You might have heard of sumac before: either because your parents listened to the kitschy voice of singer Yma Sumac back in the fifties, or because they had a measly, hairy ‘Rus Typhina’ tree in their garden. Sumac may sounds like something you don’t want to find in your beer, especially if you grew up in the eastern United States. But the sumac we use in our Pale Ale is, thankfully, not the poisonous version feared by American children. It’s a botanical, used as liberally as salt and pepper. Lucky for those not only interested in eating with spice, but drinking with it too, you can find this exotic botanical in our Pale Ale. Be as fearless as our Dutch explorers and discover the wonderful lemony flavour of sumac.
Sumac is a small tree growing up to 5 meters tall. Funny fact: sumac, poison ivy, Brazilian pepper, cashews, mangoes and pistachios are all related. Its leaves and the stems are densely covered in rust-coloured hairs, which causes a velvety texture. The dark red flowers are arranged in spikes on top of the branches. These panicles merge almost invisibly into deep red fruit. The little berry is what it’s all about. Dried and ground it is used as a spice with a wonderful lemony flavour, adding depth to any dish or drink.
The sumac tree originally comes from North America, the area Adriaen Block discovered ages ago, and was used by native Indians both as a flavour, medicine and dye. Sumac berries are a great source of natural vitamin C. The American Indians knew this and used it to treat colds, fever and scurvy. Ground berries mixed with clay served as a poultice on open wounds and sores. And it’s even said it works wonders with diarrhea, dysentery, sore throats, infections and asthma.
You will be impressed by its versatility: Indians smoked cigarettes made of dried leaves and fruit of sumac. The leaves are also a source of black ink and the wood contains a pigment used for colouring textile and paper. Still with us? There’s more: the leaves and bark of sumac are a rich source of tannins, used to tan leather. The berry is a stone fruit and the seed contain oil, which can be made into candle wax. Let’s move to what matters most: sumac as an ingredient for food and beverages. Soaked in water sumac will turn magenta, you can drink it as a tea or use it for marinades. The fresh sumac fruit was used by Native Americans to prepare a refreshing beverage known as Indian lemonade or sumac-ade.
But long before Dutch seafarers traversed the globe, sumac was also known on our side of the world, though it was a different specie (there are over 250 varieties of sumac!). It was used in ancient Rome as a source of acidity before lemons took over. To this day you could conclude sumac is mainly used in parts of the world where there are no lemons, such as the highlands of Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. By adding this wonderful botanical to our American Pale Ale we bring sumac from the highlands to the Lowlands.
Rectification: we actually took the sumac from the Lowlands to go into our beer. The sumac tree naturally inhabits open, rocky habitats; an area near hillsides and requires plenty of sun. Rocks, hillside and sun? That’s doesn’t sound like The Netherlands at all… But it’s true: south of the city of Groningen you can find “de Hexenketel”, a little paradise of edible nature. It is our source for the sumac that goes into our Lowlander Pale Ale.
The acidity of the berries is derived from natural plant acids and the tannins in the plant. According to Yotam Ottolenghi, one of our favourite chefs, sumac’s lemony, salty taste is a great tart foil to other flavours. In NOPI (one of his cookbooks) sumac isn’t just used in food, Ottolenghi shows that sumac is a wonderful beverage ingredient as well, especially of the boozy kind. “Sumac really wakes up the palate,” Yotam says. And if Yotam says so…
Obtaining flavour from the sumac botanical into our Pale Ale wasn’t easy: when cooked too long its flavour completely changes. It took some experiments to get to the final result: a citrusy, well-balanced tartness thanks to the sumac, that gives an extra layer of flavour to our Pale Ale.
Pretty exotic and interesting botanical, right? Start your adventure straight away by trying our American Pale Ale.