According to a story I heard on NPR years ago, North Carolina consumes more tea per capita than any other place on the planet, including the British Isles. And almost all of that tea is served iced, and most is sweetened. Coming from the Old North State, I consume my fair share (a couple gallons a week in the summer, around a gallon a week in the winter). But I only drink unsweetened tea. This is my story.
Ice tea was first introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. It was an instant hit. With the advent of Rural Electrification and refrigerators, the drink swept the south. As soon as kids are weaned from their moms, they’re served ice tea. It’s a ritual and it was no different in my family. We always served sweet ice tea at meals and there was a glass waiting when you came in all hot from playing outdoors in 98% humidity. About the time I started high school, my mother decided to go on a diet and started using this new-fangled artificial sweetener called saccharine. You’d add just a handful of pills to a gallon picture of tea and it was suppose to be sweetened. Luckily for me, as saccharine has turned out to be bad for you, I couldn’t stand the stuff. So I started drinking my tea unsweetened. And it didn’t take long before I was hooked. And now everyone my family, except for my brother who tries hard to make people believe he’s a redneck, drinks unsweetened tea. In my not so humbled opinion, nothing is more refreshing than chucking down slightly bitter ice tea without sugar, real or artificial.
In honor of George Orwell, who wrote more than one cares to know about how to make a good cup of hot tea, I will now share my secrets of preparing the perfect pitcher and glass of unsweetened ice tea. Orwell had 11 pointers; I’ve cut them almost in half.
1. Start with good clean water. Use a filter to get the chlorine and other junk out.
2. Bring a quart of water to boil and then take it off the stove and add the tea. Forget the idea of sun tea. It’s often too weak and besides, the hot water might kill some of the germs transmitted to the tea by the picker’s hands.
3. Use name brand tea. I use Lipton because that’s what my mother uses and besides, as a kid, I was in love with Peggy Lipton of the Mod Squad. Tetley and Luzianne Teas also produce a nice slightly bitter glass of ice tea. Stay away from store brands!
4. Leaf tea is probably better than tea that’s imprisoned in bags, but since bags are so ubiquitous these days, and easy to use, I use ‘em and just let the tea steep longer. Use 4 cup sized bags per half gallon of tea and let it steep for approximately 10 minutes. I'm sure Orwell is spinning in his grave at the thought of tea bags, but then again I can't imagine putting cream in my tea!
5. After steeping, place some water in a tea pitcher (this is especially important if it is a glass pitcher for the hot tea can break it). Add the steep tea and then addition water to the ½ gallon mark. Some people add ice here, but I save the ice for the glass.
6. Use only tall, large capacity glasses (glass glasses are the best, but if I’m heading out the door, I’ll use plastic. By the way, stemmed glasses are for wine and waste space. You need volume for ice tea, especially on a hot afternoon. Fill the glasses first with ice, then with tea, and then garnish with a lemon wedge. The glass should be cold to the hand, toss back your head and start chugging. Its cool, it’s refreshing, it’s cheap, and there are no calories.