Iced tea was invented on U.S. soil, so perhaps it's no surprise that it remains the most popular way of drinking tea here—winter and summer, day or night. In fact, it's often challenging to get a decent cup of hot tea in many restaurants in the U.S., but a multitude of iced tea choices are available in just about any convenience store.
References for icing tea go back to the 1880s in the U.S. where it was sweetened and served with lemon at fairs, picnics, and parties—particularly when alcohol wasn't being served. This concoction was called "tea a la Russe," likely a reference to a Russian way of serving tea with lemon and sugar at the time (although that Russian tradition featured hot tea).
A couple decades later Richard Blechynden is credited for introducing iced tea at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Mr. Blechynden was working for a Sri Lankan tea company at the time. The story goes that the weather was scorching hot at the fair, and he was having a tough time enticing visitors to sample his hot tea. So he poured it over ice, sweetened it, added lemon, and the beverage's popularity took hold.
Iced tea might be widely available, but it isn't always good. The best tea is when you make it yourself. There are many, many ways of making tea for icing, and none of them are difficult. Here are a few of the most common methods of making it so that you can always have your tea as you like it.
Although these methods are different from one another, one factor largely remains the same:
Use anywhere from ¼ to ½ again as much tea as you would if brewing it hot since it will get diluted with ice.
If you just drink it chilled instead of icing it, you can use the same proportions as you do when brewing hot tea.
Remember to use the same high quality water for icing tea as you do for hot tea. It definitely makes a difference. I recently picked up a frosty glass of tea to-go from a restaurant in my old neighborhood—lovely neighborhood, lousy water. Anyway, I got into the car eagerly anticipating the first gulp as I started my three-hour journey home. It was horrid! I immediately recognized the taste of the local water as the culprit. So do yourself a favor—pay attention to the water.
In the methods described below, some use cool water for brewing while others use hot. Those that use cool water result in a tea-colored, but clear beverage, even when ice is added. Conversely, the liquor may be cloudy when using hot water. This is because more caffeine and theaflavins are released when brewing with hot water. Their reaction, when exposed to ice, causes cloudiness. Not as much of these compounds is released when tea is brewed in cool water, so the liquid remains clear.
If you're watching your caffeine intake, cool water brewing might suit you since less caffeine is extracted. And because fewer theaflavins are released, the brew is smoother as well.
And by the way, you can use any kind of tea for icing although you may develop your favorites over time.
Sun tea (sometimes called solar tea) is delightful to make, and makes me feel like I'm making good use of at least a bit of the solar energy abounding on a hot, summer day. It requires little more than steeping tea (starting with water at room temperature) in a glass vessel in the sun for two hours or more. A couple tips about sun tea…the sun doesn't have to be shining to make it. And you can even make it in a sunny window in the house.
I've also recently read about using the moon's rays to brew lunar tea. I haven't experimented with this method yet, but I promise to try it the next full moon when the sky is fairly cloud-free.
No outdoor space for brewing tea? No worries, you can also brew iced tea successfully in the refrigerator. To do this, simply steep the tea in high quality, cool water in a pitcher in the 'fridge. Use a lid or cover the pitcher with clear film to prevent the infiltration of odors from the refrigerator. Refrigerator tea takes longer to steep than sun tea—more like 12–24 hours.
Another method calls for infusing tea leaves indoors in unheated water at room temperature overnight. In the morning, remove the leaves, and then refrigerate the tea.
Perhaps the most intuitive way to brew iced tea is to start by brewing it exactly as you would a pot or cup of hot tea (except to use more tea to make it twice as strong). When fully steeped, pour it directly over ice.
Yet another way to make it is to brew it with heated water as you would for hot tea. After steeping, keep it warm for a few minutes. Strain out the tea leaves, then let it cool at room temperature for 3–4 hours. Pour over ice and serve.
A couple years ago I received a Mr. Coffee® iced tea maker as a gift from friends. Initially, I didn't think I'd use it much since other methods had always worked quite fine. But after using it a couple times, I became a convert for a few reasons.
First, it's a fast and easy way to make up to three quarts (almost 3 liters) of the beverage, so it's great if you're having company or just want to make enough tea for a few days. It also provides a neat way of adding herbs to your tea, something I typically do. And it's versatile—whatever kind of tea you have will work. Large teabag pouches, single serving teabags, or loose tea all work just fine.
The machine more or less functions like a basic electric coffee maker. Pour water into a reservoir, add tea to a basket, and place the pitcher under the spot where the hot tea drips out. The big difference is that the pitcher is filled with ice, so that the resulting tea is cool and icy.
Perhaps my favorite use for my iced tea maker is as a vehicle for using tea I bought during the past months that didn't taste as good as it seemed in the store. We all occasionally make these mistakes, don't we? For me, this almost always involves teas with fruit or spice additives (I'll call it fruity tea here) that completely overwhelm me in hot form. Somehow, their tastes are quite tolerable—and even enjoyable—to me when chilled.
I use a ratio of 2:1; that is, 2 teabags or measures of plain tea to 1 measure of the fruity tea. Over the course of the summer I manage to winnow down my stash of unwanted teas in the most pleasant of ways.
There are a variety of tea making/infusing products on the market for brewing single or multiple servings of iced tea. Many of these are beautifully stylish. At their core, though, they all use some version of the hot or cold water brewing methods described above. Check them out to see if they work for your lifestyle and budget.
But also remember that you can always use the basic methods described here, not buy another piece of equipment, and still enjoy the best iced tea ever!