In the culinary world, herbs are usually relegated to the role of condiment, adding flavor but rarely standing on their own. Not so with herbal teas, where the intensity, diversity and complexity of their flavors truly shine. A wide variety of herbs both common and exotic can be found in today’s tea blends. Many of them are sweet without sweeteners, and many have the added benefit of the healthful properties of the herbs. And they contain zero calories.
But are they difficult to find, select and brew? Not in the least, as you shall see.Bags vs. Loose Tea
In our busy world it seems almost no one brews tea from loose leaves anymore, probably because the companies that make teabags have convinced us that it is far less convenient to do so. While obtaining loose herbal teas may be a bit less convenient, there is almost no additional effort involved in brewing them. Even obtaining them has become easier because of the Internet and because of the expansion of natural food supermarkets like Whole Foods.
To arrive at our list of great tasting teas, we tested many varieties of both packaged and loose herbals. All of them were brewed using this quick and simple method:
- For each glass of iced tea you want to make, fill a standard size coffee mug with boiling water and either two teabags or two teaspoons of loose tea.
- Steep for five minutes. If using teabags, discard the bags and pour the tea into a tall glass about two thirds filled with ice. If using loose tea just pour the tea through a strainer into the glass.
As you can see, the only special equipment required for using loose tea is a strainer. A piece of cheesecloth or even a coffee filter will also work; just push them down into the glass a bit to make a well to catch the herbs. There are of course lots of tea-making gadgets you can buy, including tea balls, infuser spoons and special teapots. They make a lovely presentation and if you’re a real tea lover you may want to try some of these things, but they really aren’t necessary.Brewing Tips
Boiled water makes better iced tea than water zapped in the microwave. But boiling doesn’t have to be a long waiting game. If you’re making only a glass or two, put just enough water in the kettle for what you need and it will boil in only a few minutes. Or, consider investing in an electric kettle. These come in a variety of prices, but the more inexpensive ones work beautifully and they really do boil water faster.
Because you will be pouring hot tea over ice, much of your ice will melt quickly and dilute your tea. Doubling the amount of tea usually makes it sufficiently strong to hold its flavor, although for some blends more may be required. When in doubt always err on the side of making it too strong, you can always dilute with more water. The glass you use should be at least twice as big as the mug holding the hot tea because the ice will increase the volume.
The teas on our list were selected for having exceptional taste without added sweeteners, but if you have favorite sweeteners and prefer to sweeten, by all means sweeten. For best results add sweeteners while the tea is still hot as it will dissolve better. If you would like to sweeten a little but want to avoid sugars, try adding a teaspoon or two of frozen apple juice or grape juice concentrate. We found these worked very nicely, although go easy on the grape. With more than about a teaspoon the grape flavor will start to overwhelm your tea flavor. The apple juice is much less overpowering and can be added more liberally.Choosing Teas
We are confident you will enjoy the teas on our list, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. If you like herbal teas no doubt you will want to try icing your own favorites or venturing on to uncharted territory. Maybe you’re a big fan of ginger tea, or maybe you’re intrigued by Egyptian licorice tea. Maybe you like the idea of using herbal blends with names conveying the state they promote, like “calm” or “rejuvenating”. By all means try them. There is no hard and fast rule for determining which herbal blends will taste the best on ice, but we did discover a few things that can help you.
Tea blends that have medicinal sounding names like “Headache” or “Detox” tasted, well, medicinal. They might taste fine hot but we didn’t find a single one that tasted good on ice. Most teas with spices (cinnamon, cloves, etc.) in them tended to taste bitter when served on ice without added sweetener, although there were exceptions to this. Some spicy teas and various others were left off this list because they weren’t sweet enough on their own, but if you are adding sweetener that opens an array of additional options.
One thing we noticed in the course of this taste test came as a surprise. Not all herbal teas contain purely natural ingredients. We found some teas that had additives you might want to avoid. Citric acid and lecithin are examples. One of the most common ingredients in many packaged herbal teas is something referred to only as “natural flavors”. These turn out to be flavors obtained from natural sources but extracted through an industrial process. Although listed as a single ingredient, “natural flavors” can actually contain multiple ingredients, the full disclosure of which is not required by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
All of these additives may in fact be harmless but since there is no way to be sure, we have excluded teas containing them from our list. When buying your own we strongly suggest that you read labels, even when buying something as seemingly benign as herbal tea. When buying loose teas it is not always apparent what they contain, as they do not come with standard government labeling. In choosing loose teas for our list we searched for internet purveyors who clearly disclosed the content of their blends.
If you are caffeine sensitive, it is important to watch out for the term “decaffeinated”. This means that at least one ingredient in the product contained caffeine which was removed by an industrial process. This process does not remove 100% of the caffeine, which means some of it is still in the product. If you’re looking to avoid caffeine even in small doses, always choose teas marked “caffeine free” or “no caffeine.” These labels indicate a product that never had it and never will.
These issues aside, you will still be able to find plenty of natural teas to suit your palate. Many brands sell samplers with assorted flavors in one package. This makes for excellent taste testing without having to buy more tea than you really want.The List
- Pure Chamomile – Perfect when you want to chill out, available from most of the major brands. We found taste differences among brands to be negligible and we found no additives in any of them. If you think of chamomile only as a hot bedtime drink, you’re missing out on a classic that makes a great iced tea.
- Twinings Sunset Rose – A blend of rosehips and hibiscus, mildly tangy and wonderfully fragrant. If you like spicy teas and are looking for one that makes a graceful transition to ice, this is it. Available in supermarkets.
- Bigelow Mint Medley – This refreshing blend of peppermint and spearmint makes a great pick-me-up, just when you thought it was too hot to do anything else today. Available in supermarkets.
- Rooibos (also known as Red Tea) – Growing in popularity, this is the herbal that tastes most like regular iced tea except that it’s naturally sweet and naturally caffeine free.
- A loose organic rooibos is available from Mountain Rose Herbs at mountainroseherbs.com.
- A minty rooibos blend called The Energizer can be had from Peaceful Offerings at peacefulofferings.com.
- Peaceful Offerings Citrus – Also available at peacefulofferings.com, an orange flavored floral blend, for when you want something just a little different but not too far from the traditional.
- Blend one or more teas together. You can take teas that have great flavor but need a little sweetening and blend them with a sweeter tea. Or try blending your two favorites. You can even create your own blends from scratch. Loose herbs are actually a bit easier to find than loose tea blends, and there is no limit to the number of possible combinations.
- Don’t underestimate the variations you can achieve by changing the strength of the tea. Some teas take on a whole different flavor with different levels of dilution. Sometimes if the tea is very strong you may think it needs sweetener when just a little water can make a big difference. You may have experienced this with fruit juice. Same concept. Likewise a too-weak tea will underwhelm, but give it another try with an extra teabag.
- Add a little extra flavor. A wedge of lemon has certainly accompanied many a glass of iced tea, but so can a wedge of lime, or an orange slice. A strawberry, a sprig of fresh mint, a cinnamon stick, a splash of mineral water to add some bubbles – all fun possibilities.
- Garnish. Does a beautiful presentation really improve the taste of things? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt. One other great thing about serving herbal teas is that they make for a lovely rainbow of colors, from pale golden to rosy to deep berry. Play artist with colors and textures. Decorative glasses, edible flowers, fancy swizzle sticks, a little origami swan swimming on top. You are limited only by your imagination.