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Home > Information Index > Iced Tea: The Cold Water Method

A Customer Shares His Cold-Water Iced Tea Method

The Cold Water Method

You hear a lot of advice about making hot tea, and you have to follow it carefully to get the full flavor, especially of the expensive Darjeelings. But there is another way, which doesn't depend on a rolling boil and a heated teapot. All it needs is time. It is the cold-water method. I have been using it for years, and I should have written it down long before now, but you will find there may be a reason you can't publish it.

The Method:
For black tea, one rounded tablespoon of leaf in a quart of cold tap water. (That's four level teaspoons, or one teaspoon per 8-ounce cup — the same ratio I use for hot tea.) Put the mix into the refrigerator. Leave it there for four days. Strain and drink.

This is so simple that people don't believe it — especially those experienced with tea.

Four days?
This is the minimum for a first-rate black tea. You will not get the full flavor before that. The flavor will get stronger only slowly after four days, and will be drinkable up to about seven. After that, it turns cloudy and tastes gamy. Throw it out.

The important thing here is that you cannot substitute for the time. Do not try to use four times as much tea and steep for only one day.

Black tea?
Four days is the requirement for black tea only. Greener teas need less time.

The black teas that work best are Darjeeling, Indian, and Ceylon. Assam and Chinese black teas I prefer to make hot.

Can I use ordinary tea? Tea bags, say?
Yes, but the results will be dull. If you want the standard kind of "iced tea", use standard tea and make it the usual way, using boiling water and ice and lots of lemon and sugar.

This cold-water method only gives interesting results if you use interesting tea. If you've spent the money on good tea, this method is worth a try, especially in summer. I should warn you, though: this really is a method only for those devoted to good tea, for the results do not taste like ordinary iced tea. (That's the point.) The flavor is so devoid of a "cooked" flavor that the result is less like ordinary tea than a good Darjeeling made hot is.

Incidentally, do not serve a good Darjeeling made by the cold-water method to people you don't know well. They'll look at you funny. Fortunately, it's easier to find new friends than good Darjeelings.

Should I add ice? What about lemon and sugar?
That's up to you. I think they hide the flavor. I don't add things to tea whose quality justifies using this method. (But then, I don't add milk or lemon or sugar to hot tea, either.)

What about oolongs?
I don't care for the darker oolongs made cold, but the light green oolongs or pouchongs can be very good this way. Steep for less time: light green oolongs may be done in one day; slightly darker ones may take two.

Use the same quantity of tea as for black tea: a rounded tablespoon of leaf per quart of water. This isn't very helpful advice for the oolongs with large twisted leaves; you'll have to approximate.

The surprise in preparing light green oolongs this way is that you do get their perfume, which you might expect would require hot water. But you may want to let the tea warm up to room temperature. (Let it warm up by itself, please; don't heat it).

What about greens?
Chinese greens I don't much like, either hot or cold. But Japanese greens are a surprise, especially Gyokuro. Part of the surprise is the amount of tea to use: one scant tablespoon per quart of water—considerably less than for black tea. The timing is short: no more than one day, or you get battery acid. I have found Gyokuro to be drinkable after only four hours. There is a special advantage here: you can't miss on the temperature of the water, as is all too easy when making this tea hot. The disadvantage is that the tea is such a gorgeous light green that you may be reluctant to drink it.

Any other kinds of tea?
Flavored teas work very well. Again, a rounded tablespoon per quart. I like mixtures — for example, lemon tea plus a teaspoon of chamomile flowers. Or mango tea with five smashed white pods of cardamom (not ground to powder, just good and smashed). Leave in the refrigerator for two or three days, then strain the liquor and add a few drops of vanilla and a little sweetener to take the raw edge off the taste.

What about tisanes?
Some tisanes work really well, the best being spearmint. Use the same amount of leaf as for black tea — a rounded tablespoon per quart of water—and let it sit in the refrigerator for two days for full flavor. One really nice thing about spearmint is that you don't need to add anything—no sugar, no flavorings, nothing. (It will show you, by the way, how silly most expensive "refreshing non-tea" blends are. Spearmint by itself is plenty.)

