One of my favorite parts of summer is being able to entertain outdoors. I love inviting over friends and family to enjoy an afternoon of good food and fresh air. And no summer dinner party is complete without a sparkling decanter of iced tea. This past weekend, I brewed a gallon of Passion Fruit tea in the morning for a small dinner later that day. But alas, as I retrieved the tea from the refrigerator it had transformed from a lovely clear maple liquid into an opaque one. Maybe it’s because I’m a photographer that little visual details bother me more than the average person, but my heart breaks a little when I brew a beautiful tea, only for it to turn cloudy in my decorative decanter. So where do these pesky clouds come from? Was the decanter dirty? Was it the type of tea? Did I brew it wrong?
All true tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant, whether it’s a first flush white tea or an aged brick of pu-erh. As the young tea leaves grow they naturally produce chemicals to protect themselves from insects and the environment. This includes caffeine and a group of antioxidants called polyphenols. Different types of tea contain differing amounts of these antioxidants. For example, a dark brisk black tea such as Assam will usually produce more polyphenols than a Chinese Keemun tea. Normally, all the caffeine and polyphenols stay dissolved in the brewed tea resulting in a clear liquid. However, certain situations can cause these chemicals to separate out resulting in cloudy tea.
The key is to cool the tea slowly. Our instinct might be to brew a piping hot pot of tea and rush it to the refrigerator to cool, but this shocks the tea and makes it cloudy. Hot liquids have more space between their bouncing molecules and can therefore “fit” more molecules between them, allowing them to dissolve. In the case of brewing tea, we have the polyphenols dissolving into the spaces between bouncing water molecules. As the tea cools, these bouncing water molecules slow down and settle closer together, leaving less space for the polyphenols. When this happens, the polyphenols become solid and will eventually fall to the bottom of the container as a sediment, which appears cloudy when stirred up. Sometimes, when the water molecules cool too quickly, the polyphenols don’t have time to situate themselves in the ever shrinking gaps between the water molecules. In this case, even more polyphenols cloud up the tea than would be seen in a gently cooled tea. Think of this as trying to carry a full tea cup across a room; if you rush, the tea will spill over the edge of the tea cup, but if you walk slowly and carefully, you may not spill the tea at all. Instead of startling your tea into cloudiness, allow it to gently cool to room temperature before refrigerating.
In some cases, a cloudy batch of tea can be rescued by stirring in some hot water and allowing it to cool again. However, if all this careful chilling has you worried, there is a sure fire way to avoid cloudy tea. At our store in Pike Place Market, we use a cold-infusion method to brew our iced tea. The tea is steeped in cold water overnight and poured over ice the following morning.
Foolproof Cloudless Tea
2-quart sized container (do not use plastic with the cinnamon-orange tea!)
2-quarts of filtered water
1 jumbo-sized iced tea bag (or 8 regular tea bags or ¾ oz of dry loose tea)
Place the tea in the container and fill with water. Refrigerate the tea and allow it to steep for at least 8 hours. Remove the teabags or strain out the loose tea. Serve with ice. The tea will have the best flavor for the first day after brewing, but it can be stored for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.
Making the perfect batch of iced tea can be frustrating, but with a little practice and planning it is possible! Don’t let a few “clouds” ruin your summer fun.