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The Problem of Iced Tea, and Two Solutions


Almost everyone in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America have something to say about tea, and here I strictly mean the (variously) prepared leaves of Camellia sinensis, steeped in water.

In the US, we like to pervert the comfort drink of...much of the rest of the world by refrigerating it, making it differently-comforting on hot days, amended with lemon and your sweetener-of-choice. Iced tea may sound as bizarre to someone from the UK as a heated Coca-Cola might to anyone anywhere. To a lot of those people, iced tea is wrong on a scale somewhere near "why are kittens growing on trees?", which is very wrong indeed.

Still, it fills a niche. It's a soft drink--as in non-alcoholic--but without the sweetness and attendant calories of the other favourite options. On a hot day, water with any non-noxious taste is something you can drink more of then water alone, and if that hot day happens to be in, say, any of the deserts I've been through this summer, that's important.

Of course, you're jolly well not having it at an SCA event (tea, arguably yes--ice, potentially yes, but jolly unlikely, and iced tea is Right Out). This leaves one flailing for something to fill that niche. There ought to be some sort of period-accessible flavored beverage that's not too sweet, has a tart and/or tannic ring to it--something non-alcoholic and pleasant served at room temperature or summat lower, in order to prevent one from fainting in coils and giving the Chiurgeons Something to Do.

They don't actually want anything to do, you know. They´d much rather be bored, really.

Thus do we define, as Cariadoc of the Bow puts it, the Iced Tea Problem.

One of the answers listed in his Miscellany is sekanjabin, which I had the good fortune to try while sojourning with Jennifer/Wander/lferion in Atenveldt (and then discussed with him later). It boils down to a thicker-than-simple syrup, which one may dilute to taste, thus:


Dissolve 4 cups sugar in 2 1/2 cups of water; when it comes to a boil add 1 cup wine vinegar. Simmer 1/2 hour. Add a handful of mint, remove from fire, let cool. Dilute the resulting syrup to taste with ice water (5 to 10 parts water to 1 part syrup). The syrup stores without refrigeration.

Note: This is the only recipe in the Miscelleny that is based on a modern source: A Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden. Sekanjabin is a period drink; it is mentioned in the Fihrist of al-Nadim, which was written in the tenth century. The only period recipe I have found for it (in the Andalusian cookbook) is called "Sekanjabin Simple" and omits the mint. It is one of a large variety of similar drinks described in that cookbook-flavored syrups intended to be diluted in either hot or cold water before drinking.

[This is a recipe from Cariadoc's Miscellany. The Miscellany is Copyright (c) by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992. This notice is in compliance with the authors' wishes with regard to citation.]

At the cited concentration, two quarts (or liters) of syrup can flavor 5 gallons (20 litres) of water. So, that's one answer, and one you can concoct ahead of time and bring to an event.

Sekanjibin, of course, is not the only answer to The Problem of Iced Tea. In an episode of Good Eats that first aired in 2006, "Just Barley", Alton Brown introduced the US--at least the foodie/geeky subset, to barley water. The picture in the Wikipedia entry I linked to looks more like the Russian malted rye soda that I drank at one of my other events this past summer, but never mind.

His recipe is, of course, available online, but I include it here for completeness, and I've add metric and mass-based measures.

Alton Brown's Barley Water

  • 2 qt (2 L) water (4 lb/2 kg by weight)

  • 1 cup (237 mL) hulled barley (7 oz/200 g by weight)

  • 2 lemons, zested and juiced

  • 1/4 c (4 T/60 mL) honey (3 oz/85 g by weight)

  • Directions
    Place the water and barley into a medium saucepan; cover, set over high heat and bring to a boil. Once the barley comes to a boil, decrease the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. While the liquid is cooking, peel the lemons, being careful not to cut into the white pith. Juice the lemons and place the juice along with the peel into a 3-quart pitcher and set aside.

    After 30 minutes, strain the barley water through a fine mesh strainer into the pitcher. Discard the barley. Add the honey and stir to combine. Refrigerate until chilled.

    In the episode, he adds that it's even better when it sits on the zest overnight before drinking, and I concur. Once strained, I usually add water until it's up to the expected volume, and I often double or triple this recipe so I have enough for several days.

    My own experiments with barley water have all been with this purple barley, which brews up a lovely purplish-pink color.

    I really can't bring myself to discard the barley! True, a lot of the virtue of this most excellent whole grain has gone into the water, but there's got to be good stuff left in the grains, and, and--it's wasting food, durnit. I keep it on hand to use as a bland filler, not unlike rice; after half an hour in that much water, it's ready to eat (if chewy), and you can also put it back on the heat to simmer some more in a broth or stock for more flavor and tenderness.

    I've also had fun with other flavor amendments, especially employing a spice blend similar to that in chai.

