The Coolest Tea: Iced Tea
The origin of iced tea, if not entirely accurate, is at least refreshing. The story goes like this: By 1904, America stabilized her government, strengthened her economy, and expanded her borders and interests. The United States was now ready for the world to see her development at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Trade exhibitors from around the world brought their products to America’s first World’s Fair. One such merchant was Richard Blechynden, an English tea plantation owner. Originally, he had planned to give away free samples of his hot tea to attendees. But when a heat wave hit, no one was interested. Parched from the temperature, visitors would pass his booth in search of a cooler refreshment. To save his investment of time and travel, he dumped a load of ice into the brewed tea and served the first iced tea. It was (along with the Egyptian fan dancer) the hit of the Fair.
However, tea historians must acknowledge the fact that tea was often enjoyed at cooler temperatures in the South long before that. For similar (heat) reasons, tea was allowed to cool before serving (with ice if possible, but this was rare at the time due to lack of refrigeration technology). This was usually served with sugar (to taste), called Sweet Tea. Sweet tea, as our Southern constituents will attest, is still enjoyed to this day.
Unfortunately, contemporary iced tea has received a bum rap in the US. While more than 80% of tea’s consumption in the US is in the form of iced tea, most of it is in a form that bears little resemblance to tea: syrupy, over-flavored, stale and artificial beverages.
New ideas in iced tea are on the horizon. Instead of using loads of sugar and artificial flavor, this new tea movement retraces its steps to simple, pure, delicious tea. Thanks to the abundant availability of quality tea and good water, you can make a refreshing, healthy beverage… an Iced Tea worthy to be called Tea.
Although the popular standard for iced tea is usually black tea (typically a low-quality Ceylon or cheap, vaguely-labeled «China tea»), any tea can be «iced.» Next time you thirst for a frosty glass of tea, reach for something different: great iced teas can be made from Black, Oolong, Green, White, and even Pu’erh.
Yet another idea for iced tea is not actually a tea at all, rather an Iced Tisane (or herbal beverage). Building upon the renewed popularity iced tea has recently enjoyed, many companies are shying away from the seemingly flooded iced black tea market, turning instead to non-caffeinated, but equally delicious, herbals. New beverages, such as Iced Red (Rooibos) «tea,» Iced Ginger «tea» and Iced Mint «tea,» provide a perfect alternative for the caffeine-sensitive (or those who are just trying to get some sleep).
It is very easy to make iced tea, and made from real leaves, it tastes great. To make a cup, simply double the amount of tea leaves (usually making it two teaspoons per cup of water), and steep as usual. Once tea is ready, dilute with an equal amount of ice. Garnish with mint or lemon and enjoy its great taste. Some teas, particularly tippy black teas, will cloud when iced quickly. This is just visual and won’t affect the flavor. To prevent clouding, dilute your double-strength brewed tea with cool water instead, and serve over ice only when you’re ready to enjoy it. If making iced tea for a group of friends, keep your serving pitcher at room temperature, adding ice to your drinking glasses. Refrigeration dulls the flavor, while adding ice to a big pitcher of tea will water it down over the afternoon. Enjoy within 12 hours of brewing. Ahh! Refresh and repeat!
Any way you brew it, the most important thing to remember when making iced tea is quality. For the best iced tea, you’ll need the best tea.
History of Iced Tea
The story of Iced Tea is an American one. These delicious beverages, particularly fruit-infused ones, were first popularised just prior to the American War for independence, when high taxes on Tea imports, instigated by the British crown, led to revolution.
First came the 1773 Boston Tea Party, which saw 342 chests of Green Tea thrown into the Boston Harbour in protest of these taxes. This was the spark that brought about war. And in turn, this brought about British blockades surrounding American waters.
The blockades led to a limited supply of Tea, even more so than the Boston Tea Party had initially. Americans needed an alternative beverage, and so they looked to what was readily available across the land, that being a multitude of herbs, that also being a multitude of fruits.
For a while, during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Fruit Teas became known as “Freedom Teas”. They were consumed both hot and cold. Could this be the first example of an Iced Tea in history? It is unlikely. But it certainly gave rise to a new future in Iced Tea.
Throughout the early 19th Century, Iced Teas existed in the shadows, mostly confined to households with secret family recipes. A few English and American cookbooks from the 1800’s refer to Iced Teas, most of which used Green Tea as the base ingredient and were often “spiked” with hard liquor!
