Call it a national pastime: The U.S. is a nation of iced tea drinkers. Four out of five cups of tea in this country come iced, a rarity in a world where hot tea is still the norm. But for all its thirst-quenching glory, I think we’ve all drunk from plenty of pitchers that were simply there rather than a special iced tea to seek out. If you’re shopping pre-made, most bottled brands are injected with extra flavorings, heavy on the sugar, and weak on the taste of actual tea. Not exactly my cup of…beverage.
There’s no right or wrong way to make iced tea, and the extra-sweet bottled versions have their place. However a quality iced tea can also blow your mind with brilliant marine and fruit flavors, sweet floral aromas, and a rich, weighty finish that you’ll taste on your tongue for hours. An iced coffee may give you a bigger jolt of caffeine to get you through the afternoon, but a well made iced tea fortifies my spirit, leaving me convinced I could arm wrestle a grizzly bear.
Getting a pristine glass of iced tea is easy, too. If you’ve never tasted a glass of iced tea that made your eyes widen with a wow, a few small adjustments can turn your homemade brew from cold and functional to really fantastic.
What’s the best tea for iced tea?
The heavily chopped teas used in most teabags infuse quickly to make a strong pitcher of iced tea, though not necessarily an interesting one. For a more complex iced tea, go for loose leaf specialty tea from shops such as Camellia Sinensis or Happy Earth. It’s shocking how much flavor and nuance you can get in an iced tea made from loose leaf tea. To my taste, you can drink them with little to no sugar; whole leaf teas tend to brew less bitter and astringent in the cup and have a natural sweetness all their own. They also last a whole lot longer. You can steep the same leaves multiple times before they wimp out.
Any tea can be enjoyed iced, but certain styles take better to the treatment than others. Black teas, which are well oxidized to develop brisk, malty flavors, make a great full-bodied cup. Green and white teas taste especially bright and delicate. And teas that have been roasted, like hojicha or grain teas like barley and buckwheat, become crisp and refreshing on ice.
If I’m making a sweetened iced tea, I’m more likely to use an herbal variety dosed with fruit or flowers, such as chrysanthemum. Sugar, in my experience, tends to flatten the kaleidoscopic character of a quality tea. But herbal teas are more straightforward in flavor, allowing sugar to act as a flavor enhancer, just like adding salt to whatever you’re cooking.
So what’s wrong with how I make it now?
Most instructions for making iced tea call for boiling a lot of water, pouring it over teabags in a pitcher, and chilling that pitcher until it’s cooled down. There’s a couple reasons I don’t love this method: