One Tea, Many Brews: All the Ways to Make Iced Tea
Recently, a customer reached out wondering how to make better sencha. He could never get the infusion strong enough, he said. After asking about his current methods, we had some ideas of what to recommend—pretty different ideas, as it turned out. One of us thought the issue was the amount of leaf he was using; increasing your dosage is like turning the volume up on the car radio, as there's more sound to fill the space. Another suggested a different solution: keep the dosage as-is, but steep for a couple of minutes longer, to pull more flavor from the tea leaves. Think of that like rolling up the car windows to better hear the radio—same sound, but greater clarity.
Both approaches make a good cup of green tea, but the discussion was a revealing reminder that even with the exact same leaves, individual tastes and preparation techniques can yield vastly different cups. Tea is prismatic this way; there is rarely one right way to do things.
With sweaty summer weather in full swing, it didn't take long for this conversation to turn to iced tea. We have a few recommended recipes that we share with wholesale and retail customers, but thought it would be a useful exercise to widen our scope with a new comparison, and to see how stylistic differences between brewers play out when you control some of the variables. The results were surprising, and they may change how you make iced tea from now on.
Four methods for making iced tea
We picked two styles of tea for our tests: a bright, verdant sencha and two Darjeeling 2nd Flush black teas (from the Balasun and Singell Estates), with a ratio of eight grams of looseleaf per four cups of water. Each of us used a different water source, following the first rule of proper tea brewing: start with good-tasting water!
There's no shortage of ways to make iced tea. Here are four of our favorites.
The simplest is cold brew, in which the tea is submerged in water and allowed to infuse slowly in the fridge. Four hours is a good place to start; overnight works as well. You can keep the leaves steeping for longer, too—up to a few days—and add more cold water to replace what you consume.
A faster method is double-strength infusion. This is often what we recommend to restaurants needing to make large quantities of iced tea and replenish it quickly. Translated for home preparation, steep your desired tea extra-long (try four to five minutes), then strain the hot concentrate over an equal volume of ice. Let sit for a moment so that the temperature drops, and voila—almost-instant iced tea.
We also enjoyed ambient brewing, which is similar to cold brew but at room temperature. We picked up the idea from Postcard Teas: 20 to 40 minutes is enough time for a full extraction, then the tea can be decanted and sipped right away (with or without a few ice cubes, depending on how cold you'd like it), or refrigerated. Even with this chilling time, it's quicker than cold brew.
The fourth method we tested is a Japanese style called shinobi-cha, which is usually used with the country's green teas. Layer ice cubes on top of tea leaves and wait for the melting ice to produce a concentrated brew. You can either sneak sips during the process, or wait a few hours for a full, small cup. The result is like cold brew, but much more intense.
Which iced tea brewing method is the best?
All the iced teas turned out nice and drinkable, but each technique brought out different aspects. The old reliable cold brews were light, clean, and quaffable; the ambient brews, on the other hand, had both more impact and clarity, even when chilled. Ambient brewing also highlighted the texture of the teas. They felt round in the mouth and smooth, with zero astringency. Cold brewing does yield a similarly sweet cup without astringency, but tends to have less body.
The iced double-strength infusions yielded especially compelling color: electric chartreuse for the sencha, rich amber for the Darjeelings. Compared to the cold and ambient brews, the double-strength Darjeeling exhibited more malty, tannic notes, yet it was still neither bitter nor astringent. If you're looking to make sweetened tea or something to use in punches and cocktails, this is an excellent recipe to follow. The tea has enough backbone to stand up to other ingredients. The difference in the sencha was less pronounced; a little more crisp and grassy, with less sweetness on the finish.
Shinobi-cha isn't a practical method for most people: it takes hours for the ice to melt, and doesn't yield a lot of liquid. What it does produce is an interesting, super-concentrated brew that you wouldn't want to gulp down even if you could. It's viscous like olive oil with intense umami and a brothy finish that lingers in the throat. This was our first time trying the method with something other than Japanese green tea, and the Darjeeling revealed savory aspects you don't usually taste through other methods; the copper liquid was reminiscent of buttered brioche toast and Turkish delight.
What did we learn? For one, the benefits of reassessing our usual cold brewing practice and working more ambient brews into the rotation—the nuances it can reveal make it particularly rewarding.
We're also new fans of the classic double-strength method for less oxidized teas like greens and whites. We usually see this method used with black teas and herbals, but it also works well for lighter styles, keeping them sweet and fragrant. Overall, the trade off for more flavor and body, more quickly, is a less pronounced finish. Whether that's desirable depends on your tastes and ultimate iced tea goals. It's also worth pointing out this method requires a lot of ice, especially if you're making larger batches. But if you're short on fridge space, that may be preferable to chilling a gallon pitcher overnight.
If you haven't thought about your iced tea methodology in a while, now's the perfect time to start. Play with the leaves, experiment with different ratios and steeping times. You may notice new aspects of an old favorite, or find a faster way to enjoy your cup. There's always something new to learn.