    This, of course is not something you can pre-mix and haul to an event as one might a bottle of sekanjibin syrup concentrate. However, whole grain barley is period for everything from every reconstructionist paganism ever on forward through the SCA--bring the dried stuff to your event along with whatever appropriate tart amendment and sweetener appeal to you, make a batch, and let it come to room temperature. Of course, if you leave it out like that long enough, it'll start to ferment...but proto-barley-wine is a different problem. ;)

    This will also encourage YOU, Gentle Reader, to hopefully procure, and consume, more barley. Do be careful about your barley when you buy it. In the overwhelming majority of stores, all you will be able to find is "pearl", or "pearled" barley. This is hopelessly bland, and has had nearly all of its virtue stripped away and sold for livestock feed--not unlike white rice. Your task for barley water (or any real appreciation of this cereal grain) is to look further abroad: either to health food stores or, of course, the Intertubes. Pearled barley is a vehicle for those Evil White Carbs--but hulled features not only more taste and more health benefits, but also complex carbohydrates that most of us don't get in sufficient quantity.

    I took a gallon of this to a Hellenic Reconstructionist pagan event in honor of Demeter yesterday, where it was enjoyed by all. We duly informed the children that it was Ancient Greek Kool-Aid, and they liked it too! Properly, of course, when brewed in Demeter's honor it should have pennyroyal, or at least spearmint, in it. Alas, when I made this batch, I had none to hand (and no idea how much pennyroyal might be constitute a troublesome dose for the ladies).

    Of course, this recipe and its accompanying rant are completely wasted on those who can't handle gluten-bearing cereal grains. For most of you, I would recommend substituting brown rice for the hulled barley--except you, bearfairie, because anaphylaxis is so not a good look for you! Obviously, I need to experiment with millet and quinoa waters. 8-)

    So! Therewith, my current thoughts on The Problem of Iced Tea, and my current favorite solution: barley water!

    To your health!

    -- Lorrie


What of cucumber water? I seem to remember that being used as a cooling drink, though it's been some years.

That's also tasty--and easier than either of the above two. I'd add some mint along with the cucumbers to enhance the effect, too.

-- Lorrie

Nah, my husband just pre-brewed iced tea and brought it with him in the cooler. A brown liquid is a brown liquid. Could be whisky (he is Irish), but if you see Arrigan of Kerry drinking something out of a big wooden goblet, it is Really Iced Tea. Since Ice is hard to come by at Tourneys, we just kept it chilled in the cooler and he was happy.
And the horror of the Irish Bar Maid when we requested Iced Tea. One pot of boiling water, 1 tea bag, lots of sugar and two beer glasses with ice. Once she figured out we were NOT putting in Milk, she thought about it for one millisecond and went - "Oh, Like Iced Coffee." They do have Starbucks in Ireland. :)
Because some times you really just want to have Iced Tea.
And we did just enough research to find out that Sun Tea is period. Plus boiling it the usual way, and letting it cool down is also period. So if you drink it lukewarm, THAT is period. It's just the chilled part that is a Modern Idea.
The amount of sugar my husband sticks in it would probably help a king's ransom, but that more has to do with the price of sugar in the Middle Ages.
Some times, you just need to be creative.

Tasty beverages ftw!

I suppose technically, any herb you boil in water (that is not of the family Camellia sinensis) is actually a decoction (when you start adding meat or veggies you're now entering into soup/stew territoriy, of course); while any non-Camellia sinensis herb allowed to steep is an infusion, and many things can make for a tasty beverage when hot or cold infused... fruit, cucumbers, mint, chamomile, ginger, cloves, kittens... (just kidding - then there's fur in your beverage and they drip all over your furniture when they leap out of the pitcher...)

I haven't tried quinoa water.... I have no idea if that would be awesome or gross (I'm remembering that odd quinoa smoothie thing we shared at some point... you know, the alarmingly lavender colored one...). Teff has an interesting enough flavor that I might try that grain instead of quinoa. hm.

yay tasty beverage adventures!

Ah, so the difference between a decoction and an infusion is whether it is boiled or steeped? Presumably the period matters (being English I insist that tea is made with boiling water (and the pot warmed first), but it only stays boiling for a few seconds and after that it steeps in the water). I'd wondered, because a lot of people seem to use them interchangeably (many more, of course, refer to both as 'tea').

I don't like cold tea (and dislike all forms of coffee). There are a few teas I like black (certain Assam/Ceylon blends), most with milk, all with sugar. I don't like the 'perfumed' ones like Earl Grey...

(Pity Gatorade isn't period. Not that it stops the fighters drinking a lot of it...)

Your posts are always so fascinating!

There's also things like small beer, ginger beer/ale, birch beer, ciders, and if you're oriented to Eastern Europe, kvass.

Oh, I didn't know that about hulled barley -- thanks! I had tried making barley tea previously with the pearled barley, and it was okay but not spectacular. I bet it'd be a lot better with the earthier stuff... you have indeed inspired me to give it another try!

Actually, some of us have been drinking barley water for decades. :) I'll have to try the Purple Barley, though, fortunately there are a couple of places in the Seattle area that carry it.

another thought on the SCA part

Extreme cold and some ices are known to have been produced in period by alchemical processes (which are also the origin of early chemical ice makers); by extrapolation, an argument could be made that iced tea was a by-product of an alchemical experiment.

Barley water

Barley is period for lots of times and places. Do we know where and when barley water was used and how it was made?