How to Brew Sweet Tea

Illustration by Chris Lyons

It seems simple enough—make tea, add sugar—but brewing a high-class glass of Southern champagne is “all about time, temperature, and quality,” according to Clayton Christopher, the founder of Austin-based Sweet Leaf Tea Company. He should know: In just over ten years, he’s gone from making batches of the stuff at home in 25-gallon crawfish pots to landing a $15.6 million investment by Nestlé Waters. All iced-tea recipes start with two core elements—tea and water—but the secret to making true ambrosia lies in the fine-tuning. Christopher says to replace ordinary tea bags, which are generally filled with low-grade tea dust, with a high-quality loose leaf, such as Rishi. Also, avoid straight tap water. The carbon-filtered variety produces better flavor, as the leaves can react to tap water additives, like chlorine. Christopher shares his grandmother’s recipe for a refreshing pitcher.

Materials:

1 ounce loose tea leaves
ice
1 1/8 cup granulated sugar (preferably organic)
1-gallon pitcher
wire mesh sieve
lemon slices for garnish

Steep

• In a large pot, bring half a gallon of filtered water to a boil. Once bubbling, remove from heat, dump in the tea leaves, and agitate the water for 30 seconds. Steep for exactly 4 1/2 minutes—any longer and the leaves will release bitter tannins.

Sweeten

• Meanwhile, fill the pitcher with ice cubes (ice halts the steeping process and will help lock in the robust flavor). Pour sugar over cubes. Place the sieve over the pitcher’s opening.

Serve

• Pour the brewed tea through the sieve. The hot liquid will melt the ice and begin to dissolve the sugar. Discard the leaves and stir until all the sugar is incorporated. (Don’t be alarmed if the brew gets cloudy, as this will sometimes happen with high-quality teas.) Refrigerate until cool. Serve in a tall glass filled with ice. Garnish with a slice of lemon.

Variations

• During steeping, add a thin slice of orange—with the rind—and a cinnamon stick. Remove when straining the tea.

• Add a few mint sprigs to the ice and sugar setup. Removal is optional.

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