Update: After this post was published, The Food Lab further investigated the matter. It turns out that you don't need sun for sun tea! Find out more here.—The Management
Whether it's because you love the taste or because you're enjoying a thirst-inducing summer power outage, there's no funner way to make a good situation out of a heat wave than a jug of sun tea. Watching my California-born mom's flowered pitcher sitting on the back porch for hours as it turned from pale gold to deep amber was the true hallmark of summer when I was only a tiny tea drinker. And she had the right idea—why even heat up so much as a kettle when Mother Nature will do it for you?
Using minimal equipment and the sheer force of the our star Sol, we tried both higher and lower-brow components to produce slow-brewed, sun-steeped tea to be served over ice at any time of day. The orchestration, is, of course, ridiuclously simple: Tea. Water. Pitcher. Sun. But seeing as you like only the best of the best, you'll want the following:
Tea Black teas work wonderfully for sun tea, since they're full of those floral and roasty flavors that remind us of summer. Black teas are also versatile over ice, or infused with seasonal goodies. Does fancier tea make a difference when you're brewing in the sun? See below to find out.
Pitcher You'll want a glass—not plastic—jug or pitcher that's clear throughout. Clean and scrub it thoroughly to avoid any bacteria.
Water Try to use filtered water.
Sun You already have this, but look for a place in your yard or on your fire escape that will get full sun for 3-5 hours at a stretch. The intensity of the sun will directly affect the intensity of the brew.
We tried two different kinds of black tea in our sun labs—the first, standard Lipton orange pekoe and cut black in individual bags, and second, hand-filled sachets of Organic Golden Monkey black tea. For each we administered a 2:1 ratio of ounces of water to grams of tea. Fully submerging the tea within the filtered water, we lidded our jugs (you should cover the opening with saran wrap if your vessel does not come self-equipped with a lid), set those bad boys in a sunbeam, and waited. And waited.
Though no shorter than 3 hours or longer than 5 hours are recommended, you'll know your sun tea is ready for you by color and taste. The Lipton—made of smaller shards of leaves which infuse more quickly—attained a deep hue earlier than the loose tips of the Golden Monkey, but both teas achieved fully developed infusions, mild yet full of flavor. The Lipton pitcher, for instance, brewed up with a light lemon effervescent quality—but none of the tinniness that sometimes seems to come with regular hot-brewed bagged blacks.
Of the two, the fancier-pants tea was hands down more elegant: when brewed hot, it's caramel-like and creamy, but when steeped slowly by the heat of the sun, it's like a delicate sweet orange liquor. We prefer to pour it over a nice block of ice—letting the balance of dilution happen gradually, like any good summer cocktail.
Now of course, if sweet's your thing—or mint, lime basil, wedges of lemon, eye of newt, or any other seasonal ingredient—a standard bagged black tea might be just the perfect base for your sunkissed infusion. Experiment with steeping your extra ingredients along with your tea, but wait until it's brewed to taste before adding sugar or diluting with water or ice.
How do you make your sun tea?
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