Most of the world continues to be baffled by America’s fascination with iced tea. We drink 80% of our tea poured over ice and, for over a half-century, we have expected this ubiquitous beverage to be “a crisp, clear tea that’s never cloudy,” as first advertised in 1971 by Nestea Instant Iced Tea.
While we writers wax eloquently about the legendary tea gardens of China, India and Sri Lanka, many readers will find it surprising that over 40% of the tea imported annually into the United States comes from Argentina. Tea bushes, planted there in long rows on flat ground, are skimmed weekly by tall-wheeled harvesters that vacuum clippings into hoppers where green leaves begin withering as they are transported to adjoining processing facilities. Labor costs are kept to a minimum and production volumes are maximized so that the finished tea can be sold at very low cost to teabag and instant tea companies. Also, these low-grown South American teas are suspected to be less prone to clouding.
Some consumers believe that cloudiness is an indication of poor-quality tea or that it will adversely affect flavor even though, in reality, clouding has no impact on taste. What causes tea, either hand-picked or mechanically-harvested, to sometimes become cloudy when it becomes cold?
For the answer, I turned to two long-time tea professionals: Nigel Melican and Peter Goggi. Both gentlemen have been involved with tea husbandry around the world for decades and have advised large tea producers such as Lipton. They suggested we understand the tea industry term “creaming.” It can get a bit scientific but try to stay focused.
First, a bit of background: Tea’s unique taste mainly results from the various polyphenolic compounds which include catechins (antioxidants), theaflavins, tannins, and flavonoids (also antioxidants). The theaflavins and tannins can contribute to the bitter astringency of some teas.
“Oxidized polyphenols—especially theaflavins—will, at the right concentration and temperature react with caffeine to form a milky precipitate, or “creaming,” This phenomenon happens as black tea cools down if the conditions are right,” Melican explained. “Tea tasters blending CTC teas are happy to see creaming in their cupping evaluation as it indicates a “good” tea at normal strength.”
Goggi added that “caffeine and oxidized polyphenols form compounds which fall out of solution upon cooling.”
Simply put, hot steeped tea extracts compounds from the leaves which become suspended in solution. If the water cools too quickly—as it does in a refrigerator—the tea will “cream” as the compounds fall out of solution and tea becomes cloudy.
How do you avoid cloudy tea? Keep tea at room temperature if possible and make it fresh daily. But all is not lost if your tea begins to cloud. Simply pour a bit of boiling water into your container and watch the clouds lift as the theaflavins go back into suspension.