A tall, cool glass of iced tea is one of those signature icons of summer and a timeless symbol of thirst-quenching refreshment. As simple and elementary as it may seem, however, 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 a better tasting iced tea.
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 (a.k.a. the cold brew method).
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 brewing, 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.
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 it’s 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.
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 (8 grams of leaves) per quart of water.
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 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.
Ready to throw back a icy cool glass? Get started by checking out our favorite iced tea recipes.
1. Basic Iced Tea
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.
2. Mint and Lime Iced Tea
Infused with the flavor of fresh mint, this brisk and cool tea is oh so easy to gulp up on a sweltering hot day. Get our Mint and Lime Iced Tea recipe.
3. The Universitea
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 recipe.
4. Grand Marnier Tea Cooler
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.
5. Asian Iced Tea
Two signature Japanese beverages—green tea and sake—combine here for a light cocktail that’s enlivened by a dash of ginger. Get our Asian Iced Tea recipe.
6. Tea and Whiskey Highball
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.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.