One such recipe from 1839 reads: “Tea Punch – Make a pint and a half of very strong Tea in the usual manner; strain it, and pour it boiling (hot) on one pound and a quarter of loaf sugar [2½ of white sugar].
Add half a pint of rich sweet cream and then stir in gradually a bottle of claret or of champagne. You may heat it to the boiling point and serve it so, or you may send it round entirely cold, in glass cups”.
By the mid-19th Century, word had got out a little more. Iced Tea drinks were considered a local custom in parts of the American south, namely North and South Carolina, particularly during and just after the American Civil War (1861-1865). One of the first official (emphasis on “official”) recipes for Iced Tea was published in Virginia in 1878.
Years later, in September 1890, a Missouri State Reunion of Ex-Confederate Veterans (servicemen who had fought against the Federal United States of America during the American Civil War, most of whom came from the American south) was held in Nevada, Missouri. Fifteen thousand veterans converged on the city of Nevada for a huge meal, one that saw over 11,000 pounds of beef cooked in preparation. The biggest surprise, however, was Iced Tea – 880 gallons of it!
The popularisation of Iced Tea, when it became a global phenomenon, is credited to one man named Richard Blechynden during the 1904 World’s Fair held in St Louis. On the first day of the event, one of the hottest days of the year, more than 200,000 people flooded the city to see the wonders of a new century.
Mr Blechynden, a Tea plantation owner and vendor, was offering samples of hot Tea, much to the distaste of many of those attending. No one wanted a hot drink on a hot day. Why would they?
Struggling to hold the attention of would-be customers, Richard Blechynden decided to pour the Tea on ice, a decision that would change the trajectory of his life as well as the Global Tea Industry. Unknowingly, Mr Blechynden had not only popularised Iced Tea-drinking in America but also, eventually, across the world! Iced Tea was here to stay.
And it became more popular still during the American Prohibition era (1920 – 1933), whereby citizens across the country were forced to find alternatives to their favourite now-illegal liquors, thus leading to a major boost for Iced Tea markets.
A short-lived slump came about during the Second World War while Japanese forces occupied much of Asia, leading to a heavier reliance on Tea imports from British-controlled India. By 1945, nearly 99% of Tea consumption in America was Black Tea – hot Black Tea at that!
But since then, the Iced Tea market has again dominated American markets. From New York to San Francisco, Seattle to Atlanta – Iced Tea is a much-loved luxury, one now travelling “across the pond” to be equally much-loved here in the UK!
As American As Iced Tea: A Brief, Sometimes Boozy History
You’d be forgiven for not knowing this, but Wednesday is National Iced Tea Day. And while it’s only an unofficial food holiday, it makes sense that Americans would set aside a day to celebrate this favorite summertime sip: We popularized it.
Tea itself, of course, has been consumed in America since Colonial times. (Remember the Boston Tea Party?) But before you could drinkiced tea, you needed ice — and that was a rare summer luxury until the early 1800s. New Englanders could cut large chunks of ice from frozen ponds and lakes in winter, then insulate it with sawdust so that it could last into the warmer months. But in the hot South, snow and ice didn’t exactly abound.
Then, around the turn of the 19th century, ice entrepreneurs from Northern U.S. states started shipping ice down to Southern states and the Caribbean. Americans would come to dominate the 19th century global ice trade. And there’s good reason to believe plenty of that ice was being used to serve tea on the rocks.
Early recipes had more in common with the booze-laden Long Island iced tea* than the stuff Lipton sells. Indeed, Americans were drinking iced tea in the form of alcohol-drenched punches at least as far back as the Colonial era.
The classic Philadelphia Fish House Punch, first imbibed in the early 1700s, was often diluted with tea. In his book Punch, liquor historian David Wondrich writes that the recipe for Regent’s Punch, dating to 1815, also packed quite the potent wallop: Not only did it call for green tea and arrack, a rumlike liquor from South Asia, it also threw in citrus juice, sugar, champagne, brandy and rum. No wonder, then, that one early drinker described the Regent’s as imparting a «mad, delirious dizziness,» as Wondrich writes. Overall, these strong, early punches had little in common with the light, fruity sippers served today.
Recipes for nonalcoholic iced tea didn’t appear in print until 1876 — when one was included in Estelle Woods Wilcox’s Buckeye Cookbook. A few years later, a recipe for sweet tea — now a Southern staple — was published in the cookbook Housekeeping In Old Virginia, Linda Stradley writes on What’s Cooking America.
