Mostly, I drink unsweetened tea. However, on the rare occasion that I get sweet tea, I have noticed that it doesn't seem to cool down as quickly as unsweetened tea. Is there a reason for this, or am I just imagining things? I was wondering if it had something to do with the cooling properties of natural sugar, but that's just a guess.

Typically, I put quite a bit of ice in the tea and I use a straw so I'm drinking from the bottom of the cup.

As an experiment, I pulled the straw to the top of the cup (in the middle of the ice) when drinking sweet tea and the tea felt considerably colder.

Any thoughts?

  • Related on physics.SE: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/2066/…
    – ghoppe
    Feb 28, 2012 at 16:12
  • Are you stirring the tea as you go? Or just adding ice and drinking?
    – Sam Ley
    Feb 28, 2012 at 18:46
  • @Sam Occasionally, I stir or shake the glass, but not so much as to call the tea "stirred". Vague I know, sorry. Feb 28, 2012 at 18:56
  • Thanks - as you can see this has become a complex fluid dynamics problem. Amazing how much chemistry and phsyics is really going on inside of something as simple as a glass of tea.
    – Sam Ley
    Feb 28, 2012 at 18:57

3 Answers 3


TL;DR = The sweet tea takes longer to cool down because there is a lot more stuff in it to get cold.

When cooling unsweetened tea, you are cooling almost pure water (the tea solids are negligible). A 12 ounce glass of unsweetened tea has about, you guessed it, 12 oz (by weight) of liquid to cool, or 340 grams (mass).

Southern-style sweet tea (if this is the "sweet tea" you are referring to), has a 2:1 ratio (by volume) of tea to sugar. A 12 ounce glass of sweet tea has 12 oz (by weight) of tea, and 5-6 ounces of sugar (by weight - 8 oz of sugar by volume = ~7 oz by weight). This puts the total weight of the beverage at 18 ounces or 510 grams (by mass).

The sweet tea, in this example, has 50% MORE mass than the unsweetened tea! This extra mass will take more time to cool down, because there is a lot more STUFF to get cold. It occupies the same volume, but there are a LOT more molecules to chill.

Compounding factors:

  • Heat Capacity vs. Specific Heat: A detail to this is that a solution of sugar and water has a lower specific heat (by MASS unit) than pure water, so the total heat capacity of the sweet tea is not quite 150% of the heat capacity of the unsweetened tea, but somewhere between 100% and 150%. Intuition would put it somewhere in the 130%-140% range. Read the physics.SE question linked above for some details on that calculation. Rest assured, however, that the heat capacity of the sucrose solution is higher than pure water.
  • Conductivity: I've ignored the thermal conductivity of the solution, since I'm assuming that the stirring in the tea makes the small conductivity differences between the solutions negligible, but that calculation could be done as well.
  • Convection: Unstirred sweet tea will experience less convection than unstirred unsweetened tea. In the unstirred sweet tea, dense sucrose solution will remain at the bottom while the cold water from the melting ice will sit on the surface (you can actually see this visually if the tea is sufficiently colored). This slows cooling by slowing the mixing of the cold liquid with the warm liquid. In unsweetened tea the cool liquid will sink the bottom, promoting convection and self-mixing. However, convection is a side-issue to the primary point, the total heat capacity of the beverage.

And as a final note, explanations like this really make it obvious how annoying it is that US measurements use ounces for both volume AND weight.

  • I'm not sure you can ignore conduction. Since ice floats and a pure water solution is quite a bit less dense, you would expect the cool water to sink in the pure solution, but not necessarily in the sugar solution.
    – ghoppe
    Feb 28, 2012 at 17:49
  • Convection, not conduction, but yes, I agree that the sweet tea will see reduced convection, but even stirred tea will cool slower than unsweetened.
    – Sam Ley
    Feb 28, 2012 at 18:04
  • Added some details to include convection, since that is a valid point. However, I am confident that the primary driver of the phenomenon is the total heat capacity of the sweetened tea.
    – Sam Ley
    Feb 28, 2012 at 18:21
  • Since he clearly stated the straw goes to the bottom of the glass, I still disagree since certainly the warmer tea will remain on the bottom, but I think this answer is still pretty good!
    – ghoppe
    Feb 28, 2012 at 18:34
  • I suppose we need some more information from the OP. I think my answer addresses the overall question as stated, but his straw raising/lowering experiment does suggest that he's experiencing the convection aspect.
    – Sam Ley
    Feb 28, 2012 at 18:45

Ice will actually cool a hot beverage faster than a cold beverage. There's two things happening here.

