How you feel about iced tea often depends on where you grew up and what you grew up with. Did you drink tea sweet enough to stand up on its own? Did your family brew Lipton? Luzianne? Is lemon essential or blasphemy in your glass of tea? And what about the ice?
Lifelong tea drinker Linton Hopkins says there’s nothing sadder than a glass of iced tea that just has a few lonely ice cubes. He calls it “sad face emoji iced tea” and reminds us that “iced” has more letters than “tea” and therefore ice should be the largest portion of the drink.
“Bad iced tea looks like end of the movie Titanic. Those few little ice cubes floating around in that big ocean. In my version of the Titanic everyone would survive because there’s so much ice. Don’t let Leonardo die. Use lots of ice!”
To prepare a glass of iced tea to his specifications, you fill the glass 95 percent full of ice, then pour room temperature tea over it. “The ice shrinks to about 75 percent of the glass. Then add a little squeeze of lemon and simple syrup if you want it sweet.”
And about that lemon, Hopkins has an opinion there as well. “I have one request to the world about lemons. Take the seeds out. Take the time. No one wants lemon that was precut last week and has been sitting in a plastic container. Cut it fresh every day and if you have lemon left over at the end of the day, make lemonade.”
To cut lemons in Hopkins-approved fashion, cut off the top and tail of the lemon, then cut the lemons into eight wedges. Cut out the center membrane, which makes it easy to remove the seeds. Done.
Ford Fry wants his iced tea super fresh and super cold. “And it should come with lemon automatically.” Fry grew up hanging out at his family’s ranch outside Houston where the mint ran wild. “When I was a kid, my grandmother made iced tea and she always used mint sprigs. That flavor really resonates for me. The most frustrating thing for me is when I am served ‘funky’ iced tea. That happens when the tea sits out at room temperature and the restaurant doesn’t clean out its iced tea urn.”
Fry has tried them all, and his favorite brand of tea is Luzianne. His restaurants use an iced tea brewer that takes all the guesswork out of making iced tea. The water temperature is precisely calibrated, and the amount of tea and water used is the same each time. “It’s foolproof as long as you keep the canister clean.”
Sweet tea is by far the most popular lunchtime beverage at all his restaurants. “Some of the restaurants have an urn for unsweet tea and an urn for sweet tea, but if they don’t, we just make unsweet tea and serve it with simple syrup so our guests can sweeten to their taste.”
As for that lemon, he, like Hopkins, wants wedges, not wheels. “Not those crosscut circles, sort of half-moon shapes. You have to grab four or five to get enough lemon and you’re squeezing it all over your fingers. I like my lemon cut into wedges, six or eight per lemon depending on the size, and that’s it. And it’s not necessarily about the juice. I want the oils from the peel. That adds the flavor without too much acid.”
Brandon Hughes of Bellina Alimentari in Ponce City Market grew up with Lipton. “Sweet tea has to be Lipton. I’ve tasted others, but it’s Lipton for me. I’ve recently opened up to cold brew iced tea. It’s convenient and it tastes good.”
Hughes remembers that his parents didn’t drink coffee. They reserved their coffee maker for making hot water for tea. “They’d put just enough hot water in a pitcher to dissolve the sugar, then fill it up with more water and add the tea bags. They’d let it sit for half an hour or 45 minutes. You can tell it’s right when you it’s that dark amber color. Then they’d cool it and refrigerate. It would be gone in a day and a half.”
His family recipe calls for a gallon of water, 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar and two family-style tea bags. That’s about double the amount of water called for on the Lipton package. “I don’t care for over-brewed, dark sweet teas. And I think the balance for sweet tea is 50 percent tea, 50 percent sugar water. And no lemon! I want tea or I want lemonade. Not a mix between the two.”
Eddie Johnson of the Publik Draft House grew up on Luzianne. At home in Marshallville, Georgia, his dad would make up batches of iced tea, four gallons at a time. “He’d add a half gallon of sugar to that tea and then two packets of Sweet’n Low. The effect of that Sweet’N Low is very subtle, and I can’t tell you why, but it gives the tea a little zing.”
At Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails, chef Derek Dollar says the big Sunday brunch crowd devours sweet tea by the gallon. “Sweet tea is a two-to-one favorite for the Sunday crowd. Especially with the kids.” An industrial tea machine makes the perfect brew.
Milton’s serves Blue Durango tea, which Dollar says is some of the best he’s ever had. But he grew up with Lipton and Luzianne. “In the fridge at home there was a gallon pitcher of sweet tea at all times. I drank a lot of sweet tea when I was younger.” When he drinks iced tea these days, he’s been known to add fruit. Not content with the standard lemon, he might add blueberries, peaches, raspberries or blackberries.
Matthew Rosekrans of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse is one more sweet tea fan. “I grew up in Atlanta, and whether it was at home or visiting my grandmother’s house on Bull Shoals Lake in Arkansas, the tea was so sweet it put a film on your teeth. If that didn’t happen, then we didn’t think it was sweet enough. There was always a pot brewing on the stove. Maybe two pots. And a half empty pitcher in the fridge.” The family’s iced tea was Lipton.
At Davio’s they use a bergamot blend from Fazenda for their iced tea. “We brew it fresh twice, sometimes three times a day.” A commercial tea brewer produces unsweet tea and they add simple syrup to sweeten it. They keep an urn of unsweet and an urn of sweet available at all times, along with their house-made fresh lemonade.
