As a child of the Seventies, I have fond memories of drinking ice-cold tea on hot summer days. In the morning, my mom would place a large glass jug full of mint tea bags and water in the sun. It had yellow lettering with a groovy font that spelled “sun tea.” In the afternoon, we would drink the refreshing brew over ice. It was a thirst-quenching, sugarless, caffeine-free drink. A few weeks ago, when the weather started to get warm, I decided I would recreate this childhood memory. I went on the Internet to see if there was any specific way to get the tea to brew to its optimal ability. To my surprise, I found many blurbs about the dangers of sun tea being laced with bacteria. I drank gallons and gallons of sun tea in my lifetime without any problems, but I didn’t want to make myself and my family sick. I decided to investigate the matter further.
In a nutshell, the following is the argument for the dangers of sun tea. There is a type of bacteria called Alcaligenes viscolactis that is cloudy, white, and ropey. It can develop in sun tea. Here is why – to kill bacteria, water must be heated for 3-5 minutes at 195 degrees F. or above. When making sun tea, the water never gets above 130 degrees and can sit at that temperature for hours, which creates the perfect environment to breed bacteria. Apparently, Alcaligenes viscolactis can cause a lot of tummy turmoil, which – everyone can agree – should be avoided.
However, there are also arguments in favor of sun tea. The information that sun tea can be dangerous is dubious. There is no recorded instance of anyone getting sick from sun tea. If standard safe kitchen practices are followed, there is little risk of any sort of illness. The CDC is often credited with warning against making sun tea, but it appears they have no official stance on the matter, just a stance on safe kitchen habits. The sun tea scare appears to have been perpetuated by fear-mongering journalists and Internet bloggers.
I decided to throw caution to the wind and make sun tea, but with some added safety measures. After all, finding a middle ground is usually where reality lives. I practiced safe kitchen measures by throughly washing my jar with hot, soapy water. I used caffeinated tea, which inhibits bacteria growth, instead of herbal mint tea. I left my jar in the sun for only 2 hours (and I recommend never longer than 4 hours) and then immediately put it in the refrigerator. If I hadn’t consumed all the tea within the next 24 hours, I would have thrown it out. However, I drank the tea within just a few hours and it was refreshing and delicious. It seems like a strange thing to state, but here it goes – the decision to drink sun tea is a personal decision. It is a decision that everyone has to make for themselves – and knowing both sides of the controversy is helpful.