But iced tea drinking habits really started to shift around the turn of the 20th century, when the nonalcoholic version was popularized at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Stradley writes that the hot summer weather caused fairgoers to ignore hot beverages in favor of cold ones — including iced tea. The fair’s 20 million visitors cooled themselves with iced tea and brought the new style back to their homes throughout the United States and the world.
While Prohibition sounded a death knell for tea punches, it was a boon for nonalcoholic iced teas. A 1921 book on the coffee and tea industry notes, «Since Prohibition has gone into effect, tea has been drunk in places not heretofore thought of.» Clubs and hotels looking for substitutes to hard liquor sales gravitated toward strong iced teas or virgin fruit punches — beverages with the bonus of being flavorful but legal. And when home refrigerators with freezers became available for the home market starting in the 1920s and ’30s, people didn’t even have to leave the house to grab a couple of ice cubes year-round.
Another advantage for iced tea? Tea leaves themselves had become more affordable.
As tea plantations took off in India and Ceylon, and countries in Africa started producing tea in the second half of the 19th century, the price of tea — once the product mainly of China — dropped considerably. The majority of the tea these countries produced was black, making it a more popular, economical choice.
Yet until World War II, American consumers were split almost equally between black and green tea consumption. As Marian Segal wrote in «Tea: a story of serendipity» for FDA Consumer magazine, the war cut off trade with China and Japan — the major suppliers of green tea — leaving Americans with British-supplied black teas from India. According to Segal, «Americans came out of the war drinking nearly 99 percent black tea.» Seven decades later, black tea is still the preferred version here.
According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., 85 percent of all tea consumed in the United States today is sipped cold. Whether you like your tea with a splash of liquor, poured into punches, or served simply on the rocks, you’re taking part in a 200-year-old tradition with every sip.
Learn how the South became synonymous with sweet tea
Ahhh, sweet iced tea. Refreshing, sweet and nearly everywhere in the South, it’s easy to take this ubiquitous drink for granted if you’ve grown up with it on your table for every meal. But if you’ve never thought about why Southern sweet tea has such a presence, it’s time to pour out some history on this saccharine yet tannic elixir.
While hot tea has been consumed for thousands of years by countless cultures, the iced, sugary variety that has become synonymous with the South only started showing up in Western cookbooks in the early 19th century. The rise of ice boxes and other refrigeration techniques was a necessary precursor to this delicious beverage becoming widespread.
Of course, the sweet tea we know today is quite different — in form and function — from the iced teas of the 1800s. While modern iced teas are wholesome, family-friendly beverages made from black tea leaves, early incarnations were made with green tea leaves and almost exclusively served as alcoholic punches at fancy parties.
What exactly did these green tea punches entail? One recipe, published in Lettice Bryan’s 1839 book The Kentucky Housewife, calls for combining a “very strong tea” with loads of sugar and sweet cream. “Then stir in gradually a bottle of claret [wine] or Champagne,” wrote Bryan. After boiling the final mix, she says that you can serve it immediately or “you may send it ‘round entirely cold in glass cups.”
Despite its unabashedly boozy roots, a combination of societal changes soon transformed the drink forever. First, green tea leaves were replaced with black tea leaves as increased importation from India, Africa and South America in the early 20th century made the darker varieties a more economical choice.
Second, advances in refrigeration technology made chilled drinks accessible to more people. Iced beverages went from a rare treat reserved for the rich to a common staple at family dinner tables.
Finally, Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920. Although alcohol became scarce after the federal government’s ban, the desire for refreshing sweet tea concoctions remained — even if that meant they would be consumed as glorified “mocktails.” After Prohibition was lifted in 1933, the fondness for non-alcoholic sweet tea remained a steady fixture of Southern life.
Of course, global trade, widespread refrigeration and Prohibition affected many aspects of U.S. culture. So how, in the immortal words of Dolly Parton, did iced tea become the “house wine of the South?”
The South is hot — swelteringly so. The moment icy beverages became available in the dead of summer, Southerners clutched on tight and never let go. Whether you’re spending hours laboring in the hot sun or wilting in the relentless humidity of a pre-air-conditioning-era home, there’s nothing more satisfying than gulping down a tall, icy glass of sweet tea.
