How to Make Proper Iced Tea (3 of 5) - Introducing Sweetness
In Part 3 of our How to Make Proper Iced Tea series we’re turning our attention to the question of sweetness. For many, just saying the words ‘iced tea’ immediately conjures up memories of sticky sweet, canned drinks with little or no real tea flavour at all. Indeed, the so-called ‘sweet tea’ is a southern staple in the US, where very strong, very sweet black tea is served with lemon and ice.
The good news is that when brewing at home, you can of course make delicious iced tea anywhere on the spectrum of sweet to ‘unsweet’ to suit your taste - you can take your hot or cold-brewed tea and simply serve it on ice or you may want to introduce sweetness at this point. It is worth noting, however, that while sugar has become a bad word over the last few years, sugar is there to carry and enhance flavour as much as it is to add sweetness, so when building drinks with multiple ingredients it does sometimes have an important role to play.
Why is iced tea usually so sweet?
Traditional iced tea recipes were heavy on sugar largely because we had a collective sweet tooth - we were used to sugar-laden soft drinks and therefore came to expect a certain level of sweetness in our drinks. It is only more recently that we have come to better understand the negative effects of consuming too much sugar and started to look for low or no sugar alternatives. On top of that sugar is both a preservative, making the tea last longer, as well as an important flavour enhancer, so when balanced with citrus in a drink it will add sweetness while also bringing out more of the flavours in the tea, such as fruity notes. It is worth noting that all of our recipes where sugar is used contain less than half the sugar compared to the leading iced tea brand, and around a fifth of the sugar found in a can of Coca-Cola.
How can I sweeten my iced tea?
When making iced tea at home, you have a few options for how to introduce sweetness to your drink. We use a variety of options in our recipes, from brown sugar to sugar syrup, honey to agave, depending on the rest of the ingredients and how we’ve brewed our tea. White sugar or sugar syrup are neutral in flavour, serving to simply sweeten or enhance the rest, while brown sugar lends a delicate caramel note alongside the sweet. Honey and agave tend to be sweeter than sugar, but bring out more floral notes, making them a good match for floral oolongs or fragrant black teas.
How you sweeten your tea will also depend on how you have brewed your tea. If you have hot-brewed your tea you can add sweetness while the tea is still warm, as sugar or honey will dissolve with a quick stir. However, if you’ve cold-brewed your tea or chilled your hot-brewed tea already, you might be best using a sugar syrup to your drink which not only stirs in easily when cold, but also gives you easy control over the level of sweetness in your final drink.
What is simple syrup?
Sugar syrup, also known as ‘simple syrup’ because it really is simple, is the go-to sweetener for cocktail barmen when making cocktails thanks to how easily it distributes sweetness into a cold drink. You simply dissolve equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan and heat until the sugar has dissolved - then set aside and cool. You can then store it in the fridge in a lidded jar or bottle for up to a month. Syrups are also an exciting way to get creative with flavour, as from there you can easily infuse fruit or herbal flavours into your syrups, or even make tea syrups!
What if I want something sugar-free?
You’ve seen how easy making iced tea of any leaf is, whether hot or cold brewed, so making something unsweetened is just as easy - you’ll simply hold back from adding any sugar or honey to the final drink. However, cold-brewing is without a doubt the best way to make a delicious, sugar-free iced tea. Thanks to the slower extraction, the infusion tends to enhance the most distinct flavours of the tea, such as the floral and fruity notes, as well as a natural sweetness, meaning there’s no need to add anything else. Your cold-brewed tea can then be enjoyed straight up, on ice, with a simple fruit or herb garnish.
How to make Simple Syrup
1. Add equal parts white sugar and cold water to a saucepan
2. Place over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid becomes clear.
3. Set aside to cool
4. Pour into a lidded jar or bottle and refrigerate.
Your syrup will keep for up to 1 month in the fridge, or can be frozen for later use.