Ice the Tea, Not the Coffee


Iced coffee, a category long occupied by the humble acrid just-throw-some-ice-cubes-in-regular-hot-coffee coffee water or the venerable ultra-sweet melted-coffee-ice-cream, is now impossible to order on my block — which is, haha, mid-stage gentrification — for less than $3.50, because it has become subject to the trend tyranny of cold brew. If I wanted, I could go to any of several fancy grocery stores and get Stumptown in a stout glass bottle that looks like it should contain Jamaican beer, or a milk-box-like container of Blue Bottle’s New Orleans Iced Coffee (which is quite good). Yet nobody gives a shit about iced tea, which is better suited for long-term summertime drinking. It’s crisp and dry in a way that’s much more quenching than iced coffee, most of which requires milk or cream to even be palatable. And it’s even easier to make at home.

One plant, Camellia sinensis, is responsible for every form of true tea: white tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea, and every other variation. The difference is in how the leaves are processed and prepared: Pu-erh, a Chinese black tea, is oxidized and fermented, while gunpowder, a variety of green tea, is made by tightly rolling the leaves into balls. Other true teas consist mostly of plant material from the tea plant but have some additives, like genmaicha, a Japanese tea that includes toasted rice, or jasmine tea, which includes jasmine blossoms.

There’s also a large category of beverages that are sometimes called “herbal teas” or “tisanes” because they are brewed in generally the same way as true tea, but don’t include any material from the tea plant. These would include peppermint tea, hibiscus tea, ginger tea, and chamomile tea. Most herbal teas do not have caffeine, though some, like yerba mate, have some kind of similar stimulating chemical. It is, or should be, considered extremely bad form to care about the differences between tea and herbal tea, except in terms of basic knowledge of their properties that might help in their preparation.

There are several parts of the world that favor extremely sweet iced tea, like the American Southeast, Thailand, and your bodega’s cooler. Others insist on adding lemon, artificial or otherwise. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s most popular iced teas are sweetened or flavored. (Japan stands out as favoring unsweetened iced tea.) Some of these variations can be tasty! Others are gross as hell. But none of them are really what I’m looking for on a hot day. Good sweetened tea is very nice when you just want to sip on something that tastes good; it is basically uncarbonated soda. Unsweetened iced tea is different — more refreshing and soothing than a sweetened beverage. It’s slightly bitter, but just enough to feel dry, rather than unpleasant, and that dryness lends itself to summertime beverages. There’s a reason we drink gin in the summer: Mild astringency feels good when you’re sweating.

Tea, true tea, has a whole mess of various chemical compounds that contribute to flavor and, sometimes, mess with our brains a little. The one that most people think of is caffeine, which tea does have, but in a much more limited dose than coffee. What’s more interesting is the concentration of various phenols and polyphenols, aromatic compounds that are responsible for flavors and aromas. Tea has high levels of a few different types of astringent compounds, notably tannins and theaflavins, which can be brought out by the drying and fermenting process. In general, the more intense the curing, the more bitter the tea, which is why black tea is generally more bitter than the relatively natural green tea. But the way you brew tea can also have a major effect on the concentration of these compounds that leach out of the leaves and into your water; high temperatures typically will secure you more bitterness than lower temperatures.

Anyway! Iced tea is extremely easy to make, and generally follows the same rules as iced coffee. You can brew regular hot tea and pour it over ice, and you’ll end up with a totally adequate beverage. Herbal teas in particular take well to this; they lack some of those chemical compounds that can turn true teas astringent when rapidly cooled. Or you can plan ahead a bit and end up with something that, yes, tastes better — not so bitter, a bit smoother — but more importantly, takes less work when you actually want some iced tea.

The basic setup is the same as cold brew coffee, which uses no hot water at all and instead relies on a very very long brewing time to extract flavor. The best tool for this is a French press, but a pitcher and a strainer (either double-layered or lined with cheesecloth) will work almost as well. You’ll want to combine tea and cold water in the vessel of your choice and let sit for quite awhile, at least six hours and preferably overnight, before straining out the solids.

You can use either tea bags or loose-leaf tea for this method. There are intense tea snobs (little-known fact: rarer, but actually worse than coffee snobs) who will yell about this, but tea bags are generally fine for iced tea. The lack of extreme temperatures and brewing times in iced tea are much more gentle on the leaves than in hot tea, and you’ll get decent to good results from any reasonable-quality tea bag. You’ll want to drink iced tea by the gallon, so don’t go too nuts. (That said! As with any beverage, you don’t want to go too cheap, either; the tea found in Lipton or other mass-market tea bags is, aside from being kind of shitty, chopped extremely finely to maximize surface area within the small space of a mug. It also usually includes what’s known as “fannings,” which is a tea snob word for, basically, garbage dust found at the bottom of a tea barrel.)

Because we’re brewing in a large container, it is also kind of a perfect scenario to try out loose-leaf tea, because the leaves have room to spread out and float around, and there’s such a low level of precision required due to the cold water and long steeping time that you don’t really have to worry about messing the tea up. Loose-leaf is often barely more expensive than bags, will last at least as long, and will, in many circumstances, taste a lot better.

The ratio of tea to water is fairly important; you want to have about one tea bag, or roughly two teaspoons of loose-leaf tea, per cup of water. A standard-sized French press technically holds eight cups of water, but with the press and the tea in the carafe you won’t be able to do quite that much. Experiment with around five or six tea bags (ten-to-twelve teaspoons of loose-leaf) until you figure out how much you like. Adding more tea will make the final beverage stronger, but not bitter, the way over-steeped tea is, so don’t be too worried.

Add the tea to water in your French press before you go to bed, stir it up once or twice, and by the next morning, it’ll be done. Pour it into a glass container of some sort and serve over ice. If you want to make this more complicated, there are certainly possibilities, though.

Iced Green Tea With Cucumber And Lime

Make iced green tea as usual; gunpowder green tea is good for this. After you strain out the tea leaves, add about half a cucumber’s worth of thin cucumber slices and allow to sit for another day. Serve over ice with a squeeze of lime and simple syrup, if desired.

Iced Black Tea With Bourbon and Mint

Make iced black tea as usual; a smokier one is probably best, like lapsang souchong. Make a mint simple syrup by bringing water and white sugar in a ratio of 2:1 to a boil, then pouring over a whole bunch of chopped fresh mint. Cover and let sit at room temperature until cooled. Mix iced tea with the syrup and a shot of bourbon, serve over ice with a slice of orange.

Iced Peppermint Tea With Gin and Basil

Make peppermint iced tea as usual (Moroccan mint tea will work just as well; it’s a blend of spearmint and green tea). Mix with a little bit of honey, and shake with gin and a little lime juice. Serve with chopped basil.

Most teas and herbal teas work very well with the cold brew method; I particularly like peppermint iced tea. These also make an excellent base for cocktails if you like a tea-based cocktail. Herbal and black teas work well with bourbon, green tea with vodka or gin (or rum).

But mostly I like them as a cool-down afternoon drink, unadulterated except for ice. No sugar, no dairy, no fancy packaging, no old-timey fonts. Just some nice iced tea.

Photo by Pen Waggener