How to Make and Enjoy Sun Tea

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The heat is on in the Southern U.S. and the central states (from Texas on up almost to the Canadian border). Time for something cool to drink. Iced tea to the rescue! (Yes, it’s “iced tea,” not “ice tea.”) In the Southeast it’s a true tradition, and “sweet tea” is almost a right of passage.

One popular method of making iced tea is a sun tea jar. The ones I’ve seen in stores hold about one gallon of water (smaller than one gallon is a little impractical). However, you can use any glass jar as long as it has a tight-fitting lid. The store ones have spouts in the lids for easier pouring, although the weight of a full jar can be daunting, and some have spigots (not always leak proof).

Simple Recipe for Sun Tea

Ingredients:

  • 1 glass jar (1-2 gallons) with tight-fitting lid
  • Tea bags (8 regular size bags per gallon of water – fewer if you like weaker tea)
  • Or you can use loose tea leaves (8 Tbsp per gallon of water)
  • Sunlight (of course!)

Directions:

Fill the jar with clear, clean water. Add in tea bags (or loose tea). Put your lid on the jar and be sure it is screwed on tightly. Set the jar in sunlight for several hours or until the tea is the desired strength (for most people, this would be a caramel color). When the tea is brewed, remove the jar from sunlight and remove the tea bags. Refrigerate the tea to chill, preferably overnight. (If you used loose tea, pour the liquid through a strainer into another container and then chill. Straining out the tea leaves will avoid your tea taking on a bitter taste.) If you choose to use ice, you may want to brew the tea a little stronger since the melting ice cubes will dilute it.

Observations

As for taste, I personally find tea brewed in the sun to be somewhat bitter. Since the bags (or tea leaves) are in the water for hours. A short brew in water at the proper temperature (for example, 205-212 degrees Fahrenheit for black tea and steeped for 3-5 minutes) assures a much smoother taste that is gentle on your tastebuds.

Once the tea is chilled, you can drink it straight or add your sweetener of choice (honey is NOT recommended, since it requires heat to thoroughly dissipate through the tea) and other flavors. Lemon is the most popular, and can be sliced in rounds and floated in the tea or cut in wedges for squeezing individually into glasses. (Note: Lemon is acidic and will lighten the color of the tea.) Mint is another popular flavor (goes best with teas made from Gunpowder, Darjeeling, Pouchong, and Tung Ting Oolong,).

As I mentioned earlier, the Southeast is hooked on “sweet tea.” (Here’s one recipe.) As someone who was raised in the Midwest and has bounced around the U.S. and abroad, coming to the Southeast and having a waitress automatically ask if I wanted “sweet tea” was a bit of a culture shock. “Sweet tea” is virtually unknown elsewhere. It’s basically iced tea with a truckload of sugar in each glass full (at least it seems so to my tastebuds). To try new things, I ordered a glass. One mouthful was enough. To say it was sweet would be like saying the Eiffel Tower contains a little iron. Decades ago, when my mother was diagnosed with diabetes, I switched from drinking my iced tea with sugar to drinking it unsweetened. So, sorry to all you folks in the Southeast, but I have to pass on the “sweet tea.”

Whether sweetened or not, sun brewed or regular brewed, enjoy a cool moment during the heat of the day with a tall glass of iced tea.

A caution on sun tea:

Any bacteria in the water (mainly alcaligenes viscolactis) will end up in your tea, and when you drink this tea, you could get abdominal infections and other illnesses. The heat from the sun’s rays will not raise the water temperature high enough and long enough to kill them. However, there is a way for you to determine if your sun-steeped tea is safe to drink. Scientists who studied that bacteria found that the caffeine in tea can help stop it from growing for about two hours, meaning that non-caffeinated teas and herbals will not have this benefit.

Make Your Tea Safer to Drink

  • Start with purified water that has been processed through a steam distillation and oxygenation process.
  • Boil this water for five to eight minutes to kill bacteria that may be present. (This is not a guarantee, so please do the following item also.)
  • After steeping in the sun, refrigerate the tea for a little while and then look at the liquid for particles floating in it that have a rope-like appearance, an indication that bacteria is present. If you see any, dump the tea, thoroughly wash the container that held it, and try again.

Here’s hoping your sun tea ends up being a real treat!

© 2009-2016 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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