Drink Recipe: Cold Brewed Jamaica (Hibiscus Iced Tea)

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At taco trucks, my drink of choice is always jamaica, that bright red brew that is a little tart, a little sweet and totally refreshing on a hot day. Made with dried hibiscus flowers, jamaica is easy enough to make at home, but it wasn't until recently that I discovered how much tastier — and even simpler! — it can be when you cold-brew it overnight in the refrigerator.

I love the smooth flavor of cold-brew coffee, but because I am becoming increasingly sensitive to caffeine (hello, mid-30s), I decided to experiment with cold-brew iced tea. The verdict: yum! Cold brewing gives you a tea that is smooth and full-flavored, without bitterness or overpowering tannins. In a New York Times article about cold-brewing tea, Harold McGee mentions cold-brewing jamaica, and says that food chemists "have found that a two-hour cold infusion extracts as much of the pigments as a standard hot infusion, and that the flavor is fruitier and less marked by green-leaf, clove and cooked aromas."

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I was intrigued. So I started making some test batches, steeping them in the refrigerator overnight, with and without aromatics like fresh ginger and allspice. I found the resulting tea much smoother and more refreshing than my usual hot-steeped brew, without any of the "cooked" flavors that sometimes result from oversteeping. I also found that I needed a lot less sugar in the cold-brew version; it didn't have any sharp edges that needed to be tamed with sweetness. (I do like my jamaica on the tart side, so you may find you want a little more simple syrup in your version.)

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I've used both whole flowers (sometimes sold as flor de jamaica at Latin markets) and tea bags, and I prefer the version made with whole flowers, which has a bit more depth. Adding a cinnamon stick to the mix gives another layer of subtle flavor that I really enjoy.

Hibiscus tea is enjoyed all over the world, from Central America to Asia, and preliminary research shows it may even help lower blood pressure for those with hypertension. Which is all well and good, but I'm drinking it because all it takes is five minutes of work to make a cold-brewed batch of tart, caffeine-free, lightly sweetened summer refreshment. Now all I need are some tacos.

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Cold Brew Jamaica (Hibiscus Iced Tea)

Makes 1 quart

1/2 cup dried hibiscus flowers (about 1/2 ounce or 15 grams)
1 cinnamon stick
4 cups cold water
2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup simple syrup
Lime wedges (optional, for serving)

Place the hibiscus and cinnamon stick in a large jar or bowl. Add water. Cover and refrigerate overnight (8 to 12 hours). Add simple syrup to taste. Strain out the solids and serve over ice with a squeeze of lime, if desired.

Store the brewed jamaica covered in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Recipe Notes

  • Look for dried hibiscus flowers (also called flor de jamaica) at natural food stores, Latin markets or online. You can also substitute 4 hibiscus tea bags in place of the loose flowers.
  • You can substitute honey, agave or your sweetener of choice in place of the simple syrup. (Start with 1 tablespoon and add more to taste.)
  • Other aromatics you can steep in your jamaica: sliced fresh ginger, star anise, orange peel, allspice, or lemongrass.

(Images: Anjali Prasertong)

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