Summer has a way of making iced tea extra appealing, and vice versa. Being water-based and cold, iced tea has what it takes to hydrate and cool. But what most distinguishes tea (iced or otherwise) from other drinks is the plant materials from which it can be made. Leaves, flowers, stems, roots and seeds can add mystery and mystique, not to mention flavor, color and medicinal qualities to your tea. And while it’s usually made from purchased, preprocessed plant parts, tea can also be made from wild-gathered plants like nettles or wintergreen. Or from crops grown for other reasons, such as the lovely and subtle raspberry leaf. Or from the mint and sorrel in your own backyard.
Iced tea is typically made by briefly steeping plant material in very hot water and then cooling the tea down by, say, pouring it over ice. But many people prefer making sun tea, in which the plant material steeps for hours in a clear vessel subject to the slow warmth of sunshine. As the afternoon wears on, the sun’s rays pierce the darkening liquid and light up the warm glass jar like a lamp, and it’s easy to see the romance in this iconic, elegant, solar-powered summer beverage.
That said, sun tea is overrated. It can even be dangerous. Aside from the spectacle, sun tea doesn’t offer any advantage over other ways of making iced tea.
If the plant material you use or the gear in your kitchen happens to contain any bacterial contamination, the warm-water conditions of sun tea brewing are favorable to its proliferation. This reality has compelled many purveyors of sun tea recipes to pair their instructions with warnings about the possibility of tea-borne food poisoning, and recommend tactics like scrubbing containers clean, making just enough tea for immediate consumption, and not letting sun tea steep for more than a few hours. Discard your sun tea at any hint of a problem, like an off smell or any syrupy viscosity.
Sun tea diehards, you’ve been warned. But there’s no reason tea can’t be made in cold water, in the fridge, in the dark.
Harold McGee, writing for The New York Times, lays down the basics of the choice between hot and cold brewing, which apply to tea and coffee both. Hot water, he explains, extracts flavor more rapidly, and it extracts more, but it also cooks as it extracts, and chemically changes some of the substances that are extracted. “Cold water, in contrast, extracts more slowly and selectively,” McGee writes, “produces a simpler extract, and doesn’t change the original flavor substances as much.”
In short, hot water makes the quickest batch of tea, while cold water makes the best. Sun tea occupies the middle ground in terms of speed and quality, but it’s the most dangerous. Though the risk of sun tea food poisoning is probably small, that will be little comfort to a victim.
Putting plant material in contact with cold water can be as simple a process as you like: Drop some rose hip buds in your water bottle as you hike, or grab whatever’s convenient from the garden. But if you’re planning to kick it on the patio and drink tea by the gallon in aggressive heat, you can’t do much better than to buy the herbs and follow this recipe for hibiscus tea, aka Jamaica (pronounced in Spanish: ha-MY-ka). It’s a must-try for the well-rounded iced tea maker.
First rinse a cup of dried hibiscus flowers with cold water and drain. Cover the flowers with 4 cups cold water and soak for 4 to 12 hours in the fridge. Filter out the hibiscus with a mesh sieve. Add about 4 cups water (to taste), then sweeten to your liking.
Pour some of this wonderful fluid over ice cubes and keep it handy on the porch, where the sun can sparkle it all you want, It’s hard to mind the heat while drinking this dazzling elixir. It may not be sun tea, but you can and should drink it in the sun.