Clearly, iced tea has had quite a journey. But aside from the gradual switch from green to black tea leaves, the basic formula for homemade sweet tea has remained the same.
It’s simple and easy: (1) steep a strong batch of hot tea, (2) mix in sugar (to taste) until well dissolved, (3) chill your pitcher in refrigerator, and (4) serve the cold tea in tall glasses over ice. To give the drink a little something extra, you can squeeze in lemon juice or add muddled mint leaves.
You can’t go wrong with this classic, non-alcoholic recipe. Although, if you’re suddenly feeling inspired by the history of this Southern standby, we can help there, too. Enjoy this delightful marriage of two of the South’s signature drinks: sweet tea and the mint julep.
While traditional mint juleps can be too intense for some palates, adding sweet tea to the equation ensures a smoother experience, all while preserving the signature aromatics of bourbon and mint. This drink is a natural fit for any rip-roaring Kentucky Derby party or 1920s speakeasy-themed soiree. Just follow the recipe and whip up a batch for your next front porch hangout.
Why «As Southern as Sweet Tea» Isn’t Very Southern at All
First, You Need Iced Tea
Before there was sweet tea, there was iced tea (or «ice tea,» as it’s colloquially referred to in the South). That means, simply, a beverage brewed from tea leaves, chilled over ice, and served cold. Iced tea can be flavored in any number of ways: a few squeezes of citrus, an infusion of fragrant spices, perhaps a bit of steeped mint. And, of course, it can be sweetened with sugar.
Though the phrase «sweetened iced tea» is grammatically correct, you’ll never hear it used in the South. Instead, iced tea that’s been presweetened is invariably called «sweet tea.» And by presweetened, we mean sweetened at the time it is brewed, by dissolving a sizable quantity of sugar directly in the hot tea base before diluting it with water or ice. You can sweeten iced tea with a packet of sugar or artificial sweetener just before you drink it, but sweet tea arrives all ready to go. Or, at least, that’s the way it works these days.
The practice of drinking iced tea dates back to the 19th century, which is quite a bit earlier than most popular food histories allege. One of the most commonplace origin stories traces iced tea’s invention to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Richard Blechynden, the commissioner of Indian tea, had set up shop in the India Pavilion to promote the black teas of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). One sweltering summer day, when few passersby were interested in a cup of hot tea, a desperate Blechynden reportedly decided to pour his tea over ice. In a flash, the story goes, an iconic American beverage was born.
Many other accounts stop short of claiming that Blechynden actually invented iced tea from scratch, but nonetheless credit him with popularizing and commercializing an otherwise rare, under-the-radar drink. The problem is, there’s simply no historical evidence to support that claim—or virtually any other story about food items that were supposedly launched at the 1904 exposition.
Though Richard Blechynden was indeed present at the India Pavilion that year, World’s Fair historian Pamela J. Vaccaro points out that a man named N. B. Reed had earned over $2,000 (about $50,000 in 2016 dollars) selling iced tea at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. More to the point, even at that earlier date, it was already a well-established beverage.
Tea had been used as an ingredient in chilled beverages starting in at least the early 19th century. Lettice Bryan’s 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, includes a recipe for «tea punch» that calls for pouring hot tea over sugar before mixing in cream and Champagne or claret wine. Tea was often incorporated into the infamous Southern militia punches, like the Chatham Artillery Punch, the signature drink of an elite Savannah militia unit; along with a dose of citrus, the tea helped mask the whopping amount of alcohol in a libation that tended to lay low even the stoutest of military heroes.
It wasn’t until just before the Civil War, though, that people started drinking iced tea as a stand-alone beverage. In 1856, Richmond, Virginia druggist S. P. Semple advertised that, at his soda fountain, «the exhilarating effects of a glass of iced Tea or Coffee [would] speak for themselves.» The following year, the Saturday Evening Post ran a short editorial advocating tea as a summer drink. «Tea made strong,» the Post argued, «well sweetened, with good milk or better cream in it in sufficient quantity to give it a dark yellow color, and the whole mixture cooled in an ice chest…is the most delicious, the most soothing, the most thirst allaying drink.»
The Post piece was reprinted in newspapers across the country, but it inspired few Americans to adopt the beverage. Two months later, a second Post editorial expressed dismay that «our saloon keepers don’t advertise these delightful drinks ‘which cheer but not inebriate'» and lamented, «We suppose it will be a century before the public finds out what luxuries iced tea and coffee are in the summer solstice.»
