We drink a lot of iced tea in the South, especially when it starts getting toasty. And when it’s hotter than a hootenanny, we look for any excuse to stay far away from the hot stove. Anyway, why would you want to fire up the flame when you can harness all that heat pouring from the sun? It’s my theory that this reasoning bore the tradition of brewing tea in the sun rather than on the stove. I don’t have any solid evidence to substantiate that theory, but I know that would be my logic.
How to make sun tea
I adore sun tea. It’s energy efficiency in action, requires very little human effort, and has a distinctly different and more delicate flavor than that made with boiling water. I’d make a big jug of it almost every day when I was in Mexico, and as it’s begun to heat back up here at home, I’m starting to get back in the habit.
Making sun tea is very simple. You fill a big glass jug or pitcher with good, clean water (Glass only, please! More on that later this week), throw in four to six of your favorite tea bags (or filled tea balls), cover it up, and set it out in the sun to steep. Depending on your location, you might have to move the jug a couple of times to keep it on the sun’s path as it follows its course; other than that, there’s really no monitoring or further work required. You can steep your tea for anywhere from a couple of hours to most of the day.
The proof is in the pitcher
The first time I made sun tea, I was fascinated at just how different it tasted. Many describe it as “weaker” than boiled-water tea, which I suppose it is, but I don’t like that way of putting it. There’s a detectible quality to sun-brewed tea—a freshness, a vibrancy, a sense of purity. I once made a sun-brewed batch of Jamaica, an agua fresca made from hibiscus flowers, and my Mexican-native friend who’d grown up on it couldn’t believe that’s what it was. He dreamily gazed at the glass as if there were enchanting, sparkly fairies dancing around inside of it. “THIS is Jamaica?” he asked in disbelief, and then went on to kill the entire pitcher.
You can steep green tea in the sun all day and it will never get bitter. Fruit and floral notes come out full-force. The flavors aren’t as intense as when it’s made with hot water, but it’s almost as if you can taste them better. It seems counterintuitive, but I’ve found that the softness of a sun-brewed tea allows you to pull apart and absorb the flavors more easily than a strong, powerful hot water tea.
On the “woo woo” side of things, many spiritually-inclined folk would assert that brewing tea in the sun infuses it with life-giving solar energy (energy in the metaphysical sense, not the tangible sense). Those who practice sun-gazing say that getting your energy directly from the sun rather than from plants or animals that ingest that energy second- or third-hand gives you more of it, and in a more potent dose.
All I know is, sun tea tastes incredibly refreshing on a hot day, and it makes me feel like I’m bursting with life force and creativity every time I drink it. Needless to say, I am a steadfast advocate and fan.
Sun tea safety
So imagine my dismay when, while researching this post, I found lots and lots of literature warning of its dangers. Most point back to a Snopes.com article, which cites warnings from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about a bacteria called Alcaligenes viscolactis, which has been found in sun-brewed tea. The CDC’s website yields no data or further information on sun tea or Alcaligenes viscolactis, though.
This bacteria is said to be commonly found in water, and since sun tea never reaches the temperature at which it is destroyed, it too has been found to contain it. The CDC also warns of other “nasties” that could be lurking on the tea itself and similarly go unchecked by the lower heat of sun-brewed tea.
If you’re worried about getting sick from sun-brewed tea, my best advice is to use clean water (distilled is best, as water filters can be limited in their effectiveness) and a trusted, organic (and preferably local) source for your tea leaves. Buy tea as fresh as you can, or dry it yourself. The stuff you get at stores, no matter how beautifully labeled or wonderfully marketed or natural or organic or gypsy-dried under the full moon, has likely been sitting around in warehouses and on shelves for way longer than you’d like.
One of the points of advice that Snopes offers (whether backed by the CDC or not is unclear) is to dip your tea jug in a bleach solution before brewing. They also caution to only brew for three to four hours, and to only make as much as you’ll consume in a day.
I’m not personally a fan of using bleach with my cookware, but I do scrub really thoroughly. I’ve been brewing very large, all-day batches of sun tea for years and I’ve never gotten sick, nor had any kind of mold or ropes of bacteria show up in my tea. So, use this information in whatever way feels best for you.
Some good points of advice they offer: If you’re using a jug with a spigot (like the one pictured), be sure to take it apart and wash it really well after each use. Put and keep your tea in the refrigerator immediately after brewing. And, if you see syrupy looking strands or anything unsightly in your tea, throw it out right away.
Otherwise, I say fill ‘er up, get out in the sun, and let it transform the way you taste your tea.