If you’re tuned in to what’s trendy these days, it may seem your options for what to drink this summer have been whittled down to two: cold-brew coffee or rosé. But if you want something in between the caffeine jolt of the former and the celebratory nature of the latter, you need look no further than a classic.
Sure, there are plenty of bottled and canned options vying for your cash and attention, but making your own is a lot less expensive – especially if you’re brewing for a crowd – and a whole lot more satisfying. It’s also remarkably easy.
Here are a few expert tips to get you started.
Begin by making hot tea: Michelle Brown, co-owner of Washington’s Teaism family of cafes and shops, says many of the same guidelines apply to iced tea as hot tea. The general rule is about one teaspoon of loose-leaf tea per 1 cup of water; for large quantities, aim for 1 to 1½ ounces of tea per gallon of water.
Your tea’s packaging should offer guidance on water temperature and steep times (generally, black tea is brewed for four to five minutes with 212-degree water, with greens in the one- to three-minute range at lower temperatures, from 160 to 180 degrees). If you’re going to be pouring the tea over ice, Brown suggests doubling the steep time for a more robust flavor that can account for the dilution that occurs as the ice melts.
Teaism goes through so much iced tea that it doesn’t have time to cool on its own, but if you’re not in a rush, you can just let your hot tea come down to room temperature before chilling it in the refrigerator. That’s what Ben Byrd, microbiologist-turned-founder of Washington, D.C.-based iced tea brand Runningbyrd Tea, does. He recommends drinking whatever you end up storing within a few days to a week, covering it for optimal freshness.
Don’t totally discount cold brew: Yes, like coffee, you can certainly go the cold-brew route. Although Brown somewhat cheekily notes that “there may not be a reason to cold-brew other than laziness,” she acknowledges that there is a place for it. Cold-brewing can allow you to get a different flavor profile of a tea – such as the fruity notes of a black variety – than you would had you steeped it in hot water.
Brown recommends steeping cold-brew tea in the refrigerator for 12 hours and then consuming it within a day or two to avoid possibly exposing yourself to bacteria growth. She does not recommend cold-brewing tisanes or herbal teas; their higher moisture content can harbor bacteria if they’re left to sit for extended periods of time.
Forget the special tools: “You don’t need to buy a bunch of things” to make iced tea, Byrd says.
Brown says, “Really, all you need is a pot and tea and some way to get the tea out of the water.”
A stainless-steel tea ball is a cheap investment. Other items in your kitchen can pull double duty for iced tea: Think a pasta pot or Dutch oven in combination with a fine-mesh strainer. Disposable tea sacs are another possibility.
Sweeten with restraint: Byrd, who grew up in iced-tea-swilling Georgia, said Southern sweet tea originated when tea was very expensive. People would oversteep the leaves to extract as much as they could, but of course that would lead to a bitter beverage. So they’d cover it up with much more affordable sugar.
He takes a lighter approach to his tea, some of which he sells unsweetened. “People from Georgia would probably say my tea isn’t sweet enough,” he says. In his jars, the primary sweetener is organic cane sugar, although agave syrup and honey would work well for home use, too. Add sweeteners while the tea is hot so that they dissolve.
Don’t go overboard, Brown says. “It’s surprising how little sugar you need,” she says. Ideally, it’s there to brighten the flavor of the tea. Start with less and add more to taste.
Feel free to get creative: Brown and Byrd agree that black teas – Ceylon, Darjeeling and Assam among them – make some of the best iced teas. But that’s only the beginning. Brown also likes a Moroccan mint tea and Japanese sencha, which results in a vibrant green brew.
Byrd uses a lot of oolong for making tea at home (he estimates he drinks a half gallon of tea a day.) and also recommends white varieties such as silver needle. Don’t discount your favorite hot drinking variety, either – here’s looking at you, iced Earl Grey.
If you’re the kind of person who stockpiles a hodgepodge of boxed tea bags, go ahead and mix and match for a unique brew, Byrd says. (Don’t squeeze the bags once they’ve steeped – you’ll only make the tea bitter.) Or experiment with muddled herbs from your garden, summer berries or spices from your pantry.
“You don’t need to worry about ruining anything,” Byrd says. The stakes are low, but the potential reward is high.