Cold brew vs. iced tea

For centuries, humankind has waxed poetic about the joys of summer. Long days stretching into short nights, still air punctuated with laughter, skin tingling from the sun’s touch. Yet, even those who are enamored of summer enjoy respite from the heat and humidity. Luckily, cold brewed tea and iced tea make for the perfect source of refreshment. Even though both iced tea and cold-brewed tea are cold preparations, the two categories aren’t interchangeable. In fact, certain teas lend themselves to one brewing style or the other. Here’s what you need to know.

In simple terms, cold brews and iced teas differ primarily in the infusion temperature of the water during brewing. Cold brew, as the name implies, refers to the process of brewing tea using cold water. This process originated in Japan, when tea drinkers found themselves in need of a cooling drink during summer heat waves. They would soak tea leaves in the cold water from the river for hours on end, allowing for a delightfully unhurried infusion. The Japanese also engineered another style of cold brewing known as kooridashi, a method where brewing is done using only the finest tea leaves and ice.

Whichever cold brew preparation you choose, there are certain consistencies across both. Cold brewing tea affects the rate at which certain chemical compounds are released into the water, the three most notable compounds being caffeine, antioxidants, and L-theanine. Energizing caffeine and nutrient-rich antioxidants give tea its astringency, and both of these compounds diffuse more slowly in colder water. The inverse is true of L-theanine, meaning the amino acid responsible for tea’s sweetness is produced in greater quantity. The combined effect is a brew that’s smoother, milder, and has a deliciously mellow mouthfeel.

Cold brewing works for most teas, but best practices for brewing vary slightly across the tea families. Herbal teas need to be given a “hot flash” prior to cold brewing — a brief step in which the tea leaves are covered in hot water quickly to sanitize them before cold water is added atop. From there, opt for either room temperature extraction or refrigerated extraction. 15-20 minutes is ample time for room temperature extraction, but if refrigerating teas we recommend the following infusion times:

Japanese teas: ­ 2 ­- 4 hours
Other greens: ­ 4 - ­6 hours
Oolongs ­ 3­ - 4 hours
Black teas ­ 6­ - 8 hours
White tea ­ 6 - ­8 hours
Herbals (after hot flash) ­ 6 ­hours

In contrast, iced tea invariably uses hot water at some point during extraction. As such, iced tea preparation is much quicker than that of cold brewing. A phenomenon unto itself, a stunning 80% of tea consumed in the US is iced tea. This brisk drink allegedly originated in 1904 during the World’s Fair. When tea merchant Richard Blechynden saw that drinking hot tea in the sweltering heat was of no interest to the guests, he added ice to his tea and served it as a cold drink instead. Since then, iced tea has become a southern staple, commonly consumed as a sweetened version.

Sometimes referred to as just a “flash brew”, iced tea has become so prevalent that its style of preparation is often used to make other drinks as well. First brew the tea in hot water per the instructions on the package, using only half of the water required. While the tea is brewing, weigh out ice cubes into a serving pitcher. The weight should equal the remaining 1/2 portion of water omitted in the brewing. Then pour the hot tea over the ice and serve. Iced tea is best served fresh, just as the ice cubes begin floating to the surface. This will help preserve the vibrant quality of each sip.

Since making iced tea calls for hot water during brewing, the tea leaves’ characteristic flavor profiles remain intact. The aromatic complexity, depth of flavor, and energy derived from each sip remain unchanged thanks to the normal caffeine, antioxidant, and L-theanine levels extracted during infusion. Your classic cup of tea, now with a delightfully cool finish.

There’s no wrong way to enjoy your tea, but these guidelines will help you have the optimal experience. Enjoy!

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