when used in conjunction with an integrated approach, can consistent, give long-term results. And sure, in the future, we may offer products which are intended to integrate with our approach and help facilitate results..key word here being "integrate"- not "substitute."

I am of the opinion that you can't just add a "drop of this" or a "pinch of that" to create optimum environmental conditions for your fishes and call it a day.

And, with tea or extracts, you sort of miss out on replicating a little slice of Nature in your aquarium. And of course, it's fine if your goal is just to color the water, I suppose. And I understand that some people, like fish breeders who need bare bottom tanks or whatever- like to "condition" water without all of the leaves and twigs and nuts we love.

On the other hand, if you're trying to replicate the look and function (and maybe some of the parameters) of THIS:

You won't achieve it by using THIS:

It's simply a shortcut.

And look, I understand that we are all looking for the occasional shortcuts and easier ways to do stuff. And I realize that none of what we proffer here at Tannin is  an absolute science. It's an "art" at this point. There is no current way available to the hobby to test for "x" types or amounts of tannins (of which there are hundreds) in aquariums.

 I have not found a study thus far which analyzed wild habitats (say, Amazonia) for tannin concentrations and specific types, so we have no real "model" to go on. You know, a way to achieve "plug-and-play" results by just following some simple procedure or dosing regimen.

The best we can do is create a reasonable facsimile of Nature.

We have to understand that there are limitations to the impacts of botanicals, tea, wood, etc. on water chemistry. Adding liter upon liter of "extract" to your aquarium will have minimal pH impact if your water is super hard. When you're serious about trying to create more natural blackwater conditions, you really need an RO/DI unit to achieve "base water" with no carbonate hardness that's more "malleable" to environmental manipulation. Tea, twigs, leaves, botanicals- none will do much unless you understand that.

So, again, it's about integrating with a methodology or system- not circumventing it.

It's different than say, using an RO/DI unit to pre-treat your tap water obtain optimum "base water" conditions which you can modify with natural materials and such. That's an example of a vehicle to help us create the environment we seek on a consistent basis, integrated into a more broad approach...not a "shortcut" or fix that overlooks the big picture.

That being said, I think that our entire botanical-style aquarium approach needs to be viewed as just that- an approach. A way to use a set of materials, techniques, and concepts to achieve desired results consistently over time. A way that tends to eschew short-term "fixes" in favor of long-term technique. Not "the best way"- just "a way."

The aquarium hobby has always sort of embraced practices which have "evolved" to fit the times. And in recent years, some of these "evolutions" have come in the form of "shortcuts." Some of them have been a result of actually solving long-term "pain points", such as digital water testing equipment instead of liquid reagents. Others have been more "gimmicky", or intended to "accommodate" the cultural "perception" that everyone is too busy to do____________ these days.

I hate that particular justifcation for stuff in the hobby.

We're dealing with animals and closed biological systems. It's not about a quick way to prepare dinner or home delivery of groceries or whatever. It's a hobby. And part of the hobby is the nuancing and longer-term nurturing of our aquariums. You know, hobby practice. And most endeavors involving keeping and breeding living creatures tend to favor approaches over "hacks."

In my opinion, this type of "short-term, instant-result" mindset has made the reef aquarium hobby of late more about adding that "extra piece of gear" or specialized chemical additive as means to get some quick, short-term result that you read about online than it is a way of taking an approach that embraces learning about the entire ecosystem we are trying to recreate in our tanks and facilitating long-term success.

That's not a good trend, IMHO.

Oh, so once again- the "problem" with Rooibos or blackwater extracts as I see it is that they encourage a sort of, "Hey, my water is getting more clear, time to add another tea bag or a teaspoon of extract..." mindset, instead of fostering a mindset that looks at what the best way to achieve and maintain the desired results naturally on a continuous basis is. Not learning or understanding the underlying function; rather, favoring a "recipe" approach to the hobby.

A sort of symbolic manifestation of encouraging a short-term fix to a long-term concern.

Again, there is no "right or wrong" in this context- it's just that we need to ask ourselves why we are utilizing these products, and to ask ourselves how they fit into the "big picture" of what we're trying to accomplish. I personally find these types of shortcuts concerning because they overlook technique and understanding in favor of easy fixes.

We shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that you simply add "a drop of something"- or even throw in some Alder Cones or Catappa leave into your tanks- and that will solve all of your problems. Are we fixated on just aesthetics, or are we considering the long-term impacts on our closed system environments? Remember, when we talk about utilizing botanicals in our aquariums, we're also considering their potential to foster "food webs" and other long-term environmental affects in your aquarium. 

Sure, I can feel cynicism towards my mindset here. I understand that.

We spend an inordinate amount of time looking at Nature as inspiration for our aquariums- not just for the aesthetics- but for the function as well. 

And again, this is something that may NOT appeal to everyone. I mean, in the interest of facilitating function, we embrace some aesthetics (besides just the tinted water) which are not only unconventional to many hobbyists- they're downright contrarian, really.

Even the tint that I- we- love so much is not everyone's idea of beautiful, right?

Yeah, one of the things I read about from time to time in various hobby social media discussions on aquascaping is the extreme dislike many people have for the tint that wood imparts into the water. In fact, some of the posts we see on social media or aquascaping/plant forums are literally pleas for help...stuff like, "When will this brown tint go away?" 

Frantic requests for some solution to the brown water, because they want that crystal clear "Nature Aquarium" look.

I see that kind of stuff and- jerk that I am- kind of laugh.

And that is pretty mean of me, I know.

Sure, I really DO get it.

Not everyone appreciates, likes, or even has the remotest interest in the earthy brown water that we obsess over around these parts! Yet, it was these unfortunate souls who made me realize the fastest, easiest way to "jump start" the tinted look in your tanks is to simply put partially cured driftwood in them!

That's the closest thing to a "hack" or "shortcut" that I tend to proffer these days.

Of course, there is the strange dichotomy that exists:

In stark contrast to the desperate calls for suggestions of hapless "Nature Aquarium" enthusiasts about when their damn piece of driftwood will stop leaching, I'll literally get emails and DM's from hobbyists who are bummed out because they can't get their tanks "dark" enough.

That's how far we've come, lol.  If I wasn't before, I'm pretty convinced now that we as a hobby are... well, weird.

And that's okay. 

However, if we look at the use of extracts and additives, and additional botanicals- for that matter- as part of a "holistic approach" to achieving continuous and consistent environmental results in our aquariums, that's a different story altogether. 

It makes a lot more sense to learn a bit more about how natural materials influence the wild blackwater habitats of the world, and to understand that they are being replenished on a more or less continuous basis, then considering how best to replicate this in our aquariums consistently and safely.

Again, lest you think I'm simply taking this mindset to "sell more of my stuff" instead of seeing hobbyists buy tea or tonics, let me set you straight one more time:

Remember, botanical materials not only add tannins, humic substances, and other valuable organic compounds- they create a "structural" part of the habitat. A place for fishes to hide, spawn, forage. And they encourage the growth of beneficial biofilms, fungal growths, and crustaceans- just like they do in nature. Potential supplemental food sources, etc. And yeah, they look interesting, too.

That whole "functional aesthetic" idea again.

Yeah, I'm "selling" a philosophy. A mindset, an approach...

I just don't think that a tea bag or an "elixir" can do that on its own.

Thoughtful application of technique over time, careful observation, study of natural habitats, and a more comprehensive long-term approach just might.

At the very least, continuing our practice of utilizing natural botanical materials in their "intact" form in our aquariums creates many potential opportunities for "unlocks" in the hobby.

That's pretty damn exciting, IMHO!

Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay attentive. Stay open-minded. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics  


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment