One of the recipes I became obsessed with while living in El Paso, Texas, was Agua de Jamaica, or hibiscus iced tea. The tea was served at most (if not all) taquerias throughout the city. Its ability to cool even the spiciest of salsas and chilies made it a staple. My version of the beverage adds a hit of acidity from freshly-squeezed lime juice, sweetness from a simple syrup made with raw sugar, and cinnamon for a bit of warmth.
What is Agua de Jamaica in English?
Agua de Jamaica (AH-gwa dey ha-MY-cah) literally translates to “Jamaica Water” in English. However, the rough translation is “jamaica water”. No, not the country Jamaica, it’s the flower we know as hibiscus. Since the hibiscus flower is the national flower of Puerto Rico, I wonder why it isn’t more popular with Puerto Ricans. Never mind that, though, I’m on a mission to change that.
Where is Agua de Jamaica From?
Agua de jamaica is a drink that’s popular in Mexico, Central America, as well as, cities around the world with large populations of folks from those countries. You can find this blood-red drink served in most Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants in your city. As I mentioned before, I first tasted it in El Paso and I haven’t been the same since.
These countries swear by agua de jamaica’s health properties. It’s beneficial for lowering cholesterol, high blood pressure, and known for its antioxidant properties. I just know it cools me down on a hot Texas day.
What does Jamaica taste like?
The best way to describe the flavor of Jamaica is to say it tastes like a floral cranberry juice. Depending on how much, or how little, sugar you add to yours, it can be super sweet or light and refreshing. I prefer my agua de jamaica to be somewhere in the middle. Mine tastes a lot like a flowery kool-aid, but in the best way possible. You can make yours as complex as possible by altering the spices steeped with the leaves. I use cinnamon here, but cardamom, nutmeg, or star anise are other options. Turn your agua de jamaica into a soda by topping it with seltzer or soda water. Spike it with tequila or rum.
What is Agua de Jamaica Made of?
This agua de jamaica drink, however, is simply made. Dried hibiscus leaves, water, raw cane sugar, lime juice, cinnamon, and that’s it.
You can usually find the hibiscus flowers in a Mexican grocery store, but if push comes to shove, just order them online. Likewise, cinnamon sticks are available in most grocery stores these days. The raw cane sugar I use is just Sugar in the Raw which is located near the brown sugar in the baking aisle.
Whenever you’re making teas, it’s best to use filtered or distilled water so your tea doesn’t have an off-taste, so if you don’t have a water filter, buy a gallon of water at the store.
How do you make Agua de Jamaica from scratch?
It’s almost shameful how easy this agua de jamaica is to make. But, in spite of its ease, there are things you need to know in order to make the best pitcher of jamaica you will ever drink.
The steeping process needs to be done thoroughly so you get the most out of your leaves. Don’t cut down the steeping time, or skip the straining process.
But before we get to that, prior to steeping the hibiscus, give the jamaica leaves a quick rinse under cold water. As with most teas, the dried flowers have sat somewhere- sometimes in open boxes in the grocery store- and may have a light coating of dust. A quick rinse under cold, running water will rid the jamaica of any hangers-on. I usually put my leaves in a colander to rinse them quickly.
One other thing you need to know is how badly jamaica will stain. This stuff is heavily pigmented, so a drop of it on your white countertops will stain if it’s not quickly wiped up. Similarly, you want to wring out the tea while wearing gloves or you risk staining your fingernails a fuschia color.
On to steeping! Fill a large pot with a gallon of distilled (or filtered) water. Add the jamaica to the water, as well as the cinnamon sticks.
Bring the water up to a boil, then turn the heat off and allow the leaves to steep in the hot water for 20 minutes.
How do I sweeten Jamaica Agua Fresca
While your hibiscus leaves are steeping, prepare the simple syrup which you’ll use to sweeten your jamaica.
In a smaller pot, combine the sugar in the raw with more filtered water. Stir these together a bit, then bring the mixture to a boil over med-high heat. Stir the syrup while it comes to a boil, this encourages the sugar crystals to dissolve.
Once the simple syrup reaches a boil, remove the pot from the stove and allow it to cool completely. Make the simple syrup up to a week in advance and just store it in the fridge to use as needed.
Strain the Jamaica Tea
Remember what I said about the hibiscus staining? Don’t use your family heirloom towel here! This needs to be a towel that you couldn’t care less about staining. My pretty, white towel is now purple.
And check out my cutting board. Because that’s just from a drop of jamaica, I highly encourage you to wear gloves as you wring the excess water from the jamaica leaves.
