UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – The slow-brewed beauty of sun tea

“Does anyone remember sun tea?”

While scrolling through Twitter the other day, I ran across a question with that nostalgic sentiment. I was immediately flooded with memories of summertime in the 1970s and 80s when it seemed like every house in the neighborhood had a Lipton Sun Tea jar on the back porch. And memories of that commonality was kind of the point of the question. While sipping iced tea in the summer is as American as apple pie, and while I’m sure many people enjoy their tea leaves kissed by the sun, the tradition of sun tea seems to be of another time and place with a specific way of life tied to it.

I’m “country” enough to know well the traditions and culture of sweet tea, which was memorably called “the house wine of the South” by Dolly Parton’s character in Steel Magnolias. Sweet tea is an institution for many people, reminding them of specific people, places, and times linked to a special recipe. Its identity is inextricably connected to regional culture, captured in the phrase “as Southern as sweet tea.” And that tasty beverage is truly wonderful in all its syrupy sweetness. But sun tea is something else altogether. It’s not only about the taste, but about the ritual. Sun tea is about a sense of patience and understanding of the slow process. The sun tea jar is prepared and set out in the early morning, and it works its magic while we go about our daily business. And then it’s enjoyed in the afternoon when the work is done. 

Sun tea brews slowly, steeped in the warmth of the sun and the gradual passage of time. Time and warmth, those are the keys. Time and warmth are also two qualities which contribute to a meaningful life and a sense of community. And, let’s face it, time and warmth are qualities and virtues that are too often lacking these days. Far too often we are unwilling to give each other our time. Too often our interactions fail to include our warmth. Sipping an ice cold glass of sun tea on the porch with friends and family while we listened to a baseball game on the radio seems like a bygone tradition. Sun tea reminds me of a simpler time in my life, in this country, in the world. Sun tea is slow, and it’s easygoing, and it’s special for the ritual and the image. 

A friend of mine was living and working abroad in Australia a few years ago, and when I visited him, the culture and lifestyle of the land down under reminded me a bit of the culture of sun tea. As we spent time in Sydney and then up on the Gold Coast, we noticed and reflected on how easygoing and homey the Aussies seemed. From people watching rugby at the neighborhood pub to the regulars at the local bakery, everyone we met made us feel welcome, like we’d been living there for years. My buddy told me that living in Australia reminded him a bit of growing up in America in the late 70s and early 80s, back when the world and our society seemed a bit less manic. It was the time before mass commercialization and twenty-four hour news and social media and nonstop marketing and politics. Businesses were more local and independent before franchising changed the face of small town Main Street. Everyone felt a bit more familiar and connected. That was the time of sun tea.

As a lifelong iced tea drinker, I must admit I haven’t brewed sun tea in decades. I generally make my iced tea in the teapot on the stove, and then let the leaves steep overnight. In the morning, the tea goes in the fridge. So, the waiting is the same, but the process lacks some of the quaint culture of sun tea. Additionally, in these days when it seems like everything good is also bad for you, some health experts advise against brewing sun tea because the water never gets hot enough to kill the bacteria in the water or on the leaves. Boiling the water solves that problem. That said, I don’t ever recall getting sick from sun tea, and distilled water is available to mitigate the risk.

Savoring sun tea is savoring summer is savoring life. “Does anyone remember sun tea?” I do, fondly.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. Ytou can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com