We’re officially in the thick of summer, and cities all over the country are dealing with the specter of rising temps. Record-breaking heat is being felt from Albany to L.A., and it’s just the latest in a series of blistering heat waves that have scientists concerned.
Climate change. Wildfires. Civil unrest. More killer cops. COVID-19 spikes. A crumbling economy. We get it: the world kinda sucks right now. But does it literally have to feel like a hellscape out there?
We, the collective victims of all this B.S., cannot be blamed for needing a drink to take the edge off. And lately, the beverage that I’ve been reaching for most frequently on these balmy afternoons isn’t a cold beer or a frosty glass of rosé — it’s hibiscus tea, simply poured over ice. It’s the perfect mixer for all sorts of spirits, whether it’s something funky and flavorful like Jamaican rum or just a cheap bottle of vodka you found on sale. But for me, I don’t need booze to make hibiscus great. Its mesmerizing fuschia color and delicious, cranberry-like tartness makes it a treat all on its own.
Hibiscus is an increasingly trendy ingredient these days, but the dried flowers have long been popular in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The powerful Atlantic slave trade that created the African diaspora as we know it today also brought hibiscus to the New World, where it spread from the Caribbean into Latin America. No matter where it’s taken root, the popularity of hibiscus in drink form has spread as fast as the crop itself. Worth noting here is that while the plant goes by a number of other names, most commonly roselle, it is not the big, pretty ornamental flower that we often think of as “hibiscus” — and the portion we eat is actually the inner calyx of the budding flower, not the petals.
No matter what you call it, however, hibiscus is endlessly versatile and addictive in taste. (Research also suggests it can help manage high blood pressure.) I love how its crisp acidity fades into sweeter notes of raisin and dates. You can pair it with bright flavors like ginger and lime, or make a richer beverage with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s fairly affordable, too — you can find it online for around $15 a pound if you avoid the marked-up varieties at fancier retailers. I buy mine for cheap at Mexican markets, and I’ll stick with them over Amazon on the principle of supporting small businesses; odds are that if you live anywhere near a Latin American community, you can find hibiscus at a stellar price.
As for preparing the stuff, well, it’s pretty much impossible to screw up. A lot of people like to make a double- or triple-strength brew with hot water, which can be stored in the fridge and diluted with water. Others, like the Sudanese, prefer steeping the flowers in cold water over a long time, claiming it leads to the most flavorful tea. Meanwhile, my strategy as of late is to just make a strong simple syrup (with white sugar) that I can use as a cocktail sweetener or just dilute into Mexican-style “agua de Jamaica.”
Personally, I think the best use of all may be Jamaican sorrel punch, which is infused with cinnamon, ginger and other spices, left to steep for three full days, then fortified with rum. But for simplicity’s sake, here are three of my favorite ways to drink hibiscus, using a simple syrup that will keep for weeks in a bottle or jar in the fridge.
Hibiscus Simple Syrup: Combine 3 heaping tablespoons of dried hibiscus flowers (15 grams) with a scant cup of white sugar (about 200 grams) in a bowl or measuring cup. Pour over 8 ounces (240 grams) of boiling water. Stir and let steep until it cools to room temperature. Pour into an airtight container and chill. You can multiply this recipe for larger batches.
Mexican Agua de Jamaica: Pour 4 ounces of hibiscus simple syrup into a glass with ice. Mix in 8 to 10 ounces of cold water. Stir and drink.
Hibiscus Shandy: Pour 3 ounces of hibiscus simple syrup into a glass. Add 12 ounces of your lager or pale ale of choice. Drink.
Rum and Hibiscus Sour: Combine 2 ounces of hibiscus simple syrup with 4 ounces of white rum and 2 ounces of lime juice in your favorite cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake hard for 10 seconds, then strain into a chilled glass, with or without fresh ice.