Say the word summer and the image it evokes in us is that of a tall glass of iced sweet tea, covered by a sheer layer of condensation beads. We can hear the clink, clink of ice cubes hitting the glass, and we can imagine the feel of icy cold tea as it snakes a path down our throats. Perfection.
The perfect sweet tea comes, not from a can of sugar-laden mix, but from real tea leaves, brewed properly, and if you like it sweet, sweetened with just enough natural sweetener. Don’t let the thought of using real tea daunt you. It’s easy once you know the steps, and delicious enough to make the extra effort worth it.
Choosing Your Tea
Start with good quality tea leaves of your choice. All real tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant. It’s the differences in processing methods that dictate the kind of tea that will be produced: black tea, green tea, white tea, and oolong. Tea that comes from other herbs are called herbal infusions or tisanes. Popular ones are chamomile, rooibos, and peppermint.
The traditional tea used for sweet tea are black ones, but rooibos and other herbal infusions are also great. If you can’t choose, you can also combine different kinds of tea for a more complex flavor. Remember to use at least double the amount of tea to allow for it being watered down as it’s poured over ice.
Choosing your Method
The most basic way of brewing tea is through hot brewing. To get an excellent brew going, it is important to steep an adequate amount of tea—for iced tea, you need to use double what you would for hot tea—in the right temperature, for the right amount of time. Sounds daunting, but it simply means that black tea, oolong, and herbal tea need to be steeped in boiling water, while green tea and white tea need water that has rested for a few seconds after boiling. Black tea should steep for three to five minutes, green, white, and oolong steep for two to three minutes, while herbal teas take longer at four to six minutes.
Aside from the usual way of brewing tea, two other popular ways to brew is sun tea or sun brewing and cold brewing. Sun tea calls for steeping your tea in a glass jar or pitcher with room temperature water. Then, you need to place the covered jar in direct sunlight for two hours or so. Cold brewing requires putting your tea leaves in a jar of water, then leaving it in the fridge for eight to ten hours. The main benefit of sun brewing and cold brewing is that these gentler brewing processes coax the natural sweetness from tea. The main drawback is that it takes longer than hot brewed tea.
Things to Remember
Use purified water whenever possible. Tap water may have minerals that can affect the quality of your tea. Opt for freshly poured water over reboiling leftover water in your kettle. Previously boiled water loses oxygen, making it taste stale. If you have access to it, boil your water in a kettle instead of in a microwave. Boiling it for real over heat encourages aeration in water, an action you don’t get in microwaved water.
When using tea bags, don’t squeeze it. Doing so releases extra tannins, making your tea taste more bitter than it should. You should also fish out your tea bag from the pot to avoid overbrewing. Overbrewing doesn’t make tea stronger. It just makes it more bitter. For a stronger brew, add more tea.
Lastly, experiment! Make your iced tea yummier by adding natural sweeteners like honey or pure cane sugar. Add fruits like lemon or peaches for a well-rounded fruity profile, or herbs like basil and mint to make it even more refreshing.