  1. The ice is absorbing heat from the water, cooling it through conduction (contact) and convection (flow)
  2. The ice is melting, absorbing HUGE amounts of heat to overcome the Latent Heat of Fusion (i.e. Break the crystal structure of ice). This melting of ice and the related absorption of energy is the single largest factor in cooling a drink.

When you put the ice in a hotter beverage, the ice melts faster, and this heat of fusion cools your drink faster.

When you put ice in unsweetened tea, it's temperature is near 100 degrees C, and it will start the ice melting very quickly. When you add sugar to tea, it will cool it immediately. It takes energy to break the crystal structure, and this has to come from the tea, thus reducing the temperature by a small, but significant amount.

This lower temperature doesn't cause the ice to melt as quickly, slowing down the cooling process.

Of course, over a long enough time frame, everything approaches room temperature.

Also, the rate of heat transfer (flux) is driven by the difference in temperature between Hot and Cold. The greater the difference in temperature, the faster heat flows.

  • This explanation suggests the opposite of the OP's claim. I'm skeptical of that claim myself, but if that's what you're trying to say, I think you should make it clearer in your answer.
    – Aaronut
    Feb 28, 2012 at 15:17
  • Thanks for your answer. That's different than what I was experiencing for sure and your answer makes a lot of sense to me. I'm wondering if I misinterpreted what was going on. Feb 28, 2012 at 15:28
  • Your first two points are right on, but I'm not sure if I agree entirely with your rate explanation for the tea temperature. It is true that the rate of heat transfer is proportional to the delta-T, but as the delta drops, the rate will drop as well. The hot beverage will be cooling at a faster rate initially, but the cold beverage has a long head-start, and will still win the race.
    – Sam Ley
    Feb 28, 2012 at 16:56

My answer is similar to @SamLey, in that we agree the cause is the higher density of sugar solution water. But I have a slightly different take. TL;DR Convection is reduced in a denser solution, so the cold water surrounding the ice isn't carried away as quickly and the ice melts more slowly.

All the data i've found shows that sucrose solutions have a lower specific heat than pure water so one would expect it to cool more quickly. (But who knows how the actual tea components affect it.)

I think the effect you're seeing is due to the density of the sucrose solution.

Ignoring the tea components, a sucrose solution is more dense than a pure water solution. As the ice cube melts in a pure water solution, the cooling water surrounding the cube sinks to the bottom of the glass and the warmer water at the bottom rises, therefore there is increased heat transfer as the warmer water breaks the bonds in the ice more quickly.

But in the sugar solution, the denser water stays at the bottom of the glass and doesn't rise at all. Without any convection currents to carry the cold water away from the ice cube, it melts much more slowly. Also note this effect is compounded by the fact that the melting ice is making the solution less concentrated near the top, so it is even less dense around the ice as it melts.

Since the denser, warmer water stays at the bottom of the glass, naturally it seems to you that the tea is cooling more slowly. This agrees with your observation that if you move the straw to the middle of the ice, the temperature gradient feels a lot greater than in the unsweetened tea.

EDIT: Experiment?

An interesting experiment would be to use a thermometer to measure the temperature after a fixed time of the unsweetened and sweetened tea with ice without any stirring, and then perform the experiment a second time stirring every 30s or so. I would guess that the constantly agitated sweet tea will cool faster than the unsweetened tea, but the undisturbed sweet tea will cool more slowly than the unsweetened tea.

  • Sucrose solutions have a lower specific heat than pure water by mass unit, not by volume unit. Since the mass of sweet tea is somewhere around 50% higher than pure water, the total heat capacity of the beverage is still significantly higher. It does make sense that the convection issue would contribute to the problem as you describe, but it doesn't replace the heat capacity problem, it only compounds it. In your experiment, even a tea-stirrer would experience slower cooling in sweet tea than unsweetened.
    – Sam Ley
    Feb 28, 2012 at 18:03
  • @SamLey Good point. I was working under the assumption of same mass of solution.
    – ghoppe
    Feb 28, 2012 at 18:08

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