Take a walk down the chilled beverage case at a convenience store and you pick up on one unignorable rule: You can sell whatever you want as long as it's sweet. Doesn't matter if it's Coke, coconut water, or coffee—as long as it's made with sugar or sugar substitutes, someone's probably willing to buy what you're selling.
But sweet doesn't work for me. Come the barest hint of warm weather, I turn into a gulper. Pudgy, pale, Polish stock like mine doesn't take well to New York's shvitzy heat and humidity, so in spring and summer I rely on that feckless medical maxim: drink more fluids. A few sugary drinks a day means far too many grams of sugar for my diet, and while some of us may be fine sucking down Diet Coke like there's no tomorrow, sweet calorie-free drinks are too cloying from me to gulp in bulk.
The leftover un-sweet choices are few: fake-tasting seltzer, preservative-heavy juices, and iced black coffee. The golden exception, and my drink of choice? Iced tea.
Yet even in the iced tea category, finding an unsweetened bottle is a chore. Almost every American producer of the stuff heavily sweetens theirs, and it's virtually all flavored, too, because beyond the sugar thing, there's a second constant of selling drinks to us Americans: tea is fine as long as it doesn't taste like tea. Which would in itself be fine, if the pomegranate-mint-mango green tea tasted halfway decent, like those real ingredients instead of test tube flavoring. But it rarely ever does.
This isn't the case across Asia. Walk into a convenience store in Japan, China, Taiwan, or Singapore, and you may be greeted by a whole fridge devoted to bottled iced tea in dozens of varieties, most of which comes unsweetened and unflavored. There's nothing more perfect for those countries' so-humid-the-air-is-turning-to-water summer days, and whenever I go, I try to sample a new one every day just because I can.
Back home, that embarrassment of riches gets whittled down to just one Asian brand that's seen commercial American success: the Japanese Ito En, which sells tea under their own label and through the Western-facing brand Teas' Tea. The line is mostly green tea rather than black, with some white, oolong, and floral flavors rounding out the selection. For summer gulping, a chilled bottle of Japanese iced tea is a godsend: crisp, clean, and refreshing, not too bitter or astringent, and definitely not too sweet. It tastes like real-deal tea, not honey, fake fruit, or any other mishegas.
There are, though, a few American brands of unsweetened, unflavored iced tea, and until now I've never tasted the Japanese teas against their unsweetened American competition. So I wrangled up as many bottles as I could find and sat down for a double-blind tasting. With so many styles and varieties of iced tea, it's hard to pick any as the "best," but there are some general principles to know to help you find the tea just right for you.
Japanese Iced Tea Smokes the Western Stuff
Across the board, even the worst Japanese iced tea was tastier than most of the Western ones. Some of the Western brands added "natural" flavors that felt like anything but; even the "pure" Western teas seem designed to appeal to Snapple drinkers more than tea lovers. (One brand selling itself as plain tea even went so far as to include natural flavorings to offset the tea's acidity.) But these drinks aren't Snapple, and they're not sweet, so they wind up satisfying neither camp.
The Japanese tea is simply higher quality: more flavorful and rounded with nice aromas and pronounced finishes that linger in your throat. Ito En's green teas enjoy a balance of sweetness, crispness, and gentle bitterness for a little structure; the Western greens are way too grassy, with cloudy coloring and a distinct overbrewed taste. The Japanese win out on the darker teas, too: a semi-oxidized Ito En oolong or their "dark" green tea is full and rich, while the Western black teas veer towards too tannic and sour—not very clean.
That acidity prompted me to take a closer look at the teas' ingredient lists. Bottled iced tea needs some kind of acidic preservative, but it turns out different brands used different kinds. The Japanese teas all use ascorbic acid (vitamin C), while the Western ones opt for citric acid. I didn't take pH levels of each of the teas, so I can't say whether it's the choice of acid or the way it's used, but the Japanese brands don't let the preservatives get in the way of the tea itself.
Ito En = More Bitter; Teas' Tea = More Sweet
The Japanese tea palate appreciates the balance and structure a touch of bitterness lends to tea; Americans tend to like theirs more sweet. So it's not surprising that Ito En's Western-focused Teas' Tea brand is a little more gentle and sweet than their Japanese editions.
Ito En's Oi Ocha green tea, for instance, leaves a kiss of bitterness at the back of your tongue before mellowing out into a sweet, throaty aftertaste. The Teas' Tea versions (either straight green or green cut with subtle white) rely less on bitterness and more on sweet aromas and flavors. The same goes for the oolongs; Ito En's has some roasted charcoal brusqueness on the end while Teas' Tea is smoother and more honey-like.
Green = Most Refreshing
If you're looking for the single most refreshing option out there, stick to the greens. "Green" doesn't necessarily mean light—some of Ito En's and Teas' Tea's greens are nutty and roasty. But these greens have the cleanest, crispest bite you'll find, and their sweetness is tempered by a vegetal note that's, well, green. By contrast, the iced oolongs have a more honeyed and floral aroma with a softer, fuller flavor, more like black tea minus the tannins. If you're a black tea lover looking to try the Japanese stuff, or want something with a little more body, start there. But the oolongs aren't quite as refreshing as the greens.
Your Best Buys
It's hard to go wrong with any of the Japanese teas, and much of your choice will come down to personal preference, but here are some cheat sheet liner notes to keep in mind:
- Teas' Tea Pure & Smooth Green: Crisp and clean with a gentle sweetness, mellow with a subtle roasted flavor for balance.
- Teas' Tea Smooth & Subtle Green and White: Milder than the pure green with a more delicate sweetness and less of a bitter edge.
- Ito En Oi Ocha Green Tea: A darker, more roasted-tasting green than the Teas' Tea, with some bitterness that gives way to a deep green sweetness down the throat.
- Ito En Dark Oi Ocha Green Tea: A polarizing tea, so we'll call this an honorable mention. It's very dark with a big roasted barley bite. If you want an iced tea with a savory edge, or something that'll stand up to the diluting power of ice cubes, this is it. You may want to steer clear otherwise.
- Tejava: Another honorable mention. The only Western brand I'd buy, and the only bottled black tea worth drinking. The brew is a little flat, but the tea has a pleasant smokiness, gentle nectar verve, and mild tannin bite that black tea lovers will appreciate. It's also about half the price, per ounce, of the Japanese brands.