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Brewing Better Iced Tea

Leave it to the late 19th century to turn the refreshing simplicity of iced tea into a baroque production. According to the 1877 edition of Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, iced tea was prepared in the morning, stronger and sweeter than usual, then housed in the ice chest until ready to serve. “Drink from goblets without cream. Serve ice broken in small pieces on a platter nicely garnished with well-washed grape-leaves,” commanded the instructions. Yeesh! 

Today’s tea experts place less emphasis on goblets and clean grape leaves, and instead focus on the basics: the tea. “The key is to begin with exceptional-quality tea,” says Peter Luong, founder and tea buyer at Song Tea & Ceramics in San Francisco. As Rishi Tea & Botanicals’ vice president of business development Jeff Champeau puts it, “Quality in, quality out.”

Finding the Right IngredientsWhen selecting teas to prepare iced, the easiest and quickest way to identify quality is by seeking out loose-leaf tea. “Loose tea is usually the highest-quality tea and it makes a much better iced tea than teabags,” says tea sommelier Jee Choe. Choe runs the tea blog “Oh, How Civilized,” where one of the most popular posts is an iced tea brewing guide. “When the whole tea leaf is intact, it produces a better-tasting tea,” Choe says.

Loose-leaf tea is typically more expensive than bags, but whole leaves better retain the chemical properties that aromatize and flavor tea, compared to the broken leaves that commonly fill teabags. Loose tea also gives the brewer more control over the exact ratio of tea to water. If loose-leaf tea is unavailable, Choe says sachets—which can contain either loose-leaf tea or a mix of whole and broken tea leaves—are the next best option.

But what kind of tea is best suited to being chilled? “We played around with icing everything because we like to explore and be creative with our teas,” says Jeannie Liu, owner of Seattle’s Miro Tea. That means black teas, green teas, white teas, oolongs, and more are all fair game—it really comes down to personal preference.

And since iced tea has only two ingredients—tea and water—it’s worth considering both. “Filtered or spring water is best,” says Champeau. “Chlorinated tap water has a tendency to neutralize some of the tannins in teas, so it can disrupt the mouthfeel greatly. It can also lend its own off-color aromas that might disrupt the natural aroma of tea.”

In certain cities, tap water can actually be a great base for brewing, but if you’re uncertain about the water where you live, either filter it or use spring water, which is mineral-rich and can enhance the body and aroma of the tea. 

Brewing Methods

Cold-Brew Method

In the coffee world, the cold-brew method has flourished, and among tea experts it’s often preferred. “Cold brewing is the best since it’s super easy and results in the best-tasting iced tea—it’s smooth, full-bodied, and packed with flavor,” says Choe.

“When you have a tea that has a lot of nuance, we think the cold brew actually draws out those flavors and displays them much more accurately,” adds Miro Tea’s Liu. “You extract a kind of natural sweetness, because there’s no heat applied to it.” 

Champeau believes the gentleness of the cold-brew method offers a good balance of tea’s amino acids and fragrance, while pulling in less body and tannin. The method doubles down on richness and aroma, and displays less dryness and caffeine bitterness.

The slow extraction of cold brew takes time, making it an excellent make-ahead method. To cold brew tea, simply add loose-leaf tea to a sealable container (glass is preferable as plastic can stain) followed by either cold or room-temperature water, and let it steep anywhere from two to 24 hours in the refrigerator. A typical ratio that can easily be scaled up is 1 teaspoon of tea to 8 ounces of water, but Liu recommends adding slightly more tea when cold brewing. “I always err on the heavier, more concentrated side because it’s a slower brew and you can run the risk of under-brewing it. Especially with teas that are more bound up, like rolled teas, you want to use a little bit more tea or you’re going to have to brew it much, much longer to extract everything.”  

