Packaged or bottled iced tea you buy is typically filled with loads of sugar and artificial colors, did you know you can make your own home brew that skips all that junk without turning on the stove or kettle? On hot sunny days, let the sun do all the work for you!
Sun tea is also known as “Old-fashioned” or “Southern” iced tea that has been one traditional way of making this beverage for many generations. It’s made with bags of regular black tea, some water and a big ol’ glass jar or pitcher.
Here’s how you make it (alternative Refrigerator Brewed Method and information on safety concerns are also listed below)…
- 1 large glass pitcher or jar with lid (that will accommodate 8 cups of water)
- 6 to 8 regular size tea bags (or equivalent loose tea)
- Fill pitcher with 8 cups of cold water then add the bags. Seal with lid.
- Place pitcher in full sun (getting 2 to 3 hours of sunlight–up to 4 hours if you prefer a stronger brew).
- After brewing, strain and refrigerate until fully chilled.
- Add ice cubes and any flavorings before serving.
Is It Safe?
Although I haven’t found any documentation referencing actual cases of illness (or worse) caused by drinking this, I have come across theories that it could be a haven for bacteria growth since the water doesn’t get hot enough to kill off bacteria.
I also haven’t found any actual studies performed that have tested positive for bacteria growth in a properly prepared brew (limited time outdoors or at room temperature, properly cleaned storage/mixing items, refrigerated or iced right after brewed, etc.). As far as I know–there are no studies to refer to and safety concerns seem to be based on theories at this point.
I have come across arguments that tea’s natural anti-bacterial qualities and its caffeine content fights the bacterial growth during the few hours needed to brew this and to me that makes sense (along with proper initial preparation). It also explains why this method has been favored by many and has been practiced for decades with no problem (or if there have been issues, at this time they appear to be undocumented).
Regardless, and with no definitive proof one way or the other to refer to, I do believe this “controversy” over safety is important to note and be aware of.
- Don’t leave outside for longer than 4 hours and should be refrigerated or poured over ice as soon as it’s done to bring it to a cool temperature quickly.
- Use a glass container so the glass can be used to heat the water to a higher temperature than it would with a plastic container.
- It’s very important to use clean jars, lids and utensils when making.
- Don’t add sugar before brewing since this can make a more friendly environment for bacteria growth, add it before serving instead (same applies for fruits with their natural sugar content).
- Do not reuse tea bags, remove and throw them out as soon as steeping is done.
- Don’t make large amounts to be consumed over time (even if it’s refrigerated), just make an amount that you will consume that same day.
- Some recommend boiling water for a few minutes to kill off any possible presence of bacteria then refrigerate until cold before using it.
- Signs of bacteria growth: ropey strands or strings have developed in the liquid or the result is a thick, syrupy liquid that smells off (may indicate the presence of Alcaligenes viscolactis bacteria).
Steeping In The Refrigerator
If you’re concerned about potential health problems but love the flavor of this method, you can still achieve a similar result by steeping it in the refrigerator, here’s how:
- Prepare as noted above then instead of brewing outdoors, let it steep in the refrigerator overnight (a minimum of 8 hours for best results). Just as a high temperature prevents bacteria growth, so does cold. Remove bags and serve.
A few tips:
- How to know when it has steeped long enough? You can tell by the color, when it’s as dark as you prefer your regular tea, it’s fine to stop.
- Why does it take longer (or shorter) to finish from one day to the next? The time of day, intensity of the sun, location, these all can play a factor.
- For strong flavor: Use more tea for brewing, or less water or brew longer.
- You can sweeten with sugar, honey or fruit juices just before serving.
- If you’re using a large glass pitcher to brew but it doesn’t have a lid, a simple fix is to use plastic wrap fitted over the top with an elastic band to secure plastic in place.
- For a citrus flavor, try adding freshly sliced lemon, lime or orange when serving.
- You can strain out loose bits by pouring the liquid through a coffee filter or piece of cheesecloth. You can also make loose pouches out of cheesecloth to hold the loose tea–this will make it easier to remove the bits. Just tie the pouches closed with string.
- This method is preferred by many since it’s found to be more mild and less bitter in flavor than regularly brewed tea that has been chilled.
- Good to Know: Pour a freshly made batch in ice cube trays, freeze and add these to the beverage when serving, this will help prevent the beverage from getting too diluted and watery from cubes made with plain water. You can also try fruit juices and bits frozen in cubes  for a different twist.