A tall, cool glass of iced tea is one of those signature icons of summer and a timeless symbol of thirst-quenching refreshment. As for how to make iced tea, as simple and elementary as it may seem, brewing the perfect cup isn’t exactly a straightforward affair. But there are a few things to keep in mind that will have you on your way to making the best iced tea ever.
Quick & Hot or Low & Slow?
Recipes for iced tea generally fall into two camps: those that call for a quick brew using near-boiling water and those that do it low and slow, starting off at room temperature (aka, the cold brew method).
Hario Filter-In Cold Brew Tea Bottle, $23.50 from Amazon
This bottle has a tea infuser hidden under the cap for cold brew extraction.
Hot brewing draws out the leaves’ flavor in just a few minutes. But the heat also brings along with it increased levels of caffeine and the astringent compounds known as theaflavins. This makes for a sharp tea that can be rough on the palate and cloudy in appearance once cooled. While we might enjoy that astringency in a hot beverage, it’s generally less desirable in an iced drink.
Cold brew iced tea, on the other hand, requires patience: the brew will need to sit for at least a few hours to overnight. But without aggressive heat, the water slowly teases out more of tea’s pleasant-tasting flavor compounds and less of the astringent stuff, resulting in a drink that’s smoother and more rounded.
Or Harness the Power of the Sun?
The sun brewing method tries to achieve a happy medium between the two above methods by using the sun’s heat to maintain a steady, slightly warmer brewing temperature. Thus making sun tea is quicker than cold brew yet still smooth and tasty. Sun brewing, however, falls smack in that just-warm temperature range that bacteria love, so use at your own risk.
How Much Tea to Use for Iced Tea
Regardless of which method you go for, you want to brew your tea strong, about twice the strength as hot tea, since eventually it’s going to get diluted with ice. For standard black tea, this is around four tea bags (or eight grams of loose leaf tea) per quart of water. Ratios may vary if you want to brew iced green tea, white tea, or other variations (and of course, personal preferences always play a role).
What Type of Tea to Use for Iced Tea
One last thing to consider is tea quality. Teas specifically designed for cold brew extraction cut down on brewing time by using very finely ground leaves. These dusty teas often don’t taste that great, however, since the increased surface area and exposure to oxygen causes their flavonoids to go stale fast.
Regular tea bags are just fine for a traditional brew, while you can try loose leaf teas for a more nuanced (but slower brewing) drink.
You should save your expensive, high quality stuff for hot tea, though—those complex notes and aromas don’t come through at cold temperatures, since they’re not buzzing through the back of your mouth the way they do with a steamy hot beverage.
Flavored Iced Tea Blends, prices vary from Adagio Tea
These blends are intended to be cold brewed.
What About Sweet Tea?
Most iced tea is sweetened in some way (whether with granulated sugar, simple syrup, honey, or an alternative sweetener), but sweet tea refers to that iconic Southern drink that’s so decidedly sugary it could make your teeth ache.
Along with the higher amount of sugar, sweet tea is also most commonly brewed from tea bags (whereas other iced tea may be made with loose leaves), and the sugar is added while the tea is still hot so it dissolves.
Totally unsweetened iced tea is also a refreshing (if astringent) option.
Best Iced Tea Recipes
Ready to throw back an icy cool glass? Get started by checking out our favorite homemade iced tea recipes.
Nothing too fancy, just a simple, classic iced tea, served sweet or unsweetened as you like it. Throw in a lemon or orange peel for a subtle citrusy flavor. Get our Basic Iced Tea recipe.
Infused with the flavor of fresh mint, this brisk and cool tea is oh so easy to gulp up on a sweltering hot day. Garnish each glass with a mint sprig for style and extra aroma. Get our Mint and Lime Iced Tea recipe.
Our Earl Grey brew subtly layers on the aromatics, pairing the tea’s signature bergamot flavor with a floral lavender-thyme syrup. Get our Universitea Lavender Earl Grey Iced Tea recipe.
Slightly boozy but full-on in its embrace of fruity flavors, this easy sipper matches muddled orange with iced black tea and Grand Marnier liqueur. Get our Grand Marnier Tea Cooler recipe.
If you’re craving the iced tea from your favorite Thai restaurant, you can make that at home too. You can use condensed milk, coconut milk, or any half and half, and add boba if you want something to chew on. And if you can’t find a Thai tea mix (which will lend an authentic orange color and vanilla flavor), this recipe gives instructions for using black tea. Get the Thai Iced Tea recipe.
This cocktail lets you play with the qualities of different teas and different whiskeys. For something smoky and mysterious, try pine-smoked lapsang souchong and a single malt scotch. Or for something sweet and distinctively Southern, go for a classic black tea (like Luzianne) and bourbon whiskey. Get our Tea and Whiskey Highball recipe.
Vying with the above for the title of ultimate summer refresher, peach iced tea has the edge when fresh fruit is at its ripest. You only need three ingredients for this (if you don’t count water). The brewed tea is cooled, then a peach simple syrup is added, to individual glasses or the whole pitcher. Get the Perfect Peach Iced Tea recipe.
Miki Kawasaki wrote the original version of this story in 2015. It has been updated with additional images, links, and text.