Tea is important stuff. Wars have been fought over it. Though it does not enjoy the popularity in the States that it does in other nations, we still drink a fair amount of it. The seminal moment that marked the tipping point of colonial relations with the crown was the Boston Tea Party, when Americans lost faith in their government over a massive government bailout. And traditional tea consumption here never recovered. Americans now are coffee drinkers for the most part, viewing hot tea drinkers like myself as just a trifle eccentric.
But while hot tea may be unusual in the US, one way of drinking it is solidly American and rising fast in popularity: Iced Tea. I’m going to do two posts on it. This one talks about how to make iced tea, how to sweeten it, and how to serve it. The next will be a shorter one on a new class of liquor featuring sweet tea flavoring.
It is impossible to determine who really first came up with an idea so elementary as putting ice in tea, but it is abundantly clear where and when the concept of iced tea entered the public consciousness of the world.
The World’s Fair of 1904 in St. Louis was a gigantically important event in many ways, but for our purposes its most important characteristic was that it was freaking hot. Popular legend goes that a tea merchant trying to give away free samples of his tea to fairgoers was stymied by people taking one look at his steaming cups, comparing them to their steaming brows, and heading for the hills. Our enterprising merchant started putting ice in his tea and the World (already being in the neighborhood) beat a path to his door. This is likely not completely true, as many merchants apparently served iced tea at the fair. What matters is that people from all over the world got a chance to experience the restorative powers of tea poured over ice.
While bottled iced tea has been available for a long time, and there is a minor explosion of products on offer right now, most iced tea is still drunk when (hopefully) freshly brewed. It’s just much better that way, trust me.
Making iced tea is very easy, but also easily messed up, if you don’t avoid some common pitfalls. I’ll walk through my preferred method and discuss what to make sure you do and do not do on each step of the way.
First up is your choice of tea itself. Do not use standard tea. Most tea bags and premium loose leaf teas are made for drinking hot, and their flavor balances will usually change when chilled. A few will work, and if you are lucky or very knowledgeable, a few will be great. For most of us, it is simplest to use tea bags blended specifically for iced tea making. My favorite brand is Luzianne, which is a blend of pekoe and orange pekoe black tea. You can get it just about everywhere, and 999 out of a thousand of you tea snobs out there who are sneering at commercial tea bags can shut up now. These guys know what they are doing when it comes to iced tea. Tetley and Lipton also make iced tea blends as well, I just prefer the Luzianne.
Another question to answer before starting is whether or not you will sweeten your tea. Your answer is yes.
What? I said, you will sweeten your tea. It’s better that way. Trust me. If you claim not to like your tea sweetened, then you haven’t had it done right. If you must have your tea unsweetened, simply ignore all references to sweetening below, and you’ll be fine. Bored, but fine.
Further, you will sweeten your tea when you make it, not when you serve it. This is the only way to properly and reliably sweeten tea. You can pour in sugar to a glass full of tea and ice and stir for half an hour, and the stuff will not fully dissolve. You will either have insufficiently sweet tea, or you will have a sludge of corporeal diabetic shock in the bottom of your glass. Please understand, the rest of America. For a hundred years, when southerners have ventured beyond the bosom of Dixie and ordered
sweetea, we have usually heard this in response:
Sure hon! We have sugar packets right there on the table!
It is fortunate that few folks nowadays carry horsewhips, for I assure you, visions of employing one in an educational capacity dance enticingly through the head of he or she who just ordered the tea.
If you must make unsweetened iced tea at home, keep a bottle of simple syrup at hand. It will do the job, albeit with a lot of unnecessary rigamarole. If you are in a restaurant and the only iced tea is unsweetened, may I suggest a Coke?
Thus endeth the sweetening sermon. Let’s hear no more debate, because while I do not own a horsewhip, I do have a Taser….
To begin, bring 2 1/4 cups of water just to a boil. Put 6 regular sized tea bags (or 2 family sized) in a 1 quart pyrex bowl or measuring cup. Pour the water over the bags and let sit for fifteen minutes. Do not fiddle with the bags during this time. Go read a blog post or something.
When the time is up, gently lift the bags from the water, let them drain briefly while hanging over the water, then throw them away. Do not, for the love of all that is good and holy, squeeze the bags to remove any extra liquid! We don’t need that last bit of flavor because,
- All we need has naturally migrated out of the bags already.
- Most of the flavors still lurking in the bags are bitter ones. Bitter is great in a Pegu or Old Fashioned, not so much in iced tea.
While the water is still warm, sweeten it. Add between 1/4 to 1/2 cup of white table sugar and stir for a few seconds to dissolve. I like to use about a third of a cup. And yes, that’s all the sugar you really need. Many recipes call for vastly more sugar, and I think this is why a lot of people get turned off to sweet tea. Resist the urge to make your tea as sweet as soft drinks. I love sugar as much as the next guy, but you want to be able to taste and appreciate the tea as well.
Once the sugar is dissolved, pour into your serving and/or storing pitcher and add 6 more cups of cold water (not ice). You are ready to serve in a tall glass with big, luxurious ice cubes.
While nothing else is needed for a great drink, there are two traditional garnishes for iced tea that each bring more than just curb appeal to the glass. The most common, largely because it is much easier to provide in commercial settings, is the wedge of lemon. It looks nice and adds a bit of zing to the drink. Many people won’t have tea without it. I’d like to expand on the other option.
With the growing season upon us, consider using fresh mint. Cut a good stalk of mint about an inch or so taller than the inside of your tea glass. Gently rumple the lower leaves to release the oils, leaving the top leaves, those that will rise above the surface, pristine in appearance. Stick the mint in the glass with the ice, then pour in your tea.