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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

#1: Honest Tea
#2: Snapple
#3: Arizona

A few weeks back I was on volunteer-duty with a bunch of toddlers when one of them told me she was thirsty. I asked her what her favorite kind of juice was. Her response? "Snapple Tea!"

While debating in my head whether or not it was my right or responsibility to sit this child down and explain to her the difference between tea and juice, between naturally sweetened drinks and sugar/HFCS-packed soft drinks, I realized that in her currently-feeble-but-packed-with-potential brain, my question was actually translated as "what do you like to drink most?" And for that, she gave a perfectly good answer.

Truth is, I'm a closet bottled iced-tea fanatic myself. I grew up on raspberry-flavored Snapple back in the days when it was made with sugar and showed the Boston Tea Party on its label. I remember when AriZona came out with its distinctive long-necked bottles and hyper-tart flavor, before it decided to base its marketing on an extra-large size and 99¢ price tag.

It wasn't soon after that the tea floodgates opened and new brand after new brand starting pouring into the market, offering varying sugar levels, promises of anti-oxidant health benefits, and all manner of unique flavors. Indeed, at one point in the late 2000's, bottled teas were the #1 growth market for bottled soft drinks.

The question is, who makes the best?

The Contenders

To narrow down the dizzying field, we stuck to the most common and popular option: lemon-flavored iced tea. We gathered up the nine most popular brands available in small serving bottles and tasted them in a double-blind line-up.

The Criteria

Tasters were asked to evaluate the teas based on four qualities:

Overall likeability: Is the tea tasty, refreshing, drinkable? Would you buy this bottle again?
Sweetness: All of the teas we tasted were sweetened, but how much sugar is too much sugar?
Tartness: Is the tartness intense enough to balance out sweetness? Is it too intense? Do you get good lemon flavor, or is it simply sour?
Real tea flavor: Let's face it: some of these things don't really taste like tea at all, and there'a a reason for that. I once had a conversation with the head of distribution for Lipton's worldwide market who told me that once teas have been sorted by quality, the lowest grade goes to two places: bottled iced teas, and tea bags destined for the American South, where they will eventually end up as sweet tea. Sweetened iced tea is often more about the sugariness and lemon than the actual tea itself, but we were still interested to see how tea flavor would affect final outcome.

The Results

After tallying the data and overlaying some graphs, I found that for the most part, real tea flavor tracked pretty closely with our favorite picks. Indeed, there were only two exceptions to the rule: Lipton Pure Leaf limped in at fourth place, despite taking the #2 spot on the Real Tea Flavor scale—its lack of tartness to balance out its sweetness pushed it behind both Snapple and Arizona.

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[Chart: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The other exception was Alexander, which just edged its way out of last place in front of Nestea, despite having the lowest Real Tea Flavor rating.

Here's the breakdown, with comments.

#1: Honest Tea (5.3/10)

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Honest Tea placed comfortably in first with high marks for real tea flavor, as well as its gentle hand with the sugar. "This really tastes like tea!" said one taster. Most other brands seemed reluctant to allow the naturally bitter compounds of tea come out in their drinks, while Honest Tea didn't hold back. "Kind of bitter/acidic, which I don't mind." "This is a tea for grown-ups."

#2: Snapple (4.9/10)

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Most tasters remarked on its extreme sourness. "Good overall. A little too sweet, but lemon is nice and sour." However, it was still "refreshing. I'd drink this." A good tea for a hot day.

#3: Arizona (4.6/10)

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Another tartness bomb, some tasters took away points for its lack of real lemon flavor. "Like the tartness, but doesn't taste like real lemon," said one. Others were not so kind: "Yuck, tastes like lemon Pine-Sol!" But some found it easy-drinking and good for guzzling.

#4: Lipton Pure Leaf (4.2/10)

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High marks for real tea flavor didn't save this one from a lack of tartness that brought down its overall score. Tasters like that it was "not too sweet." Despite their tagline "Tastes like real brewed tea because it is," some tasters felt the flavor was "artificial."

#5: Gold Peak (3.8/10)

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Here's where we begin to get to the real sugar bombs. Gold Peak's tea featured a syrupy sweet texture that one taster likened to "a melted lemon popsicle." On the other hand, a few tasters did enjoy its simple sweet flavor. "Simple, straightforward, refreshing." This would be a good choice for bottled tea drinkers used to the high sugar content of Southern sweet tea.

#6: Joe Tea (3.22/10)

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"Little tea flavor, super sugary," was the general consensus. One taster simply remarked, "syrup." "This has a tea smell, but it's not tea," said another. SImply put, we couldn't taste anything beyond the sugar. Whatever tea might have been hiding under there was deep, deep down.

#7: Lipton Brisk (3.2/10)

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Very artificial tasting with a strange tartness. "Tastes like flat tea soda," said one taster. "Candy-like. Tastes instant!" Mr. Lipton wasn't kidding when he said they save their worst tea for their bottles.

#8: Alexander (2.8/10)

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One of the sweetest teas of the bunch with the lowest tartness rating and the lowest tea flavor rating. There was not much redeeming about this brand.

#9: Nestea (2.7/10)

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Our loser lost most marks for "fake" flavor and not enough lemon. It wasn't the sweetest of the bunch, but without other real flavors to balance it out, most tasters though it seemed syrupy on the palate with a "chemical afterburn."

Make It At Home!

While bottled tea is easy on the go, it's not that hard to make your own iced tea with real tea (and a squeeze of lemon if you wish.) Plus, you'll get to adjust the sweetness to your personal taste. Here's our easy method for making sun tea.

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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