Iced to a Tea: Tips and tricks for brewing the perfect pitcher

It was late January when we first brainstormed an article on iced tea. Caught in the throes of winter and daydreaming about brighter days and fewer layers, we were eager to explore the different kinds of iced tea, learn about which leaves (if any) were best, and find tips on brewing the perfect pitcher. And while we will touch on those basics, I’m afraid it’s just not enough. You see, despite its demure reputation, tea – hot or iced – is as complex as the atoms from which it’s built. So to get to that perfect ending, we’ve got to start at the beginning. Or, as Lipton puts it so succinctly: “Everything good about tea starts with the leaves.” And all those leaves start with one plant: the Camellia sinensis.

Cultivated mainly in tropical and subtropical climates, the Camellia sinensis is the evergreen shrub from which all tea (save herbal) harkens. Its green leaves, when fresh, contain about 4 percent caffeine, and the level of oxidation they’re allowed to achieve after being plucked, along with how much they’re processed, determines the type of tea they’ll become.

For the sake of this writer’s sanity, we’re only going to touch on the basic varietals: black, which is used in classic American iced tea, is oxidized for up to four hours, and as such has a stronger flavor than its siblings, oolong, oxidized for two to three hours; and green and white, which aren’t oxidized at all after processing.

From these bases, countless varieties can be blended into creation, and it’s an art form very familiar to Jackie James, owner of The London Tea Room downtown. With more than 50 flavor options on the menu, including iced teas of the day, her establishment embodies a growing tea culture, where classics are beginning to take a backseat and house blends like the Blue and Red (rooibos and green tea with blueberries and mint) and The Queen of Hearts (Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Black Currant) find favor with customers on hot summer days.

James said that most any tea you drink hot will also be good on ice, so the first thing you need to consider when making iced tea is what kind you are brewing. “Different teas will take different temperatures and different times to brew,” she explained. “For example, green tea usually takes less than a minute. The more you steep it, the more bitter it becomes, which leaves a funny taste in the back of your mouth.”

The second is remembering to add more tea, “otherwise when you dilute it with ice, you’re going to lose a lot of the flavor.”

Or you can follow suit with downtown’s Cielo, which eliminates the dilution problem by cooling its iced tea with iced tea ice cubes. Robert Jenny, the restaurant’s director of food and beverage, brought this concept with him from a previous job, where they recognized two things: “When people drink iced tea, they drink a lot of it. And when you put regular ice cubes in it, by the time they’re halfway through, it’s diluted. So we were trying to figure out how to keep the flavor pure.

“The added benefit is you also reduce waste,” he said. “At the end of the day, we might have a big batch of iced tea left over, and if you leave it overnight, it will actually spoil. So instead of wasting perfectly good iced tea, we put it in ice cube trays, freeze it overnight, and then we have enough for the next day.”

Cielo stays on the pure end of the iced tea spectrum, offering just two kinds regularly: unsweetened black tea and the Arnold Palmer, which is half black tea, half lemonade. Both come with the signature cubes, a wedge of lemon, and a shot glass of house-made simple syrup so guests can sweeten their tea as they see fit.

The absence of straight sugar as a sweetener has its purpose, Jenny said. “There’s nothing more frustrating for me than when you get granulated sugar because it doesn’t dissolve. Artificial sweeteners will because they’re more powdery, but granulated sugar doesn’t dissolve in a cold beverage.”

Outside of steeping and sweetening, perhaps most important to achieving a perfect pitcher of iced tea is the grade of the leaves.

Bought from a trustworthy company, bagged tea, like what’s used for the iced teas of the day at The London Tea Room, is essentially loose leaf in a user-friendly vessel, with nothing added and nothing taken away. But relying on grocery stores to bring quality (or quantity) to your tea is risky business.

“Sometimes when you’re buying the tea bags, you don’t know how old that tea is,” said James. “And a lot of times the quantity that’s in the bags is not enough. Sometimes it’s not even tea in there; a lot of times it’s dust. With loose tea, you know that, at the most, it’s a year old.”

James said there are four things that will help ensure the quality of your tea leaves: flavor (it should be strong), whether it’s organic (which usually indicates purer tea), knowing when it’s been picked (the more recent, the better), and the color once it’s steeped (the richer, the better).

Once you’ve got that down, you just have to figure out which flavor you prefer.

“There will be some you don’t like,” said James, “but try another one. Go for what you really like; if you like fruity stuff, go for a fruity type of tea. There are so many out there that there’s bound to be one that you love. Just keeping trying them until you find out what kind of tea person you are.”

Now that we've given you tips for brewing that perfect pitcher, don't you think we should help you find the tools to do just that? For everything you need to make and enjoy that refreshing, icy cup, click here.