Green tea requires the shortest brew time, approximately two hours, while all other tea times will take between eight to 24 hours to extract. “There’s a certain point with cold brewing where the tea just doesn’t give you much more,” says Liu. At that point, the tea is ready to be strained and enjoyed. Choe aims for around 12 hours while cold brewing, and recommends reusing the leaves for another batch if they haven’t fully unfurled. Due to the flexible parameters of cold brewing, it may be helpful to taste the tea throughout the brew period to determine your preference. Stored in an airtight container and refrigerated, the tea can last for up to several days, although fresh is best. “You should drink the iced tea up within 24, maybe 48 hours, because beyond that, it will absorb the aromas from your fridge,” says Champeau.

Hot-Brew Concentrate Method

Depending on the tea you’re using, the amount of time you have, and the flavor profile you’re trying to achieve, making a hot-brewed tea concentrate diluted with cool water or ice might be the best option. Hot brewing a concentrate works especially well with darker teas, says Champeau, particularly black and pu-erh teas. “Part of the joy of an English breakfast is the rich body of tannins and that caffeine boost. Those would be the things that would come out less in a cold brew,” Champeau says. The method is also preferable for herbal teas made from dried and cut roots, which require hot water to fully draw out their flavors. 

Hot brewing a concentrate also offers speed and efficiency, preparing and serving iced tea in under 15 minutes. To make the concentrate, Song Tea’s Luong recommends beginning with an approximate ratio of 1:100 tea leaves to water. Brew the tea leaves hot at the tea’s recommended brewing temperature in half the total amount of water. After about five or six minutes, add the remaining amount of water in the form of ice, and stir to melt in order to bring the tea back to a normal concentration. For example, when preparing two liters of iced tea, brew 20 grams of tea in one liter of water, then add one liter of ice directly into the hot brew. Afterwards the tea may be strained and stored for up to two days. “The depth and complexity of a tea and its more intriguing aromatics can only be brought out with a hot water steep,” says Luong. “The hot-to-ice method allows the leaves to open up and extract, and the addition of ice stops extraction at its most optimal point.”

Cold water can also be used in place of ice to halt the hot brew. Cyndi Harron, co-owner of Simpson & Vail, advises hot brewing a half ounce (or ¼ cup) of tea in a small container with just enough water to cover the leaves. Once strained and steeped, add the concentrate to a half-gallon container then add cold water to fill. “We usually recommend this method since you can control the steeping time and it’s quick to make and enjoy,” Harron says.

Though Liu prefers the cold-brew method, she notes that hot-brewed concentrates are best for infusing with additional botanicals or even adding to cocktails, like this boozy Arnold Palmer

What’s Everyone BrewingIf you’re looking for recommendations to get you started, we polled some of our pros on their favorite teas to enjoy iced. For Liu, it’s Black Orchid: a tea Liu created in collaboration with a Nilgiri tea producer. Liu describes it as possessing a mouth-coating experience that other teas often don’t display when cold brewed. “Right now it’s Black Orchid, but I love high-mountain oolongs,” Liu says, also pointing out roasted oolongs. “These are oolongs from China or Taiwan that are roasted, and when you cold brew them you get this kind of smoky, roasty flavor but then you have the dark, nutty, woody flavor of the tea. Typically, a lot of these oolongs have a natural sweetness that’s much more pronounced in cold-brew method than when it’s hot brewed. On a hot day, that smoky-sweet woodiness is really refreshing.”

Choe seconds Liu’s recommendation: “My absolute favorite tea to cold brew is a roasted oolong. I especially love Frozen Summit (Dong Ding), a Taiwanese oolong. It’s so refreshing and delicious on a hot day.” An iced oolong is also the top choice of Song Tea’s Luong, who leans toward Lishan Winter Sprout. “The bright, snap pea flavor lends itself perfectly to icing, and is wonderful served with a fresh makrut lime leaf,” says Luong.

Champeau leans toward an herbal Rishi blend called Tangerine Ginger, which combines hibiscus, ginger, and citrus peels. “It makes this delicious crimson red cup with a gingery heat inside of it. It feels like a festive punch,” Champeau says. “As far as the botanical family of iced teas, hibiscus is one of my favorites because you get this sweet and tart balance that’s really quenching.”

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