What Is Hibiscus Tea?

Glass of iced hibiscus tea

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Hibiscus tea is one of the world's most beloved beverages, enjoyed both hot and cold from South America to Africa to Asia. Hibiscus lends a floral note, a bit of tang, and an intensely deep pink hue to tea. Hibiscus is a common ingredient in many commercially prepared herbal teas, both loose leaf and in teabags. You can buy it by itself in teabags, or you can customize the taste and strength of the brew by using elements of the flower itself.

Fast Facts

Origin: north Africa and southeast Asia

Alternative Names: agua de Jamaica, red sorrel, sour tea

Temperature: hot or cold

What Is Hibiscus Tea?

Hibiscus tea is a drink made from the flowering part of the roselle plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which is native to parts of Africa, Asia, and India. It's technically an herbal infusion, not a true tea, but we'll use the term tea since it's how the drink is commonly referred to. Hibiscus is sometimes referred to as jamaica flower (in Mexico), as red sorrel, or sour tea.

The part of the roselle flower that is used for making the tea is not the petals; but rather the calyces, the part of the flower right below the petals. 

The petals of the roselle flower are usually white, pale yellow, or light pink. The calyces, on the other hand, have a dark red color and are what gives hibiscus tea its characteristic hue.

After the plant fruits, the fresh fruits can either be separated from the calyces, or the whole pods left to dry and the fruits separated from the calyces later. 

The tea itself is an infusion of the dried roselle calyces. It can be made two different ways, by using boiling water (which is quicker), or by steeping the dried calyces in cold water, which takes longer but produces a smoother, more fruity flavor.

Hibiscus Tea Uses

Hibiscus tea can be drunk on its own, either hot or cold, sweetened or unsweetened, and it can also be blended with fruit juices or used as a base for making other drinks and cocktails. It's incredibly versatile, yet also unmistakable. It's especially good with some honey.

For instance, the traditional Latin American drink agua de jamaica is an infusion of hibiscus flowers along with sugar, cinnamon, lime juice, allspice berries, and ginger.

Hibiscus tea can also be combined with superfine sugar and other ingredients, such as ginger and lemon zest, then reduced to make a syrup. The resulting syrup used as an ingredient in cocktails such as a hibiscus martini.

How to Drink Hibiscus Tea

There are two basic ways to make hibiscus tea. The first, which is also the quickest, is to make a hot tea. This is done by pouring boiling water over the dried hibiscus flowers and steeping it, then straining out the solids and drinking the liquid. 

The more flowers you use, the stronger the drink will be. Likewise, if it steeps longer, the flavor will be stronger, but it can also taste more bitter. Therefore, if you prefer a stronger brew, it's best to use more flowers rather than let it steep longer. 

Another way to prepare hibiscus tea is to use a cold brew method, which involves pouring cold water over the dried flowers and allowing the mixture to steep for a longer period, usually 4 to 8 hours, but even two hours is enough to extract plenty of color and flavor. This method is preferable if you are planning to drink your tea iced. Cold brewing also has the advantage of minimizing the bitter, tannic flavors that hot brewing can produce, so the end result is fruitier and smoother, yet still full-flavored.

Whether to drink it with an added sweetener or not is a matter of personal preference. Unsweetened hibiscus tea has a tart flavor reminiscent of cranberries.

A simple hibiscus quencher can be made by combining cold water, dried hibiscus flowers, fresh berries, sugar or honey, and mint leaves, and steeping in the fridge for 4 to 8 hours.  

Buying and Storing

There are two main ways to buy hibiscus tea. You can buy the dried flowers or you can buy prepackaged teabags. The teabags are certainly more convenient. They don't require straining and there's little to no cleanup involved, other than throwing away the used teabag. On the other hand, the quality of the product in the tea bags is markedly inferior.

Either way, provided you store dried hibiscus in cool, dark place, away from light, oxygen, and moisture, it will keep for up to two years. 

Hibiscus Tea Recipes

There are many ways to make hibiscus tea, and it tastes great with a variety of flavors and ingredients, with and without alcohol. Here are a few to try.