Summer Sips

Why You Should Be Drinking This Spiced Hibiscus Tea This Summer

Berry Bissap honors the West African flower and makes for a refreshing sangria.

Berry Bissap
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

Hibiscus-flavored beverages have been on the rise and broadcast as “trendy” for the past few years in the United States. But those in the African Diaspora have been steeping the flower for centuries. Bissap, sobolo, zobo, sorrel, red drink—you name it. There are hundreds of hibiscus species, but the bright red variety most often used for drinks is known as the roselle. It’s a nutrient-rich, tropical flower indigenous to West Africa as well as East Africa and Southeast Asia. And it’s what Akua Kyerematen Nettey, owner of Berry Bissap, is on a mission to honor and preserve.

Bissap is the Senegalese name for a spiced hibiscus tea popular throughout the region. Though Nettey’s family is Ghanaian, where the drink is referred to as sobolo, she wanted to pay homage to where the beverage originated, which is Senegal, while also including her own special touch, and thus, Berry Bissap was born. 

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Nettey has very fond memories of drinking bissap at home growing up. “My mom would make bissap spicy and really, really sweet with agave,” she says. Her mother was insistent on preserving their Ghanaian culture through food, and watching her mother make bissap was educational for Nettey. “She was throwing in all these peppers and spices that I wasn’t familiar with, and she would tell me the local name for them in Ghana.”

Before starting Berry Bissap, Nettey spent much of her youth helping her parents run their restaurant businesses. She didn’t know then that many of the skills and lessons she was learning on the job would go on to serve her down the line. As a self-proclaimed “supermarket freak,” she began to take notice of what she wasn’t seeing on the shelves. “There is little to no representation of African foods on the shelves,” she says. “This is just outright wrong and it’s time for African foods and beverages to gain recognition and prestige on the shelves.” 

Nettey felt strongly that bissap could claim its space in the market, but she knew that first she had to do her research. She began testing and experimenting in order to perfect her bissap recipe and she made her first test-run available at Oklahoma farmers’ market. “Hey, if people in Oklahoma are gonna like it, people in New York will love it,” she says. 

In late 2017, Nettey moved to the Hudson Valley and, one year later, joined the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory, a commercial community hub for small businesses. From her upbringing in the restaurant business, she knew sourcing was important. Berry Bissap’s organic hibiscus and spices come from Northern Ghana, and strawberries and pineapples come from local, organic farms. Currently, the product line includes four flavors: Original, Mixed Berry, Pineapple, and Cinnamon Citrus.

While sales have been steady, even from day one of the farmers’ market, the main challenge for Nettey has been the learning curve. Many people she speaks with assume that hibiscus is either a Mexican or a Jamaican flower. 

“We need to shift the narrative of where hibiscus was born,” she says. “Yes, hibiscus is from West Africa and also in Southeast Asia and other parts of Africa, but the reason for its influence in the Americas is because of the West African slave trade.”   

The enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas cultivated the flower here, and Nettey wants to emphasize the fact that it was not limited to the Caribbean. The majority of Mexico’s contemporary African descendant population lives in the Costa Chica region, which includes the Caribbean coastal regions of the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Hibiscus is commonly grown in Oaxaca and the flower’s influence is far and wide. Nettey aims to make the connections more visible to everyone.

Above all else, Nettey wants to celebrate West Africa and the people who make the region so incredibly rich. “My brand is about being vibrant,” she says. “I created the Berry Bissap brand to sort of mirror West African people. We love our food. We’re vibrant people who love color. We love our music. We love to dance. Those things are what bring us joy.” And that’s what Nettey hopes to share with the rest of the world.

Berry Bissap

Berry Bissap Rosé Sangria

Serves: 4-6 people

Ingredients:

  • 3 honeycrisp apples
  • 5 strawberries, sliced
  • 2 oranges, sliced
  • A handful of green grapes, sliced
  • 2 peaches, sliced
  • 3 bottles of Berry Bissap Cinnamon Citrus
  • 2 cups of your favorite rosé wine (McBride Sisters Black Girl Magic Rosé is our fave!)
  • Optional: a shot of Licor 43

Directions:
Combine all the chopped and sliced fruit in a bowl or a pitcher. Add the shot of Licor 43 and stir well, and then add the 3 bottles of Berry Bissap Cinnamon Citrus and the rosé.⁠ Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours and pour it up!⁠

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Nicole Rufus is a food writer and master’s student in Food Studies at NYU. You can find her in her kitchen testing new recipes and playing around with West African ingredients. You can follow her on Instagram @norufus.
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