Clearing up the issue of Iced Tea

John Rice: General Manager

This summer I was reading a LOT of discussion about icing loose leaf tea.  Many people have trouble keeping the tea clear once it has been iced.  The problem can range from simple fogginess to something that is usually described as “milky”.  To make matters more frustrating, the issue seems to be more common with better teas.  A popular and extremely unfortunate solution is to use low quality, grocery store tea bags which have beneficial minerals removed specifically to keep the tea clear, but wouldn’t it be better to find another solution?  What got my attention is that, as I read more information, the problem was consistently being identified as minerals in the water reacting with some of the most beneficial contents of quality tea.  The solutions that I constantly saw tended to be along the lines of removing those beneficial characteristics from the tea, such as tea bags designed specifically for iced tea, or adding undesirable things, like baking soda.  Why remove the beneficial characteristics of quality tea or add unpleasant flavors, when the other part of the problem is undesirable minerals in the water, which also make the tea taste less than its best?

The most obvious solution is to use better water.  I never noticed any problem with my iced tea turning cloudy, because I use all filtered water, and that means not only the water used to steep the tea, but also to make the ice I chill it with.  So, I did a little experiment.  I took a glass of my crystal clear iced tea and dropped a few ice cubes made from unfiltered water into it.  At first, I could see clearly to the bottom of the glass, but within a few minutes of adding the unfiltered ice cubes, the tea turned slightly foggy and I could no longer see clearly through it.  Nobody could ask for more conclusive evidence than that.  One common exception to this seems to be Jasmine teas.  I suspect this has to do with how the jasmine flavor is infused into the tea leaves.  With jasmine teas, the (usually moist) tea leaves are wrapped or rolled with fresh jasmine blossoms, which allows the tea to absorb the jasmine essence.  Then, the tea and blossoms are separated.  Most likely, there are jasmine particles remaining on the surface of the tea leaves which are not particularly soluble in cold water, so iced jasmine tea will tend to turn cloudy even with perfectly clean water.

I don’t want to encourage anyone to use bottled water, partly because it may not even solve the problem.  In most cases, a good faucet mounted or under counter filtration system should do the trick, but use a good one.  An under counter filter is also very handy, since it can filter all the cold water used for cooking, plus the filters are usually a lot less expensive to use, since they last considerably longer than faucet mount ones.  It is important to have a multi-stage filter with activated charcoal, rather than just a sediment filter.  The filter I use at home costs about $16 to replace and lasts a good 6 months, but that will vary with water quality and use.  There are also pitcher based filters which should work.

In a nutshell, here are my directions for making crystal clear iced tea in 10 minutes or less.

1) Heat enough filtered water to fill the largest teapot you have.  I find somewhere between 1/3-1/2 the quantity of iced tea you want to make works best.  The amount of boiled water isn’t as important as the amount of tea leaves.  The strength of the final iced tea is determined by the quantity of tea, not the amount of water it is boiled in.  It is also a good idea to heat the teapot a bit with some hot tap water so it isn’t shocked when you pour in the boiled water.

2) Measure (preferably weigh) out your tea leaves.  Use the same amount of tea you would normally choose to make 4-5 cups of hot tea for each 1/2 gallon of final iced tea.  Yes, you read that right, the same amount of tea as you would use for 4-5 5oz. cups of hot tea makes 1/2 gallon of iced tea, and it’s really more toward the 4 cup end of that.  If your iced tea is too astringent or bitter, it is probably too strong.

3) Steep the tea for the minimum suggested time.  This is usually 3 minutes for black teas.  Steeping for the minimum time will help prevent the iced tea from becoming astringent but will still yield maximum flavor.  The exception is herbal teas, which are not sensitive to extended steeping times.  In the case of herbals, steep for 8-10 minutes to extract maximum flavor.

4) While the tea is steeping, fill a pitcher at least half full with ice made from filtered water.  It is important to chill the tea as quickly as possible.

5) When the steeping is done, remove the tea leaves and pour the hot tea directly over the ice.  Stir until the tea is completely chilled and the ice stops melting.

I make a lot of iced tea in the summer and this procedure has never failed to give me perfectly clear tea, regardless of which tea variety I use.