The best part of a hot summer day is a nice, cold, refreshing glass of iced tea. When you’re expecting refreshment and instead get a gulp of something bitter, watery, and barely tea-flavored, it’s bound to be a disappointment.
If serving your iced tea is earning you some reproachful glances, you might need to examine your tea making practices.
Here are some frequent mistakes that people encounter when making tea, and why they lead to that bitter flavor.
What Makes Tea Bitter?
The bitterness of tea is naturally occurring, caused by chemicals called tannins. You may have heard of tannins before.
They’re also naturally occurring in wine and responsible for the bitter aftertaste of a dry red merlot or cabernet. Tannins are found in the plants that our tea leaves and wine grapes grow on.
Tannins are released from the tea leaf during the steeping, or brewing, process and too much tannin can make a very bitter tea. Tannins aren’t all bad, though; they also give your tea flavor and a healthy boost of antioxidants and other health benefits.
Now, even a perfectly brewed tea will have just a hint of bitterness. That is the natural flavor of tea! For a great cup of tea that’s not too bitter, though, a few things will make a big difference in the steeping or brewing process.
From the quality of the leaves to the water temperature, you may find some helpful hints to cure your bitter tea.
1 – Select Quality Tea Leaves
How and where your tea leaves were grown will make a difference in the flavor notes of your tea, but the biggest flavor factor is the condition of the tea leaves. All tea leaves are dried by heat after being picked, and then separated by quality.
Some tea leaves will break in the picking process and, of course, the leaves will naturally vary in size. During the heated drying process, smaller or broken leaves may be overheated and burnt, and some leaves will be broken down into even smaller pieces.
During the quality selection processing, leaves that remained intact become high-quality loose leaf teas and smaller broken leaves become bagged tea. Bagged tea quality will vary.
Bagged teas with bigger leaf pieces that were less damaged by the heat will have better flavor, and bagged teas with the smallest leaf pieces and more heat damage will be lower quality.
When making iced tea, most people toss in a couple of bags of tea, not realizing that their tea bag likely has leaves that were already compromised in the drying process. Smaller, broken tea leaves create more surface area for the hot water to reach.
When that happens, the tea steeps faster, leading to over-steeping and bitterness.
2 – Know Your Types of Tea
If you’ve ever been down the tea aisle of your local grocery store, you may already know that there is a huge variety of tea types to choose from. Some teas are naturally more bitter than others.
Generally, lighter teas such as green tea are more bitter, and darker teas are less bitter. Iced tea is most commonly made with black tea, but you can find different varieties available.
Of course, you can ice any type of tea that you like when you’re making it at home.
You can also choose a bagged tea that’s specially blended for iced tea brewing if you want the classic iced tea flavor. Most Southern-style iced teas are brewed with this type of blend.
3 – Don’t Over-Steep Tea
Over-steeping is simply letting your tea sit in hot water too long. Longer steeping times do not equal more flavor, but it will release more bitter tannins. This is where knowing the different types of teas makes a difference because they do have different proper steeping times.
Black tea typically steeps for three to five minutes. Green teas should only steep for one to three minutes, and rooibos tea can steep up to ten minutes.
Loose-leaf teas may need to steep longer. Luckily, you don’t need to memorize the steep times for every type of tea as most teas will have instructions for steeping on the label.
4 – Use Cooler Boiling Water
Water temperature is an important factor in the tea brewing process, and it’s a common mistake to use too-hot water. When the water is too hot, it releases extra tannins and can ruin the delicate flavor notes of your tea.
Don’t use boiling water to steep tea. Black tea should be brewed around 190 degrees Celsius, just lower than the boiling point, so remove the water from the heat and let it sit to cool for a minute before pouring it over your tea leaves or tea bags.
If you’re making an iced green tea, let the water cool for two minutes before pouring. The delicate flavor in green tea requires a cooler temperature, around 80 degrees Celsius to prevent bitterness.
Just as with the steep times, a water temperature recommendation for steeping is often printed on the tea’s label.
5 – Use Filtered Water
For the best iced tea every time, use filtered or bottled water both to steep your tea and to dilute it for your iced tea pitcher. Tap water quality varies in mineral content and taste, and your tap water could be adding some unwanted flavor and bitterness.
If you have tap water with a high mineral content, your iced tea will appear cloudy and the minerals may cloud some of the tea’s flavor notes too.
6 – Use Less Tea
You may be tempted to add more tea when brewing for iced tea to impart more flavor. But throwing off the water-to-tea ratio with more tea can cause more tannins to be released.
Use about two teaspoons of tea per eight ounces of water for the best water-to-tea ratio.
7 – Add Sugar to Warm Tea
If you’re making a sweet iced tea, add the sugar while the tea is warm. Sugar won’t dissolve well in cold tea and it’ll sink to the bottom of the pitcher. This can make the tea feel grainy and seem bitter.
Sugar won’t cure a tea that was brewed bitter, but it does mask the natural bitterness of tea and makes a deliciously sweet flavor.
8 – Try Cold Brewing
The cold brewing method is a much slower way to make a pitcher of iced tea, but it may also offer the lowest chances of accidentally making your tea too bitter.
For this method, you’ll put your tea bags in a pitcher of filtered water, put it in the fridge, and let it naturally steep ten to twelve hours or overnight.
During the cold brewing process, you can also diffuse fruits or citrus into your tea for added flavor. This can give the tea a little natural sweetness too!
Many tea companies also make teas specially formulated for cold-brewed iced teas. If you’re making sweet tea with the cold brewing method, first dissolve the sugar in hot water and let it cool to room temperature.
It should mix in easily with your cold brewed tea.
Make Better Tea Every Time
Have you been committing one of the common tea making mistakes that leads to bitterness? Combine these methods to make great iced tea every time!
I have a bachelor’s degree in Film/Video/Media Studies, as well as an associates degree in Communications. I began producing videos and musical recordings nearly 15 years ago. I am a guitarist and bassist in Southwest MI and have been in a few different bands since 2009, and in 2012 I began building custom guitars and basses in my home workshop as well. When I’m home, I love spending time with my three pets (a dog, cat, and snake) and gardening in my backyard.