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Hibiscus drinks becoming more popular on Long Island

A glass of hibiscus-laced Waikiki Wheat beer at

A glass of hibiscus-laced Waikiki Wheat beer at Destination Unknown Beer Co. in Bay Shore. Credit: Newsday / Corin Hirsch

At Mamey Mexican Taqueria, which opened this summer in Babylon, co-owner Rosa Matute has a nightly ritual: She rinses dried hibiscus flowers, then combines them with cold water. The next day, she strains the cold-steeped tea and adds a hint of sugar for a barely sweet, summery drink called jamaica (pronounced “ha-my-ca”) that sells for $2.55 a glass. “[Rosa] learned the recipe from one of her Mexican friends,” said her daughter-in-law Erika Pancho, who translated.

In Mexico — as in China, the Caribbean, Africa and even Italy — ruby-hued hibiscus tea has long been a fixture, with purported powers to lower blood pressure, cleanse the kidneys, and ease digestion, among other health perks attributed to its floppy flowers.

Finding hot or iced hibiscus tea here in the United States, however, has sometimes entailed a hunt — or maybe hitting up a Jamaican eatery, where the tea is called sorrel. Is hibiscus finally taking its rightful place in our drinking lexicon?

With the market for so-called functional drinks — drinks with purported health benefits — growing, as well as hibiscus’ tart, alluring flavor, it’s becoming easier to find hibiscus in brewed form on Long Island.

The anthocyanins, or pigments, in hibiscus sepals are what lend hibiscus drinks a crimson hue, and make bottles of Montauk Beverageworks’ Red Berry Hibiscus tea stand out in the Long Island markets where it’s sold. Lexi Radziul, an administrator with the company, said the year-old formula is a strong seller, particularly with diabetics who value its low sugar content. Hibiscus is also a key ingredient in the Berry Hibiscus kombucha made by Oceanside’s Coastal Craft Kombucha, and shows up in brewed iced teas at coffee shops across Nassau and Suffolk.

For those who like to blend their health regimen with a buzz, Bay Shore’s Destination Unknown Beer Company pours a guava-and-hibiscus laced Waikiki Wheat beer, a faintly coral, floral brew with an astringent edge. Elsewhere in town, The Brewers Collective uses hibiscus in Loot, an “herbal ale” that’s also brewed with sage and lemon balm.

Just don’t try to replicate any of these drinks with the hibiscus growing in your garden: Hibiscus has 222 or so varieties, and the one used for tea and other drinks comes from tropical Hibiscus sabdariffa, and not the zone-7 perennial.

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