The public actually found it out much sooner, for 1868 was iced tea’s breakout year. On July 6 of that summer, the Boston Journal declared, «During the heated term there is nothing so invigorating as iced tea. A slice of lemon no thicker than a wafer placed in each tumbler adds to the relish.» The New-York Commercial Advertiser ran the same notice verbatim just five days later, and the Springfield Republican followed suit three days after.
Some editors saw fit to embellish the notices as they republished them. On July 14, 1868, the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean commented, «Iced tea with a slice of lemon in it is said to be decidedly ahead of lager.» On July 24, the Alton Telegraph of Alton, Illinois, asserted, «Iced tea, with a slice of lemon in it, is esteemed by some as infinitely ahead of lager.» And then, on August 1, the Harrisburg Telegraph reported, «Iced tea, with a small slice of lemon in it, is said to be decidedly ahead of love, limberger, or lager, as a summer exhilarator.»
It’s hard to say for sure where the practice of drinking iced tea first became widespread. The evidence, however, points not down South but in the opposite direction. On August 2, the New Orleans Times noted, «Iced tea with lemon juice is said to be a popular and healthy drink at the North.» The Boston Herald mentioned New York City specifically: «Iced tea is the latest fashionable drink in Gotham,» the paper wrote on July 29.
Iced tea’s favor only grew from there. An avalanche of articles in the 1870s and 1880s praised it as a delightful summertime treat. By 1889, Sarah Tyson Rorer could write in her popular column in Table Talk: «Twenty years ago the fondness for that beverage was confined to a few who were looked upon as ‘gastronomic cranks’. Today, we are rather inclined to think there is something cranky about a man who says he doesn’t like iced tea.»
From the very beginning, sweetening iced tea was a common practice, but it was left to the consumer’s discretion. Lemon juice was mentioned more often than sugar in the early notices, but the New York Tribune did advise, on July 27, 1868: «Sweeten the hot tea to suit your taste; then pour it, spoonful by spoonful, into a tumbler filled with ice.» A few years later, the Vinton Record of McArthur, Ohio, said that iced tea «is made by permitting tea to cool, pouring it over powdered ice, and sweetening it with white sugar, to suit the taste.»
And there matters stood for the rest of the 19th century, with iced tea remaining a popular beverage served throughout the country in the warm summer months, sometimes sweetened, but often not, depending on each drinker’s preference.
Ice Goes South
It’s hardly surprising that iced tea was slower to reach popularity in the South. Though hot tea had been consumed in the region since the colonial era, it was expensive compared to coffee, and therefore considered more of an upper-class beverage—it wasn’t until British-owned plantations in eastern India and Ceylon eclipsed the Chinese green tea trade with inexpensive black tea that the drink became affordable. But an even bigger impediment to Southern iced tea was the availability of ice, or lack thereof.
Since the colonial days, Northern consumers had had ready access to ice, which was harvested in local ponds in the winter and stored in ice houses through the summer. That wasn’t possible in the South, with its mild winters and long, hot summers. A national trade in frozen water—harvested in Northern lakes and shipped to Southern ports to be stored in insulated ice houses—developed in the early 19th century, but ice remained an expensive luxury, found primarily in coastal cities. Even after the advent of mechanical ice-making in the late 19th century, cold beverages were markers of status, enjoyed mainly by city folks.
In large part, that’s because ice wasn’t readily available in rural communities until automobiles made it possible to transport big blocks out into the countryside. And it wasn’t until electric iceboxes became common, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that Southerners finally had what they needed to enjoy iced beverages. With unprecedented access to tea and ice, along with a mild climate year-round, the South soon embraced the popular Northern beverage.
But was that tea presweetened?
In her influential cookbook, Southern Cooking (1928), Mrs. S. R. Dull, a Georgia native, does mention presweetening tea, but seems to be lukewarm on the practice: «To sweeten tea for an iced drink,» she writes, «less sugar is required if put in while tea is hot, but often too much is made and sweetened, so in the end, there is more often a waste than saving.» Presweetening was certainly the standard for at least some of the South, though. In her memoir, Look Away! Dixie Land Remembered, Marion Cyrenus Blackman of Louisiana recalls her family dinners, noting, «Sometimes after we got an icebox we drank tall glasses of iced tea, heavily sugared.»