Another tisane that works well is lemon grass. Another is Rote Grütze, which tastes (and looks) like the “bug juice” you used to get at summer camp—but you don't need to add sugar. (Rote Grütze needs only one day in the refrigerator.)

There are probably a lot of other tisanes that work well this way — it's up to you. Two days is the standard time for all of them, but, of course, you can sample them after only one day. You might even try kitchen herbs like sweet basil. Even if you don't care for them as a drink, you might consider this method for judging brands of herbs.

Just an ordinary jar?
Use glass. No metal. Don't use a tea ball — let the tea float free in the water. Mason jars are cheap — but don't let the tea touch the rubber seal in those lids, or it'll get really bitter. Use waxed paper, or something.

You absolutely must not use plastic jars — you will not get the full flavor. If this sounds fussy, try an experiment: make iced tea by any method, using a black (unflavored) tea whose flavor you know well. Put half of the iced tea in a glass jar and half into a plastic jar — use the soft, translucent plastic. After four hours, try both teas. I think you will find that the stuff in the plastic jar has no flavor at all — at least, that's been my experience. I don't know why this happens. I once asked a chemist about this, and she agreed that it was certainly possible, but when I asked her to explain it, she lost me when she started using words like "hydrophilic".

Shouldn't I put the tea in the sun?
No. Put it in the refrigerator.

Shouldn't I use hot water?
No. You will get an awful “cooked” taste. Use cold tap water.

Shouldn't I use bottled water?
That's up to you. I can't tell the difference. I'm used to Boston water, which I can't taste — and I can taste the water when I travel elsewhere.

Should I stir the tea while it's in the refrigerator? or shake it?
Only if you want the exercise.

Should I heat up the tea when I take it out of the refrigerator?
No. I find that any attempt to reheat tea is a disaster. But there's an exception here, sort of: if you let the tea warm up to room temperature, you may notice more of the perfume of an expensive tea than you tasted when it first came out of the refrigerator and was still very cold.

How do you know you're getting the full flavor? Look at how fussy some teas are to make hot!
Look: I know this all sounds nuts, and I've seen the expression you've got on your face. Experienced tea people are reluctant to believe something so simple will work. But I've been using it for years, and, for the teas that I make both ways, I have never had a tea that gave flavor hot that was not attainable cold. (Yes, there may be teas I don't like cold that the method wouldn't work for.) Pick a couple of your best teas and try the method.

Well, all right, in a sense I'm not getting the "full" flavor, because I'm not getting the cooked flavor of cheap tea that I'm trying to get beyond by using good Darjeelings. The cold-water method produces tea that is crystal clear—unlike iced tea made from hot tea, which clouds as it cools. Any flavor in those clouds, I don't get. (I doubt there is any, except tannin.) What I get is the part of the flavor that makes good tea interesting. And I really do get that flavor: the surprise is that the volatile “perfumy” elements in an expensive Darjeeling or light oolong will instill into the water even at the low temperature, if you allow enough time. But you may not taste them at first, because the tea is so cold. Let it come up to room temperature, and try it again. But don't heat it. (Part of the special quality of tea made cold is that it is drinkable at room temperature. It doesn't have that coagulated taste that tea made hot has when it has cooled.)

Another advantage to the cold-water method is that it is very difficult to make the tea too strong — it is, in fact, impossible, once you have found out how strong the leaf is to begin with. (Darjeelings are highly variable, and you must adjust the amount of leaf you use.)

Hey, wait a minute! You're dumping tea leaves you don't know anything about into cold water and letting it sit for days [in the refrigerator]!

How do you know this is safe?

How do you know you're not going to get some awful bug that boiling water would kill?
Alas! I don't know. All I can say is this: I have been using this method for decades and have never gotten any condition I could even remotely blame on the tea. (No smart remarks, please.)

As far as growing things is concerned: yes, it will happen — but only if you leave the jar in the refrigerator longer than a week. And you can tell that something's growing, first, because the tea gets cloudy; and second, because it begins to taste gamy. In this respect, it's like anything else left in the refrigerator.

To sum up: the cold-water method has worked for me for years with no problems. But in view of the theoretical possibility of trouble, I don't think I could recommend it if I were in the tea business and subject to lawsuit. But that shouldn't stop you from using it yourself.

— Darius McGregor,
     August 2006

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