Experiment No. 1: Why does iced tea get cloudy?

Two weekends ago I went to Mr. Crepe in Davis Square. Food was good, but when I ordered a large glass of unsweetened iced tea with lemon (my usual), the woman behind the counter took a plastic jug out of a refrigerator which looked like it came from a mud puddle.

“There’s a way to make iced tea that isn’t cloudy, but I forget what it is,” I said unhelpfully.

“Yeah, I know. I can’t figure it out either,” she said, equally unhelpfully. I bought it anyway, because the cloudiness really doesn’t affect the taste of the tea either way. But ever since I have spent many a sleepless night wondering what causes tea to get cloudy.

I normally don’t have this problem. Whether I use good, loose, full-leaf tea or the cheapest, bottom-of-the-barrel tea bags from the supermarket, I make a full pot of tea every night and let it steep all night. I don’t take out the tea, like, ever, until the following morning. And I even squeeze them to wring out the extra tea. All the tea books say never do that. But that’s just the way I roll. Still, my tea is always clear and never cloudy.

But I have had the problem in the past, and I racked my brain to remember what I did differently when it did happen. I also did some Internet research, and the most common reason people give for cloudy iced tea is when you put it in the fridge too fast to cool it down instead of letting it sit, like I do.

So I says to myself I says, alright, I’m going to try and make cloudy iced tea and see if I can prove this theory. I made a pot of double-strength tea — six (6) Salada tea bags. Boiled the water and poured it in, and let it steep for a good 10 minutes, about twice the recommended length of time. Then I poured it into three empty, washed-out peanut butter jars. I put one in the fridge, one in the freezer, and left one on top of my dresser to cool to room temperature. Then I waited a couple hours. Below is the result:


Result: There was no difference. The one on the left cooled to room temperature. The middle was the refrigerator one, and the right is the freezer one. The only reason the one on the right looks slightly lighter was because I added lemon to see if that would instantly cloud it up or something. It didn’t, just bleached it slightly, as I expected.

So now that I’ve proved that refrigeration alone does not cause cloudiness, I am still wondering what’s the cause. I hypothesize that maybe putting it in a plastic, rather than glass, container may have something to do with it. Or if the container is not fully cleaned out and washed — I know with sun tea, I’ve made quite a few bad, skunky batches which I finally realized was due to not washing out the jar with soap and water in between.

I will indeed embark on a followup experiment to determine what the cause is and (obviously) how to avoid it. But in order to learn how to avoid something, one must first learn how to bring it about. So I will have to spend many a more sleepless night. Especially tonight, after I drink all this incredibly strong tea.

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About Don Seiffert

I'm a reporter and writer in the Boston area.
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2 Responses to Experiment No. 1: Why does iced tea get cloudy?

  1. Len Jacoby says:

    Aloha. A frequent question – without an answer yet. I think you might be on the right track as the container might not be as clean as we believe. Keep up the good work.

  2. Ron says:

    Where did the water come from? Was it filtered? Was it from a well? Was it from a city water system?

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