This defining practice of presweetening tea—that is, adding sugar to the hot tea before it is iced and served—does indeed seem to have originated in the South; I haven’t been able to find any accounts of tea made this way in Northern sources. But I’ve also failed to identify a geographical pattern for its prevalence and spread during the mid-20th century.
My own father, who was raised in south Georgia in the 1940s and 1950s, remembers that the tea at his house was invariably served presweetened—in fact, until he went away to college, he had had no idea it could be made any other way. But other Southerners of his generation have told me that their iced tea was never sweetened when they were growing up; that there was always sugar in a bowl on the table, which you could opt to stir in with long-handled iced tea spoons. Indeed, the very presence of those long-handled spoons (introduced in the early 20th century, and formerly quite standard) in silver sets suggests a regular need to stir sweetener into tall glasses.
The Southernization of Sweet Tea
The 1980s saw the publication of several seminal works on Southern food culture and history, including Joe Gray Taylor’s Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South (1982) and John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (1987). But even on these relatively recent dates of publication, the volumes address iced tea without insisting on its being sweet.
Egerton identifies the following beverages as generally associated with the South: «Sweet milk and buttermilk, iced tea and coffee, orange juice and lemonade…. With iced tea especially, there is a distinct Southern accent; people in the region drink it the year around, whenever and wherever food is served.» For Egerton, sugar is not an essential component. His iced tea recipe calls for steeping loose orange pekoe in boiled water, straining the mixture into a pitcher, and diluting with cold water. «Serve in ice-filled glasses,» Egerton instructs, «with sugar, lemon or lime, and mint sprigs, if available, for flavor.» The accompanying photograph shows a pitcher of tea and two filled glasses topped with mint and lemon slices. A bowl of sugar awaits on the side.
Up to this point, «sweet tea» wasn’t even a term used in the South. If you find the phrase «sweet tea» in a newspaper (even a Southern newspaper) from the 1960s or 1970s, it’s almost always referring to hot tea enjoyed in some faraway place, like Egypt, Dubai, or Sri Lanka.
That started to change in the last years of the 20th century. In 1989, Kathy Petty, a columnist for the Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, Georgia, joked that «getting a glass of sweet iced tea above the Mason–Dixon line is about as likely as finding a reactor pipe at SRP without a crack in it.» («SRP» refers to the Savannah River Plant, a nuclear facility near Augusta that was famously plagued by defects.) By the 1990s, people were becoming quite emphatic about the linkage. «Southern ice tea is always very sweet,» a writer for Alabama’s Anniston Star declared in 1994. «It’s not Southern tea (and in the South isn’t worth much) if it doesn’t have a lot of sugar added to it way in advance.»
In 1993, sociologist John Shelton Reed analyzed a series of polls conducted by the University of North Carolina and concluded that «seven out of eight Southerners drink iced tea, and two-thirds of those prefer sweetened to unsweetened.» The groups that were less likely to drink their tea sweet were college graduates (of whom 53% preferred sweetened tea), those with salaries greater than $60,000 (59%), and people who never went to church (59%). Godlessness and aversion to sweet tea were apparently starting to go hand in hand.
By the end of the 20th century, the Southernness of sweet tea was sufficiently established that the idea began to be used metaphorically. In his book Southern Belly (2000), John T. Edge calls the secret ingredient in the chili dogs at Nu-Way Weiners in Macon, Georgia, «as Southern as sweet tea,» since each has a dose of barbecue sauce beneath the chili. Around the same time, the Mississippi-based McAlister’s Deli chain started advertising its trademarked «Famous Sweet Tea» as «the house wine of the South,» borrowing a line that had appeared in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias. (Though, when Dolly Parton said it, her character was talking about iced tea, not necessarily sweet tea.)
So why did Southerners suddenly rally around a sweetened drink as a marker of their identity? I think Jeffrey Klineman may have put his finger on it in an ode to sweet tea that he wrote for Slate in 2007. The article links the beverage to the region’s uneasy relationship with its own past:
The South reveres its traditions, and sweet tea is one of them. Dixie has had some embarrassments in its time: There’s that whole Civil War thing, the whole Judge Roy Moore thing, that whole Naples, Fla., Swamp Buggy Queen thing, to name a few. Getting your nose rubbed in your own traditions too many times makes you cling to those that aren’t, well, illegal.
