Sun or Stovetop? Iced Tea, 2 Ways

Draw on the power of the sun—or your stovetop—to brew a batch of the quintessential summer drink
July 21, 2021 Updated: July 21, 2021

Growing up, I knew about sun tea from my books. I loved reading how my characters—mainly old-fashioned, romantic, Midwestern ones—steeped tea in the heat of the sun on their back porches, then served it in beautiful glass containers. I imagined sitting on a porch swing overlooking miles of cornfields, sipping on iced sun tea while munching on watermelon. To me, it seemed like the quintessential American experience.

My family didn’t share my affinity for sun tea. Tea, in our English household, was served hot—and only hot—with milk and in floral cups specific to the occasion. I remember vividly the look of bafflement on my mom’s face when at a restaurant she asked for tea, only to be served a cup of sugary sweet tea loaded down with ice.

But as much as I loved an English cup of tea, I also loved the idea of an iced tea on a hot day, sipped in shorts and sunglasses on a picnic blanket. I attempted to make it myself a few times during childhood, but tea bags were a precious commodity in our house, typically saved for their “proper use,” so I didn’t get too many chances to experiment.

My husband, Andrew, and I got married and moved to Charlottesville in the heat of a Virginia summer. Day after day, the temperature soared to triple digits, and the humidity made us feel like we were swimming.

I came home from the flea market one day with an old-fashioned half-gallon glass jar, which Andrew declared perfect for making sun tea. I was surprised that he even knew what sun tea was.

Andrew filled the jar with cold water, then tossed in three black tea bags and a handful of fresh mint. He let it sit in the sun for a few hours, removed the tea bags and herbs, and let it sit in the fridge overnight. The next day—which was another hot one—he filled two large glasses with ice and poured the sun tea over it.

We enjoyed our drinks in the shade on our front porch. The cool, refreshing treat, made with such little effort, seemed to embody all the magic of summer.

Iced tea was nothing new to Andrew. Growing up on a farm in Central Pennsylvania, he enjoyed iced tea, both sweetened and unsweetened, regularly throughout the summer months. Using his mom’s half-gallon glass milk jars, he often brewed his favorite black or herbal tea on hot summer days.

Serve in tall glasses over ice. (gowithstock/Shutterstock)

For the best sun tea, use a glass container with a lid. Using caffeinated tea bags is the best way to inhibit bacterial growth inside the jar. Andrew steeps his tea for about 4 hours, and if he wants it sweeter, he’ll stir in sugar or honey just before serving.

Making sun tea is generally safe, but if you’re really worried about bacteria, you can also make cold brew tea by allowing the water and tea bags to simply steep overnight in the fridge, eliminating the sun altogether. I found that this didn’t produce the flavor or nostalgia I was looking for, so in our household, we have stuck with sun tea.

Andrew wasn’t the only iced tea aficionado in his family. His grandmother, affectionately known as Mimi, used to make it regularly, but differently from Andrew. She would bring six cups of water and five tea bags to a boil, then add a half cup of sugar, the juice from half a lemon, and a handful of mint leaves. She let it sit overnight and served it the next day.

This tea, known as “Mimi’s Tea,” is the recipe Andrew’s aunt and cousin still use. Andrew and I were served a glass of it by his cousin the other day, and Andrew said it felt like home.

My daughters love both sun tea and Mimi’s Tea, and we all drink big, frosty glasses regularly throughout the summer, while we read books on the porch. I still love a good cup of English tea. But in our family, there’s plenty of room for both.

Andrew’s Sun Tea

Makes 8 cups

  • 1/2 gallon water
  • 3 caffeinated black tea bags
  • Handful of mint or basil from the garden
  • Optional: 1/2 cup sugar or honey, or more to taste

Combine the water, tea bags, and herbs in a large (at least half-gallon), clean glass jar, and cover with a lid. Put in direct sunlight and let steep for 4 hours. Remove tea bags and herbs, and refrigerate overnight. Add sweetener if desired, and serve over ice.

Mimi’s Tea

Makes 6 cups

  • 6 cups water
  • 5 black tea bags
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
  • Handful of mint leaves

Bring the water and tea bags to a boil in a pot. Add the sugar, lemon juice, and mint leaves. Cover and store in the refrigerator overnight. Serve over ice.

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She’s currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website,