UPDATE: Some of the information in this article needed updating due to more recent studies and some exaggeration of the risk involved.
One of the most popular teas in summer is “sun tea” – tea that is brewed by leaving a clear container with tea in it out in the sun for a few hours. It has a certain appeal because it is such an easy process, not to mention the fact that tea looks awfully pretty in the sunlight. This method will not get hotter than 130°F (54.44°C) and is supposedly not hot enough to kill bacteria in the water or in the tea leaves. Water temperatures for a regular infusion ranges from 160°F to 212°F (or the boiling point). This may not kill all undesirable microbes either but will certainly kill a lot more than that lower temperature.
The other issue that some people report is that sun tea generally sits around for a lot longer than hot tea, so that the bacteria has a chance to multiply and become problematic. They say that in essence, the sun tea method is a lot more like making tea in a contaminated Petri dish than a teapot. One such statement is from Is Sun Tea Safe?, on the Colorado State University Extension SafeFood Rapid Response Network. Or you can read Snopes.com, a reliable source for verifying or dispelling rumors and urban legends, stating that sun tea is unsafe.
Of course, every summer people brew and drink gallons and gallons of sun tea and do not get sick, so the risk is really quite minimal. However, there are excellent alternatives for making iced tea:
- Boil the water before you make sun tea to prevent the bacterial risk (but once you’ve gone to that effort you might as well just hot brew the tea in the normal fashion and then cool it in the refrigerator).
- Cold-brew your tea, thereby avoiding using the stove on hot days. Steeping tea leaves in cold water for a few hours in the refrigerator produces excellent tasting cold tea and also works quite well for many tisanes (non-tea infusions). Use a Mason jar or similar, fill with loose leaf tea, and then strain after steeping (usually about six hours, depending on how strong you prefer your tea) into a second jar.
While there’s really no compelling reason to make sun tea when you want to drink iced tea, you’re an adult and can assess the risk for yourself. Take the sun tea containers that you’d put out on your porch and put them in your refrigerator instead for a cold-brewed tea that tastes as good or better.
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