Klineman grew up in Atlanta in a transplanted Jewish family, his mother from Brooklyn and his father from Cleveland. He latched onto sweet tea, he says, as a way to «assimilate with my classmates.» That jibes with my own experience, growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta and, later, Greenville, South Carolina. Though I was born in the South to Southern parents, many of my classmates weren’t. All of us were growing up somewhere in between an older South—the South of memory and legend, of agriculture, slavery, and Jim Crow—and the larger American culture that we absorbed from television and scarfed down in the fast food chains that lined our suburban highways.
In the post–civil rights movement era, the South was stumbling toward becoming a fully integrated society (a process we’re still stumbling through today), and we Southerners were searching for things to anchor our collective identity. Some celebrated their inner redneck, waving the Confederate flag, spouting off about «heritage,» and spinning misty tales about a mythic South that never was. Others tried to cast off their Southernness altogether, embracing white wine and Brie and similar badges of white-collar sameness. (In the late 1980s, a professor at my private liberal arts college bragged, «A lot of students arrive here with Southern accents, but they all leave here sounding the same.»)
Many Southerners, I suspect, found neither of those paths satisfactory. We needed to find something that connected us with our past and defined who we were, without offending half the people around us or pretending to be something that we weren’t. And we could declare with pride our allegiance to sweet tea, for it was distinctive but not particularly controversial. Sweet tea was safe.
Sweet Tea Takes America
Regional markers are impermanent things. Sweet tea’s Southernness isn’t really all that old, and it’s already starting to fade. America’s restaurant chains, it seems, are determined to make it a national obsession instead.
In 2006, after many years of resistance, McDonald’s added sweet iced tea to its menus, though it initially did so only in Southern outlets. (The presence of sweet tea in McDonald’s locations was the criterion used to create that map of the Sweet Tea Line in Virginia, though it turns out the data-gathering process was decidedly less than scientific.) Just two years later, the burger chain started rolling out sweet tea nationwide, taking it to former sweet-tea deserts like Chicago and Los Angeles.
Just a few years ago, the only place in New York City where you could find a glass of fresh-brewed sweet tea was in a Southern-themed restaurant. (We’re ignoring here, of course, bottled tea products, like Snapple Lemon Tea and Nestea, which were introduced nationwide in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but are, in my mind at least, more like sweet-tea-flavored beverages than proper «sweet tea.») These days, Southern chains like Chick-fil-A have invaded the city, bringing their sweet iced tea with them. In the summertime, New Yorkers line up at Starbucks for «Trenta» (30-ounce) cups of shaken iced tea, each sweetened by default with seven pumps of simple syrup.
«Now that sweet tea is peddled by barkeeps and restaurant waitstaff across the country,» Adrian Miller asks in his First We Feast essay, «has sweet tea lost its power as a symbol of Southern culture? Should we now think of it as something that is just ‘American?'»
Perhaps we should. After all, it hasn’t really been Southern for too long, and an entire region’s identity is an awful lot of cultural baggage for a simple beverage to bear.
June Is National Iced Tea Month
What could be more refreshing on a hot summer day than an icy-cold glass of tea? That’s why June was chosen as the official month to celebrate America’s longtime love affair with the beverage. Our country’s passion for cold tea, something our British friends don’t understand, can be traced back nearly two centuries.
One of the most reported iced-tea stories came from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair when Richard Blechynden, director of the East India pavilion, became frustrated as he tried to offer samples of hot tea under the simmering Missouri sun. In an attempt to boost consumption, he circulated and chilled the tea through a series of lead pipes immersed in ice. The resulting cool, refreshing beverage was a hit with fairgoers, and the iced drink became popular throughout the United States.
This story may be true, but it is not the first recorded incidence of tea being served with ice in the United States. In my native state of Kentucky, cold-tea recipes began appearing prior to the Civil War in cookbooks such as The Kentucky Housewife. Our 1842 home had a stone icehouse, where winter ice, gathered from a nearby river, was stored until the hot days of July and August. The precious ice was shaved and used to make ice cream or put in a glass for iced tea or an occasional mint julep.
Be sure to always call it iced tea rather than ice tea. Tea with ice in it is an iced beverage. In the South, the word iced is often eliminated, and in many diners and restaurants, it is simply known as “sweet tea.”
Sweet tea dates back to the late 19th century when the following recipe was published in Housekeeping in Old Virginia.
After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinner time, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.
