Sun Tea: So Much More Than Sun-Brewed Tea

There is a romance behind the filling of a beautiful glass pitcher with cold, pure water and delicate tea bags, and placing it in a beam of happy sunlight. You know, that magical energy that will turn water into a golden brew perfect for sipping all summer long. But despite the joy of making something so simple, the naysayers and legit tea experts call foul, professing that drinking sun tea is a dangerous game.

The reason behind this? Science. After all, sun tea is made not by mixing fairy dust and rainbows but with water warmed by that fiery star in the sky, which replaces the heating element of water boiled in the kettle. But as strong as that force is, it only gets the water to around 102 to 130 degrees, not the 170 to 200 degrees normally needed to steep tea in. This low temperature is just hot enough to start forcing some of the solids out of dried leaves and blossoms, but not high enough to purify the water or kill any of the bacteria that forms once the tea starts brewing. In other words, it becomes a petri dish of organic material, ripe with tiny microbes. Because of this, most tea companies and tea experts don't recommend making sun tea, even though there hasn't been a publicized case of food poisoning from the beverage.

Still, it's enough of a risk that many people have opted to leave their tea out of the sun and instead put it in the refrigerator. After all, like cold-brewed coffee, sun tea can be made without heat. "Today we are doing cold infusion, where you take an herbal or sencha tea, put it into filtered water and place it in the fridge overnight," says Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Boston. "That's what I recommend instead of sun tea."

Sun tea or not, according to the Tea Association of the USA, iced tea makes up 85 percent of the tea drunk in America, and it's only existed for a little over a century. The practice of drinking cold tea has its roots in the late 19th century, when 880 gallons of iced tea were served at the Missouri State Reunion of Ex-Confederate Veterans in 1890. But they most likely made their summer beverage by brewing it hot and pouring it over ice, albeit without teabags since those are thought to have been invented in 1908 by Thomas Sullivan. But when exactly sun tea came into the picture is a mystery, though the edict on the beverage started about 20 years ago, says Richardson, and since then there has been research supporting the dangerous claims.

"I think sun tea is kind of old-school, and there are so many new and easy ways to make something similar," Richardson says. "The more people I can move in that direction, the better it is."

20150707_174123 Some tea companies make pitcher-size bags for your iced-tea-brewing convenience.

Making sun tea or cold-brew tea

It's best to use a clean glass container when making sun tea, both for the style factor and taste, though in a pinch, a scrubbed plastic one will do fine. Just make sure it has a lid so you can seal the jar as it "bakes." As for the tea, a general rule of thumb is to use four regular-size bags per one cup of water, approximately the same water-to-tea ratio you would use when making hot tea. Or look for the large-format bags that many companies sell for the sole purpose of making iced tea. With those you can follow the package's instructions on how much water to add.

Place the combo either in a good patch of sun for five to six hours or in the fridge for about eight. When you take it out, remove the bags and voilà! Your sun tea is ready to drink. If you want something to go, Richardson recommends dropping five jasmine green pearls into a water bottle, leaving it for five hours and then indulging in a simple, tasty pick-me-up.

Finally, if you want to sweeten your cold tea, make a simple syrup by melting one part sugar into one part water. Stir, pour into a squeeze bottle and cool.

Tea recommendations

Moroccan Mint Green Tea from Elmwood Inn Fine Teas

All the teas from this purveyor are high quality, which means you have more leeway when steeping them. This particular variety blends gunpowder green tea with cool mint leaves for a refreshing flavor perfect for cooling off in the summer. To make this tea, use approximately one tablespoon of loose tea per cup of water. You can get single-serving bags to put it in, or filter the leaves out after.

American Iced Tea from Stash Tea

This is one of the best black teas to use when making sun tea. It doesn't get bitter, and it comes in large bags you can use in lieu of single-serving ones. A box of eight large bags is only $3.95, so this option is economical, too.

The du Hammam from Le Palais de Thés

Using green tea, this French company channels Turkish flavors by combining roses, green dates, berries and orange flower water, making a bright and fruity tea ideal for summer sipping. Luckily, they also sell it in large-format bags perfect for pitchers.

Turmeric Ginger from Rishi Tea

This herbal blend is a great change from your average iced tea. It has rich, savory turmeric and spicy ginger, two ingredients that actually help cool you off. Plus, no caffeine!