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Making sweet tea on demand

Iced tea

Lemon optional

If my tea bar was in Georgia, sweet tea wouldn’t be a problem for me. I would always have a pitcher or two sitting in the fridge. But here in Montana, the demand for sweet tea is pretty low. If I serve three or four glasses of sweet tea in a week, that’s a lot. Why is that a problem? Because properly-prepared sweet tea is made in advance. Ideally, it should sit overnight, but a few hours is probably okay. It will keep for a little while, but not indefinitely. If I make it by the pitcher, I’m going to end up throwing away most of it.

My goals are simple: I want it to taste like sweet tea (in the opinion of my Southern friends), and I have to be able to prepare it from scratch in about five minutes.

I’ve been fiddling with solutions to the problem, and I think I’ve come up with an acceptable solution. My method is based on my 20-ounce iced tea glasses, my ice machine (which makes very small cubes), and various other things specific to Red Lodge Books & Tea. Obviously, you’ll need to tweak it a bit for your own use.

For sweetening iced teas (especially boba tea), I keep simple syrup on hand all of the time. We make it using equal quantities of boiling water and plain sugar, and then cool it down to room temperature. It’s much easier than trying to mix granulated sugar into cold tea.

First, I add a tablespoon of strong black tea to the infuser — I use our Irish Breakfast Tea, which is a blend of Assam and Tanzanian tea. The leaves are finely broken, which maximizes the surface area for steeping.

To the leaves, I add four tablespoons of simple syrup and about 10oz of boiling water. I suppose I could use some alternate method for sweetening the tea, but I have never heard a request for diet sweet tea. If it’s not real sweet tea with sugar, it’s just sweetened tea, I suppose.

While it is steeping, I fill the glass all the way to the brim with ice.

I steep the tea for five minutes. I would never steep a cup of Irish breakfast tea that long for myself — especially with that much leaf — because I’m a bit of a purist and I don’t add milk or sugar. Steeping that long makes plain tea very bitter. Using this much sugar, however, offsets that bitterness, and adding it to during the steep makes the tea taste different than if it’s added after the fact.

When the tea is poured over the ice, most of the ice will melt. Add a straw and you’re good to go.

Ice, Ice, Baby!

Valerian Steel - Iced

An iced cup of our
Valerian Steel tea.

When starting up a new venture, it’s a good idea to minimize the amount of cash you put in until you’re sure it’s going to work. In keeping with that philosophy, when we started our tea bar at the bookstore, we bought what the health inspector said we had to buy (e.g., a triple-basin sink and a sanitizing hand soap dispenser) and what the state said we had to buy (a Federally-certified and State-inspected scale that cost ten times what a standard kitchen food scale costs), but we were careful beyond that.

Oh, we bought a Zojirushi machine to keep our tea water at exactly the right temperature and some IngenuiTEA brew pots to prepare the tea for our customers. We did not, however, buy any other fancy equipment. We decided to spend the money on tea instead. One of the things in the “fancy equipment” category was an ice machine.

We figured we would sell some iced tea in the warm days of summer, but our bookstore had a waitress station in the back corner from the old days when the building housed a restaurant. That waitress station had an ice bin. We decided to just buy bags of ice at the grocery store and put them in the ice bin. Our old freezer in the back could hold an extra bag or two, so we’d be all set, right?

We soon discovered the error of our ways. The not-too-well-insulated ice bin allowed the ice to melt all too fast, and we served a lot more iced tea than we had anticipated. The grocery store is just far enough that you can’t really make an ice run when there are customers waiting, so we often bought more ice than we really needed. Bags of ice are pretty pricey at the grocery store, too: about $1.70 for a 7-pound bag. When you’re going through two or three bags a day, it really adds up.

Then we realized that the liquor store right next to us had an ice machine. Perfect! I negotiated a price so we could just run over there with a bucket, fill it with ice, and have them put it on our tab. More convenient for us, a better price for us, no work at all for the liquor store. There were a few minor inconveniences, like the fact that they opened later in the morning than we did and they are closed Sundays, but we could easily deal with that.

Then things began to get surreal. We’d run over and the scoop would be hidden away somewhere. We’d have to wait while someone found it. They shut the ice machine down for a week (without telling us), so there was no ice available. We found ourselves having to run over to the grocery store anyway. And still, we were spending $4 or $5 per day for ice.

I decided to start shopping for ice machines. I got an email from Sysco that they were having an ice machine sale. What perfect timing! Until I found that the sale price on their cheapest unit was close to $2,000. I searched high and low, and then my friend Martha, who runs the Café Regis, suggested a fellow named Mike who deals in used kitchen equipment.

Hoshizaki ice machineAfter a whole bunch more research and several discussions with Mike, we finally settled on a Hoshizaki counter-top ice making machine. It was still pricey, although the $875 we spent is a lot less than the $2,800 list price, but it makes us independent. I know we’ll spend less on ice in the winter than we do in the summer, but I still figure that machine will pay for itself in less than a year, and it’s far more convenient. Not only that, we can put a filter on the line and gain control over the quality of the water used to produce the ice.

Unfortunately, I don’t deal well with plumbing. After three hours of fiddling around and running back and forth to the hardware store, we still didn’t have a functional water line and filter. I ended up having to get a plumber just because none of the connectors would mate without leaking (I still can’t believe you have to fabricate custom hoses and connectors to hook up a water filter to this line — it boggles the mind).

So, at last, we produce our own ice. Nice little pellets of ice — not the big cubes we were using before — which cool the hot tea down swiftly.

Postscript: Just as I finished typing this, I got a call from the bookstore (it’s my day off). The machine is leaking all over the floor. *sigh* I hate plumbing with the burning passion of 1,000 leaky hot-water lines. I really, really do.

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