Photo by Jereme Zimmerman
If you’re a wild forager, you’re probably aware of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). This shrub-like tree grows on the edges of dry wooded areas and produces clusters of fuzzy red berries that grow together in the shape of an upright cone. People tend to be afraid of it because of its cousin, poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), although the two are very different; poison sumac has white berries and grows in marshy areas.
Many Native American tribes used staghorn sumac for its countless medicinal purposes, and also made a drink out of it. In addition to being full of vitamin C, it can reduce fevers and treat stomachaches and respiratory ailments. When made into a drink with honey or sugar, the product is similar to lemonade. You can make an unfermented version of a sumac beverage by soaking the berries in water for a couple of days, straining them, and sweetening them with sugar or honey. Yields 1 gallon.
- 1-gallon water
- 2 to 3 cones fresh or dried staghorn sumac berries
- 1-1/2 cups cane sugar or raw honey
- 2 tablespoons ginger bug starter (right), or 1 teaspoon dried champagne, bread, or ale yeast
- Bring water to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and stir in all ingredients except yeast. Make sure sugar or honey fully dissolves and doesn’t caramelize on the bottom of the pot. Let simmer for about 30 minutes, and then allow to cool until warm to the touch.
- Place a sieve over a large funnel, and pour the mixture through the funnel into a gallon jug to strain out any solids.
- Add ginger bug starter or dried yeast. Place an airlock or balloon on the jug opening, and let sit for several hours or overnight. You’ll have visible fermentation when the liquid produces CO2, causing fizzing and bubbling in the airlock, or expansion of the balloon. When you see this, start bottling immediately to minimize alcohol production. Drink within 2 to 3 weeks of brewing.
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Jereme Zimmerman is a traditional brewing revivalist, homesteader, and speaker at nationwide natural living events, including Mother Earth News Fairs. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and daughters.