Beware: The Dark Side of Sun Tea!

It’s clear that iced tea is a popular drink—the number of iced tea recipes on this site alone will tell you that. The variations on tea steeped in hot water are many. There’s sweet tea, iced peach tea, Boston iced tea (with cranberry juice), raspberry iced tea, rhubarb iced tea, and even iced tea made in the Instant Pot. 

We drink iced tea year-round, but the beverage’s most popular season is summer when the refreshing drink brings momentary relief from the heat with each sip. A fun way to make iced tea in the summer is to let the sun steep the tea leaves through the sun tea method.  

What Is Sun Tea?

Sun tea is tea that has been brewed in the sun. Take a clean jar, fill it with water and tea bags, and then leave it in the hot sun to steep. When the tea reaches your desired strength, it’s done, and you can use it to pour over ice for iced tea. The method is easy, energy efficient, and a fun way to involve kids in making iced tea. 

The method also has the potential to cause foodborne illnesses. 

The Risk of Sun Tea

Tea leaves can harbor bacteria. In 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for preparing and storing iced tea, noting that tea leaves can pick up bacteria while growing or when they’re being harvested, transported, steeped, or stored as brewed tea. 

Bacteria thrive in warmth. Anywhere between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F is their sweet spot (also known as the temperature danger zone). Sun tea rarely gets hotter than 130 degrees F, giving bacteria a chance to grow while it steeps for hours in the sun. The CDC’s guidelines specifically suggest avoiding the practice of making sun tea. 

Making sun tea is not too hard to avoid. There are many ways to brew tea, but what if you still want to make sun tea? Maybe you have kids who want to try the method. Or maybe it’s a family tradition and seeing that sun tea jar on your patio table brings you joy. 

You can still put that jar out on the patio table if you take a couple of precautions.

The Daily Gourmet/Allrecipes

Sun Tea Safety Measures

There are two measures to take to ensure you’re making safe sun tea, and you’re probably already doing one of them.

  1. Start with a clean and sanitized jar. You may already do this, but you should thoroughly wash the jar in hot water—in the dishwasher if possible—before adding the water and tea bags.
  2. Sanitize your tea bags. Pour some boiling water completely over the tea bags and let sit for five minutes to kill any possible bacteria. Add those tea bags and the steeped water to your clean jar and fill to the top with more water. Set the jar in the sun to finish steeping the tea. Store finished iced tea in the refrigerator for up to eight hours.

Anything you want to add to the tea, such as sweeteners, fruits, or herbs, should be added after the tea has finished steeping in the jar.

Taking these simple steps, you can have your sun tea—and your safety—all summer long.