Why does hot tea have a [much] different flavor than bottled tea?
October 19, 2006 6:26 AM   Subscribe

Why does hot tea have a [much] different flavor than bottled or sweet tea?

At home I hated sweet tea - a cardinal sin in my parts. I'm now living in China and surprised myself when I liked the loose-leaf/hot tea they serve par course every meal here. I now even carry my own bag of black tea and a special tea thermos.

I can't stand the bottled semi-sweet tea here either though. I've even tried Japanese "afternoon" milk tea and hated it.

There's a very particular taste to it I can't stand that's not in either the hot teas, green or black, here.

What is this taste? Why isn't it in purer hot/loose-leaf tea? My Wiki-Fu and Google-Fu are telling me they're all the same thing... so am I just crazy?

My only working theory is that tea changes flavor when it's chilled.
posted by trinarian to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Growing up I never liked the iced tea at Grandma's place down south, which is the only place I ever ran into it. I like it now, but I know what you're saying. I never understood that difference either. I wonder if the kind of tea people use for cold tea is lower quality. Cold mutes taste somewhat, so maybe they know they don't have to hit a home run.
posted by kookoobirdz at 6:36 AM on October 19, 2006

Well, to test your theory make some tea, chill it, and see if you dislike it as much as you do the bottled tea.

I like iced tea but I make it myself, and I like it better than just buying bottled tea.

By bottled tea, do you mean stuff like Nestea Iced Tea? If so it's filled with high-fructose corn syrup and a bunch of other crap. Or do you mean something else entirely?
posted by mikepop at 6:36 AM on October 19, 2006

Response by poster: I haven't chilled it yet, but the flavor is more or less the same at room temp when my tea cools off.

By bottled tea I do mean the Chinese green tea in a bottle everyone else loves so much here [don't know the name]. It's only lightly sweetened. It has the same "tea" flavor as the stuff I've had back home.

Basically, no matter how strong I brew my black tea to wake up in the morning, it just doesn't have that flavor. Green tea can get a bit metalic [don't know a better adjective] if real strong... but still, the tastes that are there are nothing like the pre-made stuff or even the bag brewed sweet tea at home.

I don't think the sugar/sweetener is the issue, unless it interacts weird and highlights some flavor normally hidden.
posted by trinarian at 6:50 AM on October 19, 2006

Bottled teas are sweetened almost exclusively with corn syrup, which has a different taste than regular sugar, and is probably the problem there. I lurrrrrve me some sweet tea, but bottled teas are an abomination. This is true for green and black teas, I find. It's kind of a sickly flavor - bottled tea tastes "murky" to me, and fresh-brewed tea tastes "clean".

As for fresh sweet tea, I don't think it's temperature, because hot sweet tea doesn't taste like a normal cup of black breakfast tea either. Keep in mind, though, that we're talking about a LOT of sugar. Something like 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. So I wouldn't be surprised if it does "interact" in some weird way.

Also, sweet tea is usually made by making a strong, bitter, intensely sweet syrup, and then diluting it with cold water. This will create a different flavor profile than just brewing tea to taste. Making a weak cup of tea, and making an overly strong cup and diluting it, will NOT have the same end result. You could test this experimentally too.
posted by miagaille at 7:33 AM on October 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

This is in no way scientific, but I think it has to do with how long bottled teas sit around. They are obviously not as fresh as tea you brew yourself and that may be the problem with the flavor. I don't think that helps with freshly-made sweet tea though.
posted by stefnet at 7:37 AM on October 19, 2006

I wonder if it's the tannins that you're reacting to? When you talk about making strong tea, are you talking about long steeping or lots of leaves. The longer tea steeps, the more tannins are released, and they can get quite overpowering. Tea bags, and I'm sure, bottled tea, use very low grade tea, more tea dust than tea leaves, and even if brewed for a short time can taste very coppery and acidic from excess tannins.

There is, of course, a difference between black and green tea: the former is roasted, the latter not. But sweet tea in the US is made with black tea, not green. It's just really shitty black tea.

(I like sweet tea, by the way.)
posted by OmieWise at 7:44 AM on October 19, 2006

OK: possibly scientifically-based answer.

When you make normal hot tea, you brew it, pour into a cup, and add some sugar at the table. Sugar=sucrose.

Sweet tea and bottled teas, as I mentioned, are usually made by making a sweet syrup first. To make syrup, sugar is added to currently-boiling brewing water. The heat breaks down the sucrose into glucose and fructose. This combination is called "invert sugar" and is subjectively sweeter than regular old sucrose.

