Iced tea sure is popular: Of the 3.8 billion gallons of tea consumed in the United States in 2018, a whopping 80 percent of it was iced. I count myself among the many who regularly quench their thirst with the stuff, so I was happy to steep and sip my way through dozens of pitchers to develop guidelines for making the best possible versions of black and green iced tea. Overall, I found that you don’t need to be quite as persnickety about iced tea as you do about hot (particularly if you’re adding flavorings). But you do need to take steps to avoid watery or overextracted brews. Read on for advice on what kind of tea to use, the novel brewing method I came up with, and a half-dozen recipes for teas both plain and flavored.
Brewing the Best Iced Tea
Evaluate these qualities when you sip tea straight, whether iced or hot.
Taste: As with wine, the flavor of tea ranges from light and delicate to full and pungent. And all teas contain bitter polyphenols, but the exact content varies depending on a number of variables, including terroir, oxidation, and aging.
Aroma: Distinctive aromas that span a broad spectrum are a big component of the flavor of tea. Expect fruity, leathery, floral, or even smoky aromas in black teas. Green teas tend to feature grassy, mineral, floral, and marine scents.
Texture: Great tea isn’t just about taste, it’s also about mouthfeel. Polyphenols can cause astringency, or a pleasant drying sensation, that lingers on the palate. Some infusions also contain compounds that give tea a lingering creaminess.
Splurge on Loose-Leaf for Plain Iced Tea
When I compared iced tea made from loose-leaf tea with iced tea made from tea bags (using the same type and brand for consistency), I found that the former produced a more flavorful, complex drink. That’s because most tea bags are filled with tiny broken tea leaves, called “dust” or “fannings,” that remain after the higher-quality whole leaves are sifted. These dregs have very little interior that’s not exposed to air, so aromas and volatile oils readily escape from the broken surfaces.
Tea Bags Are Fine for the Flavored Kind
When I made our flavored iced tea recipes using equal weights of bagged and loose-leaf tea, the differences were too subtle to justify the extra expense of loose-leaf. That said, stick with good-quality bagged tea.
Make a Lively Infusion
I found that 1½ tablespoons of black tea per quart of water produced a vibrant yet not overly strong brew. If using green tea, which is generally subtler, increase the amount to 2 tablespoons.
Employ a Hybrid Brewing Method
Iced tea can be brewed using either cold or boiling water. In a side-by-side comparison, a cold-water, 24-hour infusion tasted flat. That’s because a number of the compounds that give tea balanced astringency and bitterness are extracted more effectively in hot water than in cold water (see “Leverage Your Leaves” below). But iced tea brewed for 4 minutes in water that had been brought to a boil lacked sufficient intensity. Making the tea stronger by brewing longer in hot water only made the tea overly bitter and mouth-drying. Increasing the amount of tea worked, but I ultimately came up with a thrifty method that produced the same great flavor without extra tea:
- First, steep the tea in 3 cups of water that has been brought to a boil (or 175-degree water for green tea) for 4 minutes.
- Then add 1 cup of ice water and continue to steep for 1 hour. At the cooler temperature, full-flavored aromatic compounds continue to infuse the water and the bitter and astringent ones do not.
Leverage Your Leaves
Tea can be expensive—so brew with economy in mind. We make a full-flavored drink not by adding extra leaves but by using a smart method.
HOT STEEP: 4 MINUTES
A short, hot steep draws out compounds such as caffeine, theobromine, and polyphenols that make tea pleasantly bitter and astringent.
COOL STEEP: 1 HOUR
Adding ice water slows the extraction of bitter and astringent compounds. Continuing to steep for 1 hour magnifies full-flavored aromatic compounds.
Teas to Try
Here are a few of my favorite teas to serve iced (and hot).
Profile: full-bodied tea with robust, malty flavor
Profile: a smooth, creamy mouthfeel; slight smokiness; and hints of cocoa
Variety: Second Flush Darjeeling
Profile: mild sweetness, citrus, and light floral notes
Variety: Gunpowder or Dragon Well (slightly sweeter)
Profile: astringency and grassy, vegetal flavors
Profile: seaweed, alfalfa, and umami