Quassia, also known as amargo, bitter-ash, bitter-wood, or hombre grande, is a plant species used both medicinally and in the food industry as an additive. The plant gets its name from Graman Quassi, a healer and botanist who introduced the plant’s healing qualities to Europe. The word ‘amara’ is Latin for bitter, referring to the plant’s extremely bitter flavour. This bitterness comes from the compound, quassin, which is fifty times more bitter than quinine. Don’t underestimate how bitter this plant is: quassin is actually the most bitter naturally-occurring chemical in the world.

Quassia is a flowering shrub that is found growing in tropical regions across Brazil, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Guyana, Argentina, and Peru. It is a key ingredient in various herbal bitters and a decoction of its bark is used medicinally to create tinctures and extracts.

Its bitterness makes it useful as a natural insecticide as well as a herbal medicine that can treat a range of diseases. In the food industry, it is used as a bitter tasting additive. It is most popularly known for its use in Angostura Bitters, a much-love flavouring syrup used in soft drinks, digestive tonics, cocktails, and gin-based drinks. The bitterness of quassia also makes it a popular substitute for hops in beer manufacturing.

Quassia is most often sold as chips, made from soaking its bark and then drying it. These chips can then be used to create tinctures, decoctions, gels, serums, homemade bitters, and more.

The health benefits of quassia

The extreme bitterness of quassia makes it a beneficial medicinal herb. Amongst its medicinal uses include:

  • Treating head lice – Early research shows that applying a tincture made from quassia can kill head lice, though there is a chance that they may return.
  • Rosacea – This is a skin condition that causes redness of the face. Applying a gel that contains quassia extract can help reduce the redness of rosacea.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis – This refers to rough, scaly skin on the face and scalp. A gel that include quassia extract can be applied to help relieve this dermatitis.
  • Malaria – A tea made using the leaves of the quassia plant has been used to treat malaria in French Guiana.
  • Ulcers – Folk medicine from Costa Rica uses quassia to treat ulcers and protect from gastric acidity by increasing gastric barrier mucus.
  • Sedative – The bark extract of the quassia plant has been shown to have muscle relaxant and sedative effects.

Quassia has also been used medicinally to treat diabetes, loss of appetite, indigestion, constipation, fever, and intestinal worms. Its bark has tonic, diuretic, febrifugal, anthelmintic, and anti-leukemic properties.

How to make bitters using quassia

If you’ve got your hands on some quassia chips, you can use them to make bitters or tonics. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 tablespoon quassia chips,
  • 1/8 tsp salt,
  • 1/2 tsp whole allspice,
  • 1/2 cup chopped lemongrass,
  • 2 tbsps citric acid,
  • Zests from one lime, lemon, and orange,
  • 3/4 cup of agave syrup for each cup of filtered quassia tea (see recipe).

First, make a quassia tea by boiling 2 tbsps of quassia bark in 2 cups of water for 20 minutes. Filter this to remove the bark. Give this a taste to determine bitterness – it will be strong! Feel free to dilute this before proceeding with the recipe and adjust the amounts of agave syrup to match how much quassia tea you are adding to the recipe.

Boil your quassia tea with the remaining ingredients (except for the agave syrup) for about 20 minutes. Let cool and then filter the ingredients through a mesh strainer or coffee filter. Take this strained liquid and bring to the boil again along with the agave syrup. Voila! Your bitter tonic syrup is now ready. You can mix this with gin or add it in your cocktails.

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