Different sugar, different taste.

I remember learning about simple syrup and invert sugars from Alton Brown.

Anyway, I would suggest 3 experiments:

1) Chill a regular cup of your preferred tea. I don't think it's temperature, but easy to find out.

2) Brew an [unsweetened] weak cup and a strong cup; dilute strong cup with cold water. Compare.

3) Brew two cups. Add sugar to one while boiling, to the other after removing leaves and cooling for a bit. Compare.
posted by miagaille at 7:59 AM on October 19, 2006

Response by poster: I just went to take a big swig of my roommates bottled tea. It's hard to pinpoint the taste... it's not sweet, it's not acidic. It's just something I always associated with "tea" before I came to China.

Think of the flavor someone would use if they wanted to make tea flavored ice cream of candy.

That flavor just isn't in the tea I'm drinking here [green or black].

OmnieWise: strong tea = lots of leaves. Also, as stated above, it's not an acidic taste... so that would rule out tannins I guess.

miagaille: I can't read Chinese much, but I'll ask and see if they use corn syrup in the bottle tea here too. They put corn on my Hawaiian pizza last night, so it wouldn't surprise me.
posted by trinarian at 8:05 AM on October 19, 2006

Response by poster: miagaille : didn't see your last comment, I'll try that
posted by trinarian at 8:07 AM on October 19, 2006

I, for the most part, hate "sweet tea" as well. I think you're tasting the contrast between the tea flavor and the sweet flavor -- it tends to subdue the subtle tea flavors and bring out the bitter tannins, in my opinion. Then they add more sugar to counteract it.. ugh.

You can also screw up tea fairly easily by cooling it in the wrong way, bringing out the acrid taste.
posted by mikeh at 8:15 AM on October 19, 2006

trinarian writes "it's not an acidic taste... so that would rule out tannins I guess."

I'm not sure that's true. Tannins frequently taste coppery rather than acidic per se. It's easy to experiment, though. Simply brew some black tea for ten minutes and then drink some. I would expect the taste to be stronger regardless, but if it's stronger but similar to what you're talking about, you might have your answer.
posted by OmieWise at 8:20 AM on October 19, 2006

Response by poster: ey, we don't "brew" it here so much as add steaming water from a water cooler into the pitcher or thermos. i'll dig around the kitchen for an tea kettle though.
posted by trinarian at 8:23 AM on October 19, 2006

Not to mention that our sense of taste is more keen to flavors and aromas at higher temperatures. Also, factor in the sense of smell: this is expecially important in tea-- the steam carries so much of the essential flavor that it's possible to love the smell of a tea but detect none of that particular flavor in the tea itself. Teas have ideal temperatures to be brewed at in order to release certain flavors.

Chilled tea essentially has its flavor chopped off at the knees, only able to be enjoyed by its flavor on the tongue, which is why bottled teas tend to have artificial flavors and sweeteners to compensate for it and create a "tasty" beverage.
posted by hermitosis at 8:25 AM on October 19, 2006

Response by poster: hermitosis... you might have hit it.

is their an artificial "tea" flavor added to most bottled tea?
posted by trinarian at 8:37 AM on October 19, 2006

Well, Snapple boasts no artificial flavors on their website (except for in diet versions), but then you will notice that practically all of their teas are blended with fruit juices to create a recognizable and familiar flavor.

While I'm sure artificial tea-flavoring exists, most of the work done in bottled, chilled teas is not in making it taste more like tea, but in covering up the notes of flavor that emerge too strongly when other elements of taste aren't there to balance them out. This is why you need far more sugar in most refrigerated beverages than in hot beverages. This works even with milk: no one thinks of ice-cold milk as being "sweet", but if you heat it up in a saucepan and drink it out of a mug, you can taste the natural sugars in it much more readily.
posted by hermitosis at 9:00 AM on October 19, 2006

I think the intensity's the culprit. Iced tea is just very weak. I've made iced tea myself that came out far too strong, and tasted like.. a cold cup of tea rather than iced tea. Does that make sense? In sweet tea, the sugar is really the dominant flavor besides. For the record, I like southern sweet tea, good darjeeling, milk tea, genmai-cha green, even some bottled brands. (Honest Tea is pretty good.)
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:49 AM on October 19, 2006

I second miagaille's answer. I would have written something similar but there's no need to, since his post already contains every relevant point.
posted by gregb1007 at 3:05 PM on October 19, 2006

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