Sun tea seems to be one of those beverages that evokes memories of summer visits with one’s grandma, sitting on patios and porches while enjoying an icy cold glass of this classic drink. And then came the health warnings.
I remember many times popping my head out of my grandparents’ door to the back yard and seeing the classically shaped, clear glass gallon jug filled with amber colored water and bags of Lipton tea floating near the top. The strings for the bags would be trapped against the edge of the jar under the lid, and the tags would be dangling on the outside.
But then I realized at one point that they had stopped making sun tea. When I asked my grandma why, she explained that she had heard about the potential risk of bacterial growth in the tea because of how it was made. As it turns out, the not-quite-hot-enough water and tea leaves could possibly allow for certain types of bacteria to begin to grow and cause food borne illnesses to occur.
So for the longest time I refrained from making the tea myself, due to those concerns. However, I recently decided, what the heck, I’d made it so many times before and survived, so why not. I also decided to do some fact checking into the concerns about safety. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any information about anyone getting sick, just a lot of articles saying that it could happen. Most seemed to stem from a situation that occurred in the mid-90’s where someone brought a sample of tea from a restaurant that “smelled bad” to health officials in Cincinnati. After doing some investigations, the health officials found that there were high levels of various types of bad bacteria in the iced tea served at several restaurants and they issued guidelines for safe brewing (you can read an article about it here).
However, there was no mention if the tea that was brought in was sun-brewed, if there was an issue with the water, if the containers for brewing the tea were being properly cleaned out between each batch, how long the tea was sitting and at what temperature, etc., etc. I even attempted to find data on how many people have gotten sick from sun tea, and actually came across one document from that time period that did state that there have been no documented illnesses, as well as a recent recipe for sun tea on the WebMD website that also touted the health benefits of tea. Hmmm… I’m making more sun tea.
So, is there any truth to the concerns? Yes, as with any food material, bacteria, both good and bad, can grow in your tea. There are things you should do to mitigate the risk, just like you would do when making anything else:
- Be sure that you are starting with a properly cleaned container, and if it has a spigot, be sure to flush hot soapy water through it to remove any potential critters.
- Make sure you are using a reliable water source. Most municipalities put chemicals in the water to treat it, but if yours isn’t treated you may want to either boil the water and then cool it, or use bottled water.
- Use quality tea from reputable sources. Homemade blends of tea bought at a farmer’s market may be better reserved for hot tea made with boiled water, just to be on the safe side.
- Be sure to pick a good hot day and place your container where it will be in bright sunlight the entire time so that you can brew your tea in as short a time period as possible (two to four hours maximum).
- Once your tea is brewed, immediately remove the tea bags without squeezing them and place your tea in the refrigerator, as cold temperatures slow the reproduction rate of microorganisms. Squeezing the bags may make your tea cloudy which will make it harder to tell if there has been any contamination since bacteria will make liquids cloudy, too.
- Teas that contain caffeine are less hospitable to bacterial growth, but bacteria will still grow on old tea and coffee.
- Do not add any sweetener of any kind to the water. Bacteria love sugar and it helps them grow. Add your desired sweetener directly to your glass when you’re ready to drink the tea.
- Use your tea within a few days. If you smell any off odors, detect any odd flavor, or if your tea becomes thick and “syrupy” or cloudy, dispose of it right away without drinking it.
- If you’re still not sure you’re comfortable with making this, then don’t. Simple as that.
- If you are comfortable, why the recipe is below! Enjoy!
Summer Brewed Sun Tea Recipe
Fill a clean jar large enough for the amount of sun tea you wish to make with cold water. Make sure to measure how much water you use as well as to leave space in the jar for the tea. If you are unsure if your water is treated for microorganisms, boil the water first then allow it to cool to the same temperature as cold tap water.
Place one bag of tea for every cup of water used and gently push them into the water with a clean spoon. I suggest using bagged tea in order to be able to completely remove all material that may harbor any bacteria later on, as well as the fact that they are fairly standardized in strength. Either herbal or caffeinated may be used, but make sure that there are no added sweeteners.
Place the jar in bright, hot sunlight. Allow it to remain for 2 to 4 hours, depending on the strength of tea desired and temperature of the day. The hotter the day, the less time you’ll likely need. Do not allow your tea to remain out for more than 4 hours.
Remove the tea bags and allow the liquid to drain from them without being squeezed. (Used tea bags make excellent compost, by the way, and can be put directly in the garden!) Place the jar in the refrigerator and chill. Now you’ll have cold tea that won’t melt your ice cubes right away!
If you’d like to add a little sweetness to your tea, add it to the glass each time you serve some, not to the jar. Remember bacteria love sugar, and the longer they have access to it, the faster they can reproduce. A really nice way to sweeten your tea is with a little Greek “spoon sweet”! Check out the Greek Sweets section where I have recipes for lemon, sour cherry, kumquat, along with rose syrup, not to mention some lovely treats to enjoy with your tea!