Maybe we’re biased, but we think iced tea is the ultimate summer drink. Whether it’s a fruity herbal tea or an iced black tea, there’s nothing better for quenching your thirst and exciting your tastebuds. However, when making your own iced tea, it can sometimes be difficult to get the right balance of sweetness, and piling in sugar can sometimes leave you with a heap of granules at the bottom of your pitcher. So: what’s the best way to sweeten iced tea?
The easiest way to sweeten iced tea is by using simple syrup. Dissolve sugar into hot water to create a syrup, and then add the syrup to your tea. Since the sugar will have already dissolved in the syrup, your iced tea will be smooth and sweet without extra sugar granules floating in it.
But what’s the best way to make simple syrup, and what sugar-free options are there? Read on to find out everything you need to get your iced tea beautifully sweet every time.
How to sweeten iced tea with simple syrup
Sweetening your normal cup of (hot) tea is as easy as pie: all you need to do is take your sweetener of choice and stir it in. Try that with iced tea, however, and you’ll soon run into problems.
The key difference here is heat. Think back to high school science class, and you’ll remember that it’s much easier to dissolve something in water if the water’s hot. That’s why, when trying to dissolve sugar in cold water, you might end up with granules lingering at the bottom of your jug. Thankfully, there’s an easy solution to this problem: simple syrup. All you need to do is dissolve sugar into hot water first, then add your sugary water (or syrup) into your existing pitcher of iced tea. That’s sweetness without grit guaranteed every time.
The amount of sugar you add is up to you, but we recommend five teaspoons of sugar per 100ml (approximately 3.5 fl oz) of water to create your syrup.
While this is the easiest way to sweeten your iced tea by far, it’s not for everyone: if you’re trying to live a healthier lifestyle, adding spoonfuls of sugar to your drink never feels good. Plus, there are more exciting options to try than the bland and repetitive sweetness of cane sugar, and we can’t wait to tell you all about them.
How do you make iced tea taste better without sugar?
Believe it or not, sugar was once thought to be useful only for medicinal purposes, with the medieval chronicler William of Tyre describing the substance as “very necessary for the use and health of mankind.” Of course, now we know that sugar can have a range of detrimental effects when over-consumed, including weight gain and dental issues.
The demand for sugar grew in the 19th century as colonies and plantations expanded in the Americas – but sweetness had existed in foods for hundreds of years prior. That means history is littered with alternatives to sugar that are just as sweet, oftentimes healthier, and generally without the ethical concerns that have dogged sugar production through the ages.
There are several ways you can make iced tea taste better without sugar. The easiest way is to stir honey into your tea before chilling. For a vegan option, try maple syrup, agave nectar or even dates.
Let’s go over the pros and cons of each of these options. Why not try out each of the following sweeteners to find the one that’s best for you?
Honey has been used as a sweetener for thousands of years – there are cave paintings in Spain depicting honey foraging that are thought to have been created 8,000 years ago. While honey production today ranges from artisan apiarists to incredible production lines, the bee product continues to rival sugar as one of the world’s favourite sweeteners.
When it comes to iced tea, it’s easier to dissolve honey into your pitcher than sugar granules. That said, you’re probably still better served by dissolving the honey into hot water first and then adding it to your brew. Honey is just as sweet as normal sugar, though its composition differs: honey is typically a combination of fructose and glucose (whereas sugar is almost purely sucrose). Depending on your dietary requirements, this could make honey a better option for you.
It’s worth bearing in mind that honey does come with a distinct flavor profile, and one that can radically differ depending on the type of honey you buy. This is because the flavor of honey is affected by the type of flower that the bee pollinates. While this can make for some beautiful combinations and add taste to your iced tea, it may not be to your liking.
The other downside to honey is that, deriving from bees, it is an animal product, and there is not vegan. While some in the vegan community differ on this point, as beekeeping is (to some) not as inherently exploitative as cattle farming and dairy production, there are several sweeteners that are vegan-friendly with no murky grey areas.
2. Maple syrup
O, Canada! From waffles to pancakes, we’ve always known that maple syrup is a beautiful and natural sweetener – even maple syrup and bacon has become a well-known dish the world over. What you might not have realised, however, is that maple syrup makes an excellent addition to a pitcher of iced tea.
Made from the xylem sap of maple trees, maple syrup is comprised largely of sucrose but has an almost woody flavor distinct from plain sugar. The syrup you find on store shelves is actually partially evaporated to create a thicker, more luxurious texture, meaning that it’ll dissolve back into your tea very easily; in fact, maple syrup is one of the easiest sweeteners to use on this list.
There is, however, one major drawback to using maple syrup to sweeten iced tea: cost. Genuine maple syrup can be quite pricey, and cut-price syrup almost always cuts corners to undercut its rivals. For example, maple syrup is often mixed with other, less expensive syrups. This isn’t necessarily a problem when it comes to iced tea, but every step down the ladder from bonafide maple syrup means less flavor and less solubility – always check the listed ingredients before you buy!