At home, an electric kettle makes brewing tea easy. “I use it to make green tea at home, but when my mother comes over, we make her iced tea by pouring hot water over a Lipton tea bag and sugar. She says it’s not sweet tea with extra ice and extra lemon.”
We love iced tea at all times of day. A pitcher in the refrigerator offers instant refreshment. You can even “brew” iced tea just putting a regular-size tea bag in your water bottle. Here we offer you our suggestions for how to brew the best iced tea, share the recipe for the iconic sweet tea from Mary Mac’s and give you a great sweet tea brine delicious with pork or chicken. Check out our digital photo gallery for iced tea offerings from some of Atlanta’s favorite restaurants. And try the Georgia grown and blended teas in our Stock Up column.
To make the best iced tea
Requirement number one: Use fresh tea.
Open a fresh box or tin of tea. It should smell delicious. If your tea bags have been hanging around since last summer, it’s time to invest in fresh tea. The cost is small and the rewards are big.
Requirement number two: Pick your favorite tea.
We tried Luzianne’s, Lipton’s and Blue Durango’s blends for iced tea. Luzianne and Lipton are grocery store teas, and tasted very similar. And very good. They’re both a mix of orange pekoe and pekoe-cut black tea. We brewed a batch of each using their family-size tea bags (one family-size bag equals four regular bags).
Blue Durango is a restaurant-quality tea from Atlanta Coffee Supply Group. It’s served at dozens of places including The General Muir, H & F Burger and Hop’s Chicken. The retail version comes in half-ounce sachets, and while the package doesn’t list the ingredients, the tea smells a little darker and richer than Lipton and Luzianne.
Requirement number three: Make sure your boiling set-up and tea containers are clean.
Make sure everything you’re using to brew the tea is sparkling clean. One of the reasons restaurateurs like Linton Hopkins and Todd Ginsberg like Blue Durango is that it comes with the expertise of Atlanta Coffee Supply Group founder Jonathan Silver. Both appreciate that the company is Atlanta-based and that means Silver is on hand to provide great customer service including training programs for restaurant staff on how to make the best iced tea. Hopkins says, “Jonathan has been a good ally, helping build our first tea and coffee program when we were newbie restaurateurs opening Restaurant Eugene. The tea is consistently good, and it’s important to me to have that handshake and eye contact with the people we buy from.” He credits Silver with helping affirm a commitment to the cleanliness of everything used in the brewing process.
Requirement number three: Boil water. (Unless you’re making cold brew tea, see below.)
Follow the directions on your box of tea. Bring the right amount of water to a boil – yes, all the way to 212 degrees — then pour it over the tea bags. Do not add tea bags to a pot of water and then bring the water to a boil. You’re not trying to make boiled tea. You want the hot water to gently coax the flavor out of the tea. Blue Durango’s directions include the step of bringing the water to a boil and then letting it cool just enough to stop “rumbling” before pouring it over the tea.
Requirement number four: Follow the steeping and mixing directions that come with your tea.
Tea companies spent lots of time making sure you get the best tea from their products. Both Luzianne and Lipton suggest steeping the tea for three to five minutes. Blue Durango tea steeps for 6 minutes. Once steeped, you discard the tea bag or sachet. For some teas, you’ll add water or even ice at this point. If you’re going to sweeten your tea, now’s the time to add whatever you’re planning to use. Or keep it unsweet and let everyone add simple syrup to taste.
Requirement number five: Refrigerate your tea.
Tea is an extract from a plant and left at room temperature for too long, it’s going to spoil. Restaurants serve a lot of tea and most discard their brewed room-temperature tea after two hours or four hours. Unless you’re going to serve your tea within a few hours, cool it and then refrigerate it. It should keep for up to 4 days.
Cold-brew tea and sun tea:
Sun tea’s been around forever. A big jar of water with a few tea bags thrown in, maybe some mint, all sitting out on the porch for a few hours or even overnight – it was a part of many childhoods. But now cold-brew tea is a thing, and tea companies are coming out with special blends just for cold brewing. We tried Luzianne Cold Brew. It’s got the same orange pekoe and pekoe-cut black tea as the hot brew but adds tea extract and natural flavor. We found it made a richer tea and quite frankly, it was nice not to have to boil water. The tea steeps for the same amount of time as hot water-brewed tea.
Do you need an electric kettle?
Deciding to give up counter or cabinet space to yet another appliance is not a decision you make lightly. The question: Will this new item make my life easier?
While making up batches of brewed tea for this story, I decided to try an electric tea kettle. I experimented with a stainless steel KRUPS SAVOY BW314 electric kettle. It’s cord-free, which means the base plugs in but the kettle itself doesn’t have a cord so you can heat the water and then move the kettle to wherever you want to use it. The base has a digital display so you can set the temperature (need 110-degree water for proofing yeast?), select the “boil” option (for brewing that tea) or get the water to the temperature you want and then select the “keep warm” option.
The kettle holds just over 7 cups of water and there’s a viewing window near the handle that tells you how much water is in the kettle. Touch the button at the top of the kettle and it pops open for easy filling. The kettle shuts off automatically when the water boils, or when the kettle is empty. No more tea kettles boiling dry.
But the best news was how quickly it heated water to boiling. I put four cups of water in the electric kettle and it came to a boil in 4 minutes, 15 seconds. Four cups of water in a tea kettle on a gas stove’s highest heat took 7 minutes, 51 seconds to come to a boil.
For brewing tea, reconstituting sun-dried tomatoes or couscous, or presoaking dried fruit, the electric kettle is my new appliance of choice. $59 or $59.50 at http://walmart.com and http://amazon.com.