Transfer the agua de jamaica to a large pitcher or into food storage bags. At this point, the water is a concentrated drink base which needs to be diluted with ice or water.
I’ll tell you how to freeze it later.
How to sweeten your tea
Depending on your penchant for sweet tea (I’m staring at you Southerners), the amount of simple syrup you add to your tea may vary and that’s totally fine.
Having spent the latter part of our lives in the South, we’re now lovers of sweet tea, so I add at least a cup and a half of simple syrup to a gallon of agua de jamaica. Sweeten yours with a 1/2 cup and add more to taste. I sweeten my tea prior to adding the ice because it’s easier to stir in the syrup without the ice clacking about and splashing the “dye” everywhere.
Once you’ve sweetened to taste add a tablespoon or two of the freshly squeezed lime juice to brighten up the flavor of the tea. Add more lime juice if you want a tart agua de jamaica.
Serve your Agua de Jamaica with lots of ice!
Add 4 cups of ice to the jamaica and you’re ready to serve!
Be sure to serve your agua de jamaica in glasses filled with even more ice.
A sprig of mint would make a beautiful garnish, but it’s totally optional. Sip deeply, my friend.
How to store your Jamaica
Keep your agua de jamaica in a glass or plastic pitcher in the fridge for a week to a week and a half. After that, it starts to taste weak. I use the plastic pitcher linked because it doesn’t stain when I store my jamaica in there.
Freeze the Agua de Jamaica concentrate
This recipe makes 1 gallon of agua de jamaica concentrate which is quite a lot of beverage when you consider you still have to dilute it further. Divide the recipe in half to make less, or, do what I do and freeze half of it. I pour it into freezer bags and freeze the jamaica lying flat. I usually double-bag it in case of spills. You can break it up and put it into a pitcher when you’re ready to drink, diluting it with equal parts ice-water. This is great for when you have guests show up unexpectedly and want to offer them a refreshment.
Be sure to check out my other recipes which make use of this agua de jamaica. Then, go ahead and pin this to your dinks board!
Agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus Iced Tea)
- 12 ounces (300 grams) dried hibiscus flowers rinsed in cold water
- 2 3" cinnamon sticks
- 1 gallon (3 litres) cold water
- 2 cups (400 grams) raw sugar
- 2 cups (475 milliliters) cold water
- 1/4 cup (59 milliliters) lime juice from 2 large limes
- 4 cups (about 32 cubes) ice plus more to serve
Steep the Jamaica Leaves
- Place the dried jamaica into a colander and give the leaves a quick rinse under cold water to remove any dirt or dust.
- Fill a large pot with a gallon of distilled (or filtered) water. Add the jamaica leaves and cinnamon sticks to the water. Bring the water up to a boil, then turn the heat off and allow the leaves to steep in the hot water for 20 minutes.
Make the Simple Syrup
- In a smaller pot, combine the raw sugar with the second quantity of water. Stir together before bringing the mixture to a boil over med-high heat. Stir the syrup while it comes to a boil to encourage the sugar crystals to dissolve.
- Once the simple syrup reaches a boil, remove the pot from the stove and allow it to cool completely. You can make the simple syrup up to a week in advance and just store it in the fridge to use as needed.
Finish the Jamaica
- Transfer the agua de jamaica to a large pitcher and allow it to cool completely, or into food storage bags* for freezing. You can speed up the cooling process by placing the pitcher into the refrigerator. The agua de jamaica is a now concentrated drink base which needs to be diluted with ice and/or water.
- The amount of simple syrup you add to your tea may vary according to how sweet (or not) you like your iced tea.Sweeten the pitcher of jamaica with a 1/2 cup (for less sweet tea) or the entire amount of simple syrup for very sweet tea. Sweetening the tea prior to adding the ice will make it easier to stir the jamaica without making a mess, but you may need to adjust it after diluting it.
- Once you've sweetened to taste add 1-2 tablespoons of the freshly squeezed lime juice to brighten up the flavor of the tea. Add more lime juice if you want a tart agua de jamaica.
- Add 4 cups of ice to the jamaica and you're ready to serve! Be sure to serve your agua de jamaica in glasses filled with even more ice. Sip and enjoy.
- Store your agua de jamaica in a glass or plastic pitcher in the fridge for a week to a week and a half.
Pour the cooled jamaica concentrate into freezer bags (double the bags to protect the freezer against spills) and freeze lying flat. When you're ready to use the jamaica, break up the frozen block of concentrate a put it into a pitcher, diluting it with equal parts ice-water.