Excerpt from Sumac: The wild lemonade berry By Sam Thayer, Bruce, WI - published by Countryside Magazine
As previously mentioned, the red-berried true sumacs have been widely used to brew a tart and refreshing drink. This drink is delicious, easy to prepare, fun to gather, nutritious, unique-and free. Its source is easily accessible to millions of Americans every summer.
This beverage has been called sumac-ade, rhus-ade, sumac lemonade, Indian lemonade, sumac tea and probably some other names that I have yet to hear. Whatever people call it, they pronounce it delicious. When made properly it is as universally liked as lemonade. I have personally brewed this beverage from staghorn, smooth, and shining sumacs on many occasions. Keep in mind that my experiences refer to these species in the Midwest, and other kinds might need to be treated a little differently.
Preparation of the beverage is simple. The first step is to harvest the berries. Sumac "berries" are really just seeds covered with a thin coating of flavoring substance and hairs. The large clusters are so easy to collect that in just a few moments you can have enough for a pitcher of wild Kool-Aid that kids will love. I usually just snap off the twig that bears the cluster by bending it quickly, although some people use pruning shears or a knife. You want to get the berries when they are dark red and fully mature, so that they have fully developed their tart flavor, but before the rain has had the opportunity to wash the flavor out. In most of North America, the first clusters are ready to be plucked sometime in July, with the prime time being in early August. Taste each cluster as you harvest to assure yourself that you are collecting something with flavor since occasionally they are bland. A dark purple coloration usually indicates that the flavor of the fruit has developed fully; yet some of the best clusters I've tasted were light pink. Sometimes a white, sticky substance coats the berry heads; this is pure essence of sumac flavor-don't let it scare you off. I pluck about six to eight average-sized clusters for a pitcher of sumac-ade. Sumac 'berries' are seeds covered with hairs and a thin coating of flavoring substance.
A potential mistake is to harvest the berry heads before they are ripe, in which case they will produce an unpleasantly bitter brew. More commonly, the problem is that the berries are collected long after their flavor has been washed out by rain. Although I have found good-tasting berries into April, this is the exception; around here the vast majority of them are spent by the end of August. You can expect to find good ones, if you taste around, until early October and sometimes later-and there are always those with just a hint of flavor. To enjoy this refreshing summer beverage in the middle of winter, it pays to harvest the heads in prime time and dry them, so you don't have to worry about using mediocre material.
I take my half-dozen berry clusters, cram them into a pitcher, pour cold water over them, crush them up a little with my hand, and then let the pitcher sit in a cool place for a while. Pouring boiling or hot water over the berries makes for poor flavor, for it leaches tannin from the stems, causing the drink to become bitter. The longer the berries infuse, the stronger the drink will be. When the flavor is to your liking, just strain the drink through a cheesecloth to remove seeds and hairs. Sumac-ade is pleasantly tart with a light pink color. Some people add sugar, but I prefer it without.
The tartness of sumac is partly due to ascorbic acid (vitamin C) so one also has a health incentive to drink this beverage.
There are other things that can be done with sumac-ade. My sister made one of the best wines that I have ever tasted from it. I once prepared a potent sumac concentrate by soaking four batches of berry heads in the same water, one after the other, for one-half hour each. This concentrate made a wonderful and very tart jelly. The flavor is transformed and weakened somewhat by the boiling, so be sure to use a very strong sumac brew for the jelly. Euell Gibbons recommended using sumac-ade instead of plain water to boil elderberry and other fruits that need a touch of tartness to liven them up for using in jam or jelly. Also, the young, thick, tender tips of sumac shoots (especially staghorn) in early summer can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked. They are sweet and delicious, much like raspberry stalks.
Since sumac is related to cashews and mangoes, anyone allergic to those foods should avoid it, or proceed with extreme caution. All in all, however, the sumac is a wonderful tree, deserving of much more attention from those who love the outdoors. Unfortunately, the fact that it shares names with a tree of ill-repute has caused many to shun it. That does leave more for us, but either way there's plenty of sumac to go around. Why not try some this summer?
Sam publishes Forager's Harvest. Sample issues are available for $3 from The Forager's Harvest, PO Box 129, Bruce, WI 54819.