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On a hot summer day, sweet tea is one of our favorite beverages to drink on the porch or in the yard. Unfortunately, both heat and sugar can cause sweet tea to go bad quickly. Sweet tea can last for a decent amount of time but we need to know how long to prevent drinking anything unhealthy.
How Long Does Sweet Tea Last?
Sweet tea lasts about 2 hours at room temperature, about a week if refrigerated in a sealed container, or 2-3 days in a refrigerator after opening. The additional sugar in the tea causes it to not last as long as unsweetened tea.
There are many variables that we will discuss in this article that can allow sweet tea to last longer, and others that may cause it to go bad more quickly. Most factors have to do with temperature, where more time spent in a cold environment will help prevent the tea from breaking down.
Pre-packaged bottles of sweet tea will generally last for a few years as long as they are unopened and stored correctly. We will be discussing sweet tea made at home.
Sugar and Sweet Tea
Sweet tea is, as its name implies, sweetened. Making sweet tea consists of sugar being added when the tea is still hot, while the tea is still in the process of been brewed, or directly after. Sugar added to a hot beverage will dissolve and combine with it quickly and efficiently as opposed to when it is added to cold liquid.
Hot liquid has more energy than cold liquid, allowing the water molecules to interact more with the sugar molecules.
The sugars in sweet tea leave it more susceptible to bacterial and other biological growth. The glucose from sugar gives microorganisms something extra to feed on. This causes sweet tea to not last as long as tea that has not been sweetened. Regular tea can last about 8 hours at room temperature.
Temperature and Sweet Tea
While it is brewed at high water temperatures, sweet tea is almost always enjoyed as a cold beverage. The time between when the tea is hot and when it gets cold is very important to how long the sweet tea will last.
There is a temperature range between 40F and 141F where conditions are very good for bacterial growth. In kitchens, this is known as the danger zone, and keeping food products out of that range is a part of the everyday safety practices that restaurant professionals have been trained in.
If sweet tea is left out to cool at room temperature, it is going to spend a lot of time in that zone as it drops from around 200F to approximately 75F. Getting it from that point down to safe refrigerated levels will leave it in unsafe temperatures for longer. The safest thing to do is to get that temperature down as quickly as possible.
Refrigerating Sweet Tea
Keeping sweet tea cold is the key to helping it last for more than a few hours. Some health advice states that iced tea in general should not be kept for over 24 hours, but when properly brewed, cooled, and handled, it should last a few days.
Getting sweet tea quickly down to a comfortable and safe temperature can be performed by placing it in the refrigerator immediately after brewing. The cooling process will normally take about an hour for a gallon, but it is safer to speed it along.
- Be sure your tea container can withstand large temperature swings – Thick plastic works well for this, but heavy glass containers can be used as well. Avoid Pyrex, it can spectacularly fail due to thermal shock.
- Brew a strongly concentrated tea – Brew about ¼ the amount of water with 4 times the amount of tea.
- Pour the brewed, concentrated tea into cold water – Put 3 parts cold water into a pitcher or other container, and pour the fourth part of concentrate into it. The final result will not be a completely cold beverage ready for drinking, but it will save you a lot of time and frustration.
When refrigerating sweet tea, it will last the longest if you store it in a sealed container. As soon as you open that container though, you are introducing oxygen and possibly bacteria into the tea. The tea will then start to slowly lose its flavor, and possibly grow unsafe microorganisms.
Checking if Sweet Tea is Still Good
To check whether sweet tea is still good, first look for any changes in color if it is in a clear container. Darker or cloudy areas in the tea that was not there immediately after brewing are good indicators that it is starting to go bad.
Look to see if there are any lines above the top of the liquid level indicating evaporation or crystallization. Thick or solid areas of concentrated liquid along the sides, at the top of the container, or especially in and around a drain spout could mean that the sweet tea is unsafe.
The smell of the tea can also tip you off if the visual examination was not conclusive. Sweet tea that is going bad can start to have an off smell. If it smells more like milk than tea, dispose of it immediately.
Finally, taste the tea. If it tastes sour it has gone bad. If it just does not have as much flavor as when it was first brewed, it will probably be safe to drink, but possibly not as enjoyable.
Can Sweet Tea Be Left Out Overnight?
Sweet tea is very susceptible to spoilage, so do not leave it out overnight. If you accidentally leave a batch out for more than a few hours without some sort of refrigeration, you should throw the whole batch away.
Does Sweet Tea Need To Be Refrigerated?
If you plan on drinking sweet tea more than a few hours after it is brewed, it needs to be refrigerated. It will only last a few hours at room temperature, but if you keep it cold with ice it may last longer.
Why Does Sweet Tea Go Sour?
The added sugar in sweet tea can make it go bad faster than other teas. In some instances where sweet tea is left out too long, or there are bacteria in the serving container, it will taste sour.
Can Old Sweet Tea Make You Sick?
If you brewed it yourself, old sweet tea may grow bacteria that could cause food poisoning. If you purchased it in a sealed container from a shop or grocery store and it is expired, it is unlikely to make you sick. It won’t taste very fresh, but it should be safe.
When it comes down to it, sweet tea really does not last very long as compared to other beverages. There is anecdotal evidence of people keeping pitchers of brewed sweet tea in their refrigerator for up to a week, but that does not mean that tea will be safe or enjoyable for everyone.
When in doubt with any food product, dispose of it instead of serving it to your family or friends. The risk of food poisoning or other problems brought about by bad sweet tea is really not worth it.
Scott is the founder of TeaMinded. He enjoys tasting and discovering teas from across the globe, with green teas and ceremonial matcha from Japan being among his favorites. He’s grateful to be immersed in the tea community, always learning and sharing along the journey.