3. Agave nectar
Unlike maple syrup and honey, you might not have heard of agave nectar. (While it’s often marketed as a ‘nectar,’ it is in fact a syrup, and is sometimes known as maguey syrup for the plant from which it derives.) A growing favourite among vegans for its caramel flavour, agave nectar is highly soluble even without heat, making it ideal for sweetening cold beverages such as iced tea.
Agave nectar can generally be bought in four varieties: light, amber, dark and raw, corresponding to the level of filtration used. As the grade of the syrup gets darker, its caramel flavor becomes more intense, which can sometimes overpower more delicately flavored iced teas. Light agave nectar, on the other hand, is perfect for white or green iced teas that need a sweet kick.
Something to note about agave nectar is that it has an exceptionally high fructose content, comparable to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). While HFCS is not problematic in and of itself, it is the most common sweetener used in beverages in the US, and is frequently blamed for the nascent obesity crisis; consumed in similar amount, agave nectar would have a similar effect. For this reason, if your diet already features a lot of fructose, sweetening your iced tea with agave nectar could quickly turn your healthy glass of tea into an unhealthy one!
4. Date syrup
Another vegan option, date syrup could be the next big thing when it comes to sweetening iced tea and all sorts of beverages – but that doesn’t mean it’s newfangled. In fact, date syrup (or ‘rub’) has been used in Arab cooking for millennia, but now more and more people are taking notice of its sweet taste and surprising nutritional content.
Like honey, date syrup is made mostly of fructose and glucose, but contains more magnesium and potassium than other sweeteners, including maple syrup. Often served with the Libyan dish asida, a dessert not unlike porridge, date syrup is both incredibly thick and incredibly sweet. This can sometimes make it difficult to dissolve into iced tea. On the other hand, very little needs to be used to impart its flavor, meaning you’re unlikely to be left with a large glob of syrup stuck to the bottom of your pitcher.
If you can find date syrup at a store near you, it’s definitely worth giving it a try for an Arab twist on your iced tea!
5. Brown rice syrup
In recent years, plant milk has taken the world by storm. Whether it’s milk, coconut or even oat milk, plant-based solutions have become staples of cafés and homes. If you’ve tried rice milk, you might have recognised its sweet flavor compared to the nutty tastes of other plant milks – and that sweetness often comes from brown rice syrup.
Made by adding sprouted barley grains to rice starch at a high heat, brown rice syrup has been either used or indirectly produced in Asian drinks for hundreds of years. Amazake, for example, is a fermented beverage thought to date from the Kofun period (300-538AD). You’ll be pleased to learn, however, that you won’t need to heat or ferment grains yourself to create brown rice syrup: it’s becoming increasingly available on store shelves.
Unlike other syrups on this list, brown rice syrup is composed predominantly of maltose. In fact, it has no sucrose or fructose at all, and is only 2.3% glucose. If you’re required or would prefer to avoid those sugars as part of your diet, then we’ve just found your perfect sweetener! That said, brown rice syrup can be quite thick, and will likely require some dilution before being added to your iced tea.
Why is my iced tea still bitter?
If everything has gone to plan, you should have a beautifully sweet pitcher of iced tea to tantalise your tastebuds. However, there are reasons why your iced tea might be bitter that extra sweetener can only mask.
As a general rule, your iced tea might be bitter because the tea leaves have steeped for too long. This releases more tannins, a chemical which causes a bitter flavour. A pinch of baking soda can relieve some of the bitterness, but unfortunately you might need to begin a new batch of iced tea.
Adding extra sweetener might also be able to help relieve the bitterness in your iced tea, but be careful not to upset the balance of flavors. After all, no one wants to drink iced tea that only tastes like honey or maple syrup (although that doesn’t sound too bad!)
If you feel like your iced tea is often over-brewed, check out our guide for getting your cold brew tea right every time.
What else can you add to iced tea?
When it comes to sweetening iced tea, you don’t just have to add syrups. In fact, you can add just about anything to make your iced tea that little bit more special.
You can add fruit slices or herbs to your iced tea for an extra twist. Try adding peach slices or some lemon and mint for an extra zing. You could even add a cinnamon stick or fresh ginger for a spicier infusion.
Fruit slices will give your tea a lightly fruity flavor just like you’d get by infusing in water. However, note that it’s not as easy to get the timing right when you add something like a cinnamon stick: leave the stick in for too long and you’re liable to overpower a more gently flavored tea with intense spice. We’d recommend brewing with a cinnamon stick for no more than four hours in a cold brew and significantly less when brewing hot. But if you love cinnamon, shoot for the moon!