When I read about a lemonade-like drink made by cold-steeping the berries of native sumac trees in Samuel Thayer’s first book on foraging wild edibles, The Forager’s Harvest, I was instantly intrigued and inspired. I quickly identified the smooth sumac trees growing on my parents’ land and eagerly awaited a fall harvest. They’re quick and easy to gather and process, and the drink is outstanding. The next year, I gathered all I found time for and made two gallons of the sumac-ade, rhus-ade, Indian lemonade, etc., from sumac tea.
However, I processed the sumac tea a bit differently from the year before: I brought it to a low boil for about five minutes just to be sure to avoid any nasties.
It completely changed the flavor profile.
The taste went from an excellent–and I do mean excellent–lemonade substitute to what I can only describe as the very taste of late autumn holidays. The closest comparison is to wassail (yes, the wassail sung about in Christmas carols), an apple cider-based drink with citrus and cinnamon. It was delicious, but completely different.
I froze a gallon and forgot about it for months. Now that I’m into wine making, I decided to thaw that gallon, add some more sugar to get a specific gravity of 1.080, throw in some raisins and yeast, and see what happens. That same profile of sumac in Thayer’s book mentions some sumac wine his sister made that was some of the best wine he ever tasted. I imagine it contained the less heated, more lemonadesque sumac tea base, but wine from sumac can most definitely be done.
A note about sumac: the juice/tea I’m talking about is from Rhus glabra, a tree in the Anacardiaceae family and native to North America. It is NOT from poison sumac, which is a different plant in an entirely different family. Sumac trees are perfectly safe; they are just unfortunate to share the name with a toxic plant.
When I make more sumac tea this coming fall, I’ll be sure to heat to a much lower temperature (probably 170-180*F) and note my results. It is possible that some of the taste difference had to do with different amounts of bloom on the berry clusters in the two years I harvested them. The tangy, citrusy flavor comes from acidic components in that bloom. The bloom is washed off by rain and will return early in the fall, but once it’s gone and colder temperatures hit, it’s usually gone for the year. However, I will note that I doubt the bloom amount made the vast difference, because I tasted the berries in the field for that sour, acidic taste and it was definitely there.
The second “country” wine is a mango nectar experiment. I bought a half gallon at our local Walmart, poured it into a large mixing bowl for 24 hours to let preservatives degrade and evaporate, and added sugar and yeast. I also threw in some pectic enzyme as the juice is quite thick and there were some fruit bits floating around. My wife is one of the biggest fans of mangoes on God’s Earth, so if this is good I’m sure to earn some much needed brownie points.