Summer's Controversial Beverage: Sun Tea

What is Sun Tea?

     The technique of brewing iced tea has only existed for a little over a century, yet it has gained immense popularity, especially in the United States. According to the Tea Association of the USA, around 85% of the tea consumed in America is iced. Drinking tea as a cold beverage asserted itself in the late 19th century when 800+ gallons of iced tea was served at a Missouri Reunion for Ex-Confederate Veterans. Hot brewed tea was poured over ice, and because teabags were not invented until the early 1900s, tea leaves were openly poured into the water.

     Although the exact genesis of sun tea is unknown, the method in which it is brewed is very similar to how iced tea was initially made. Instead of using a traditional stove top, sun tea harnesses the sun’s rays to heat the tea. This technique is commonly used when a heat source or electricity is unavailable. For many people, the art of making sun tea is a summer tradition and synonymous to the memories of sipping tea on the back patio. My mom would make a giant glass pitcher of sun tea all of the time growing up, and I remember checking on the tea as the leaves would steep and the water would turn a beautiful amber color. The nostalgia and almost romantic essence of sun tea is perhaps the leading reason why it gained popularity.

     When you brew tea, the flavor is released when the tea leaves are combined with water. It does not matter if the water is hot, cold, or room temperature. The reason why tea is primarily brewed with hot, boiling water is that it extracts the flavor more intensely. A quick release of flavor in a short period results in a deep color and flavor profile. Sun tea is often preferred over traditionally brewed iced tea because some say the cooler brewing temperature cause it to have a fresher, less bitter flavor.  Tea drinkers also choose sun tea because it is simple to make. All that is needed is a large glass dispenser (preferably with a cover), water, tea leaves, and a sunny day.

     To make sun tea, water and tea leaves are combined in a large glass dispenser. For a gallon of water, 6-8 tea bags (our T-Sac tea filters can be tied and used for this) or 5-8 tablespoons of loose-leaf tea are recommended. These numbers can vary depending on the tea type and desired flavor strength. Next, the dispenser is covered and placed outside directly under the sun to brew for 2-4 hours. The steeping time depends on the outdoor temperature, type of tea, size of the dispenser, and how dark you enjoy your tea. Once brewed, the leaves are removed, sweetener and garnish are added, and the tea is immediately put it in the fridge to chill.

The Dangers of Sun Tea

     The simplicity and cost-effective benefits of sun tea are incredibly appealing, but recently, there has been controversy regarding the safety of drinking it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, using the sun to brew tea can facilitate the growth of bacteria. The sun can heat tea to about 130 ° F, which is not nearly hot enough to kill the bacteria in the water or tea itself. The proper heating temperature to kill such bacteria is 195 ° for at least 3-5 minutes.

     The main bacteria discovered in sun tea is called Alcaligenes viscolactis, a microbe commonly found in water. Research has discovered that the caffeine found in black tea can help prevent the bacteria from growing, but for only a short time. Herbal teas are thought to be the most dangerous because it lacks the protective barrier needed to prevent the breeding of bacteria. In my years of drinking sun tea, I have never experienced the effects of bacterial growth, but I would be doing everyone a disservice if I did not mention it. To be safe, I have personally decided to use alternative methods to make iced tea. For those that want to continue making sun tea, here are some recommended safety measures to prevent any harmful effects:

  1. Make sure the container you use (preferably a transparent, glass jar with a cover) is scrubbed clean with warm, soapy water. For an extra precaution, you can clean the dispenser with a bleach solution. If the container has a spigot, clean that thoroughly also.
  2. When assembling your tea, use purified or bottled water.
  3. Use high-quality tea and store it in a cool, dark, and dry place before using. Once used, throw the tea leaves away – they cannot be re-steeped.
  4. Do not leave the tea to brew in the sun for longer than 4 hours.
  5. Prepare only the amount of tea you plan to consume in that same day. 
  6. Refrigerate the tea as soon as it is ready and keep it refrigerated.
  7. Add sweeteners and garnish AFTER the tea is brewed. Waiting makes no difference flavor-wise and can prevent further bacterial growth.
  8. Do not use the tea if it appears thick, syrupy, or has a bad odor. These conditions can all be signs of bacterial growth.

     No matter what your stance is on sun tea, it is always wise to be aware and cautious when handling ingredients, brewing equipment, and cooking temperature. Many believe that the fear of sun tea is exaggerated and that the government takes a “better safe than sorry” approach. This thought may be true, but the science is still there. Luckily, there is a multitude of ways to brew delicious tea without the risk.

A Safer Alternative: Cold Brew Tea

     If you would prefer to avoid the risk entirely, the safer alternative to sun tea is cold brew or refrigerator tea. Instead of brewing the tea out in the sun, the tea leaves will steep in the fridge for at least 6 hours or overnight, depending on the type of tea and how strong you prefer it. This method may sound contradictory to the reasons sun tea is unsafe, but the fact that you won’t be heating the tea means it cannot grow bacteria. With sun tea, you do not want to find yourself in the “danger zone” where it is warm enough to grow bacteria but not hot enough to kill it. That worry becomes non-existent with cold brew tea. Not only is it safer, and many people find it tastier, it also comes out chilled and ready to drink. To learn more about cold brew tea, check out a blog post I wrote, here!

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