Sun Tea – How To Make It

Sun Tea

Sun Tea – How To Make It

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Course: DrinksCuisine: American




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How to make a classic sun tea


  • 2 Gallons 2 Water

  • 20 Regular 20 Black Tea Bags


  • Add water to a large clear drink container
  • Tie the tea bags together and place them in the water in a way that they will be easy to remove later
  • Place the container in direct sunlight and let it rest for 3 hours
  • Remove the tea bags and place the drink container in the refrigerator. Serve cold.

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What Is Sun Tea?

Anyone who grew up poor knows sun tea is a cheap way to make a ton of tea for the kids without heating a ton of water. The kids are running around in the backyard, all sweaty and gross and covered in dirt, and you show up as the hero with refreshing tea, and they grow up with happy memories. That’s what sun tea is. My mom made this for me and my siblings when we were younger, and now I make it for my kids.

How Many Bags To Make 1 Gallon Of Sun Tea?

Most folks use about 10 to 12 normal-sized bags for 1 gallon, depending on how strong you like the tea to taste. You could do as little as 8 bags per gallon, but don’t do less than that.

Sun Tea Dangers

To preface, I am not a food scientist. These are just my opinions. Consult a doctor before putting anything in your body. So apparently, sun tea is dangerous now. I’ve been drinking this my whole life, and neither I nor anyone I know has become sick from it. But that’s just anecdotal evidence. If you do a Google search for sun tea now, the top-ranking articles and suggestions are all about how sun tea is dangerous and should never be consumed. This fear stems from a 1996 article by the CDC called “Memo on Bacterial Contamination of Iced Tea.” The article argues that since sun tea is not heated above 165°F (74°C) and left in the sun for a few hours, dangerous germs could grow and should not be consumed after 8 hours of brewing. It doesn’t mention anyone explicitly getting sick, but that someone could.

I believe the article’s logic is if a raw pork chop at room temperature was left in the sun for 3 hours, brought inside, and left on the counter for a few hours; It too would be dangerous to eat. Both are food items, so sun tea must also be dangerous to consume because of germ growth. To be fair you can get sick from drinking old sun tea the same way you can get sick from drinking stale water. Cups are not fully germ free, so even a cup of plain water left out for too long will get cloudy eventually and go bad. But, in my opinion, I feel heating tea to the same temperature of cooked food is a poor analogical argument because the recommended cooking temperatures for food don’t really apply to tea, and killing germs is a result of both time and temperature. Here are my issues with the logic.

  1. 165°F (74°C) is the recommended temperature to kill most germs instantly. This is applied to cooking meat since it may only be cooked for a few minutes, but germs die at much lower temperatures over a longer period. This is the principle of pasteurization. Long and low. I’ve pasteurized, and 135°F (57°C) over 75 minutes will basically kill everything too. I once left a sun tea out on a 95°F day and measured the temperature after 3 hours, and it was 145°F. According to pasteurizing requirements, it’s good to go.
  2. UV light is used as an antimicrobial in water purification. When ultraviolet photons enter a cell, the energy in them will permanently damage the DNA and kill almost all germs and viruses. Many high-end water purifiers will have a UV chamber that disinfects the water in less than 10 seconds. I believe most of those systems are UVC, but the UVA and UVB emitted by the sun will still fry a germ. It’s why we get sunburns. With 3% of the energy from the sun being UVA and UVB, it has to have some disinfecting ability within the sun tea. If I was left out in the sun for 3 hours in a 145°F bath of water, I think I would die too.
  3. Most U.S. water systems use chlorine or some other disinfectant treatment to purify water. You can smell it when you pour a glass of water from the tap. The water is still chlorinated when it comes out of the tap, so the “dirty” tea leaves get a very light disinfecting wash when they first enter the pitcher full of water.
  4. None of these concerns seems to be related to real-world infections or illnesses. The CDC article was all hypothetical and implied that it could happen, not that it ever has. And no other source can point to an actual example of someone getting sick from sun tea. Countless people get sick, and some die, from poor food handling all the time, but none of these articles about the dangers of sun tea could point to one instance of it actually happening.

To be fair If it’s been sitting in your refrigerator for a week, it may be time to toss it, but I think the best thing to do is treat sun tea like we treat syrups. Germ growth is exponential but it takes time. So it takes a little time to start going bad, but once it starts to go bad it goes really bad fast. Once you see any cloudiness, toss it. Use common sense. I make many syrups, which are the perfect environment for cultivating germs. A syrup will last around a week or 2 in the fridge, but once there is any cloudiness, it needs to be tossed as it is obvious germs are growing out of control. Again, I’m no doctor or microbiologist (I’m just some dummy who owns a drink website, and for 300 dollar bucks a year, you could do that too), so to play it safe, consult a professional before drinking sun tea, or eating, or drinking anything.

“The practice of making “sun tea” by steeping tea bags in a container of water in the sun may be of higher theoretical risk than brewing tea at higher temperatures because it provides an environment where bacteria are more likely to survive and multiply”

Feb 1996 Vol 96, #2 Epidemiology bulletin

My understanding is the CDC article is saying this kind of contamination is theoretically possible and something to be aware of. That’s fine for them to share. The issue seems to be that the general public read this and misread the word “possible” instead for “will defiantly kill you.” Use common sense and try not to go to extremes. I feel the main issue is don’t drink old sun tea the same way you wouldn’t drink old milk. Is it possible to get sick from sun tea? Yes, but is it probable? No, not if it is consumed in a reasonable amount of time.

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