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Talking Iced Tea - Part 1

(post, Sarah Price)

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In sweltering Tucson, where the Maya clan has planted their stakes, we are feeling every excruciating second of summer. The average high temperature during the past week was a staggering 106°, and amidst sweaty brows and steaming asphalt we don’t even want to talk about hot tea anymore.

And so Manish doesn’t—in episode four of “Steeping Around,” he turns his attention to iced tea, introducing the first of a frosty four part series. We’re keeping the temperatures a little cooler over the next few episodes, examining every aspect of iced tea: its history, varieties, brewing, serving, and spicing.

“The history of iced tea is actually relatively short,” Manish begins. “Hot tea has been around for several thousand years; the Chinese have been making hot tea for a very, very long time.  But the popularity of iced tea really mirrors the availability of, well, ice.” The first notable mention of iced tea comes from cookbooks published in the mid 1800’s. Many recipes, called “Tea Punch,” featured chilled green tea amongst a few splashes of liquor. These cocktails likely packed the punch that they promised, and grew increasingly popular during and shortly following the time of US prohibition.

While housewives were chilling tea for nearly a century prior, the invention of iced tea is often mistakenly accredited to a man named Richard Blechynden who served it to the masses at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. According to the story, Blechynden’s free samples of hot Indian tea were a massive failure, as St. Louis was experiencing a summer much like the one that now plagues Tucson. In a fleeting attempt to reach the passersby of his booth, he tried something new: he ran the hot tea through frozen metal pipes, thus chilling it. By day’s end, he had served his final lingering samples of tea to a very cool and content crowd. “That golden brew was very much appreciated… and that’s the moment at which we notice iced tea’s popularity really take off.”

It’s popularity has continued to grow exponentially, particularly since the introduction of refrigerators to the average household. Today, over 85% of tea consumed within the US is iced. This includes bottled and packaged iced teas, available in most grocery and convenience stores. The large variety of shelf-ready teas vary greatly in quality and taste, and Manish offers his suggestions for those listeners looking for a more authentic product: most bottled teas use poor quality leaves and are very highly sugared, but two brands, HonestTea and ItoEn, are worth a second look. Brands such as these, which offer little or no sweetening and specify the variety of tea leaf used, like darjeelings or senchas, offer great promise.

In addition to the bottled and powdered iced teas, much of the tea consumed in this country is sipped at restaurants and is often a simple, unsweetened variety of iced tea. Certain regions however stand firm in their variations; in the South, for instance, you would be hard pressed to find a glass of iced tea that hadn’t been heavily sweetened. Southerners so love their “sweet tea” that on April Fool’s Day in 2003, the Georgia state legislature passed a tongue-in-cheek bill that made it a misdemeanor to fail to offer sweet tea in any restaurant.  Other variations on iced tea have begun to dot the surface of consumption as well, as coffeehouses are beginning to stretch into new markets and develop specialty menu offerings. It is not uncommon to find delicate varieties of jasmine teas, oolongs, and fine grade green teas adorning the average hanging chalkboard. “This is a trend that I hope will continue,” Manish muses.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t depend on coffeehouses, restaurants, or bottling plants to give us the chilly strength needed to drift through our summer days. Next week, Manish will unveil the tricks of making an exceptional cup of iced tea from home. Avoid the furnace of your car, the blistering walk across a parking lot, and the dizzying line in front of the hot coffee counter—rejuvenation awaits you, in your refrigerator.

Until then, stay cool! To listen to this week’s episode, click here.