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All About Sweet Tea, the South’s Favorite Beverage

If one drink can define a region, this is it

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sweet tea in a jar Josh Lowensohn/Flickr

Close your eyes and picture your stereotypical idea of “the South.” You might see folks in their Sunday best, sitting on a shady front porch and enjoying glasses of sweet tea from a large pitcher. It’s a cliche, but like most cliches, there’s a dollop truth to it. Sweet tea is the elixir of the genteel, Southern gods.

Why, though, is the sucrose-laden beverage ubiquitous in the South and mostly ignored everywhere else in America? What’s the story behind sweet tea?

When did Americans begin drinking tea?

Consumption of hot tea made its way to the Colonies via British expats, and the first attempts at homegrown tea cultivation occurred near Savannah, Georgia, in the late 18th century (major success wasn’t had until the founding of Summerville, South Carolina’s Pinehurst Tea Plantation in 1888). When they weren’t drinking varieties grown in the United States, Southern Americans mostly consumed imported green teas. Black teas from China and India wouldn’t become popular until the the turn of the 20th century. By the middle of the 1800s, advancements in refrigeration led to the rise of tea served over ice — a refreshingly cool answer to a hot summer day in the time before air conditioning.

When did sugar come into the mix?

Marian Cabell Tyree was the mental giant who first thought to print a recipe for sweet tea — she called it “ice tea” — publishing it in a cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia in 1879. Tyree advised home cooks to brew a batch of green tea in the morning if the desire was to serve it with supper. “Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar,” she wrote. “A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.”

The beverage was derived from “tea punch,” which typically included sugar as well as a hearty amount of alcohol in one form or another. Its popularity eventually begat the inevitable commercial production by large companies such as Lipton and Luzianne. Smaller operations with loyal followings abound too. For example: Go door to door in the Birmingham, Alabama, metro area and you’ll find many a refrigerator chilling gallon jugs of Milo’s Famous Sweet Tea.

jugs of milo's sweet tea Milo’s Famous Sweet Tea/Facebook

Just how sweet is it?

If progressive, health-conscious policy makers ever get soda taxes passed across America, they may want to also turn their attention toward sweet tea. An 8-ounce glass of Lipton’s version contains 23 grams of sugar, just three grams fewer than the same serving of Coca-Cola Classic. It’s really sweet. Pro-tip: If you’re dining out and the thought of that much sugar sends you into diabetic shock, order “half-and-half.” A mix of sweet and unsweet (when sweet is the norm, regular old iced tea is called “unsweet”) this might be more palatable.

How does one make it at home?

Marian Cabell Tyree advised pouring tea into a goblet containing ice and sugar, but that is a poor method. Stir in the sweetener while the brew is still hot, otherwise you’ll have a glass of tea with a pile of sugar at the bottom. This results in a dilemma for Southerners who venture out to other parts of the world and attempt to order sweet tea at restaurants. If it isn’t on the menu, sprinkling a sugar packet into “iced tea” will be a disappointment.

As with many foods from the regional, Georgia boy Alton Brown offers a winning recipe. Brown sweetens his tea with simple syrup and he boosts the flavor with fresh mint.

sweet tea with mint Shutterstock

Why is sweet tea such a big deal?

Like so many contributions to American cuisine associated with this part of the country — barbecue, cornbread dressing, etc. — sweet tea has gained an almost mythological status. Give a Southerner a pen, or a computer keyboard, anyway, and they’ll wax poetically on a beverage that is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s one of those cultural icons that helps to define “The Way Things Are Down Here” and “Back Where I Come From” and so on.

  • In “Chicken Fried,” Zac Brown Band’s four-time platinum earworm about Southern bro life, the drink is referenced in the seventh line: “With sweet tea, pecan pie, and homemade wine.” If you want to write a modern country song that’s guaranteed to rake in the dough, be sure to mention Southern cliches such as sweet tea.
  • In a 2008 edition of Garden & Gun magazine, West Virginia-born journalist Allison Glock wrote, “When I was stuck in New York for a stint, a bout of homesickness led me to get the words sweet tea tattooed on my left arm. I could think of nothing else that so perfectly encapsulated the South of my pining. Now that I have moved home, it serves less as a touchstone and more as a drink order.”
  • “Sweet tea is our love offering, poured for family and neighbors and even the guy trying to sell us new gutters,” Charlotte-based journalist Tommy Tomlinson wrote in 2010. “And at its most basic, sweet tea is a cold blast on a hot day, like a dip in a river from the inside out.”

The list could go on and on, but you get the idea. I don’t know why we have to ascribe such emotions to simple food items. It seems to be a way to remind ourselves who we are.

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