Because 19th-century general stores stocked mostly green tea from China or Japan, many early recipes called for green tea. But, after World War II, when green tea was scarce, black tea from India became the basis for this popular brew. That is no longer the case.
It may surprise contemporary tea drinkers to learn that most of today’s commercial iced-tea mixes and tea bags contain mostly mechanically harvested black teas from Argentina. More than 40 percent of the tea imported into the United States each year originates in that South American country’s long flat fields of tea bushes.
Although some teas are manufactured specifically to be served as iced tea, almost any tea can be enjoyed cold as well. You can even save your breakfast tea and serve it over ice for lunch. Whether it’s black, green, oolong, or white, drinking iced tea is cooler than ever.
All About Sweet Tea, the South’s Favorite Beverage
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.
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.
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.”
Health Benefits of Iced Tea
We are all becoming increasingly health-conscious in the 21st Century. So, what can Iced Tea do to improve your everyday way of life? That very much depends on what type of Iced Tea you choose.
If you choose an Iced Tea with base ingredients of fruit, for example, then you’re choosing a beverage that is caffeine-free as well as a brilliant alternative to sugary treats. This can help in the fight against obesity as there is less sugar in an Iced Fruit Tea than, say, a bar of chocolate. Yet you’re still satisfying your sweet tooth, so surely that is a win-win?
Choosing an Iced Tea containing “real” Tea (i.e. Green or Black Tea), meanwhile, may mean more health benefits depending on your lifestyle choices. Providing one exercises frequently and eats healthily, any containing leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant (the Tea plant) can offer more than just a cocktail of flavour, but also a cocktail of beneficial antioxidants.
The antioxidants in Tea are capable of combating free radicals in the body, the product of natural, though harmful, human oxidation. We as a species are particularly susceptible to the “side effects” of oxidation. Oxygen molecules create stress on our organs and tissues by introducing free radicals to our body, which are unpaired (and unstable) electrons or groups of electrons.
The abundance of free radicals in the body can lead to many complications such as heart disease and even cancer, while antioxidants do the opposite and are able to neutralise free radicals, thus slowing down the damaging effects of oxidation.
Ultimately, an Iced Tea made from Green Tea, White Tea or Black Tea can reduce the risks of developing cardiovascular disease and possibly, although studies are preliminary, certain types of cancer. It can also reduce the risks of developing type-2 diabetes as well as being able to boost the metabolism, support digestion and, of course, relieve stress and anxiety.
Green Iced Tea
Rich in antioxidant compounds called polyphenols, specifically polyphenolic catechins. These catechins can be further subcategorised, the most vital compound being Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Not only is EGCG an important antioxidant to support healthier living, but also contributes greatly to the characteristic colour and flavour of Green Tea.
When it comes to cardiovascular health, however, EGCG has the ability to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol. This is supported by a recent meta-analysis of 13 Green Tea-related observational studies, which found that volunteers who drank the most Green Tea had a 28% lower risk of coronary artery disease than those who drank the least Green Tea.
Black Iced Tea
Enhancing cognitive function, Black Tea helps your brain. By that, we mean that the frequent consumption of any Black Tea, including Black Iced Tea, can reduce the risks of developing Dementia and/or Alzheimer’s Disease. This is according to a report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which referred to a recent study conducted at the University of Singapore.
The report stated that some 2,500 people aged 55 or over had undergone a test to measure their cognitive function. The experiment was repeated 2 years later, establishing clearly that those who drank 2 to 3 cups of Black Tea a day were 55% less likely to develop cognitive decline, while those who drank 6 to 10 cups a day were up to 63% less likely.
White Iced Tea
A slow metabolism means that, for some, losing weight can be incredibly hard. But a White Iced Tea, when consumed as part of an already healthy active lifestyle, can boost the metabolism. Regardless of your current metabolic rate. By boosting the metabolising, the body is able to burn fat quicker and more efficiently.
This is not just speculation, either. Scientific research has long suggested that White Tea extract effectively reduces the deposition. Its also know to help with triglycerides in human adipocytes, or fat cells. This aids and promotes the breakdown of fats in the body. This is partly due to the abundance of EGCG in White Tea, more so, in fact, than in Green Tea.
Fruit Iced Tea
It is a common misconception that Fruit Teas are without any health benefits. This is simply not true – you just have to read between the lines. For example, a recent study has clarified the long-held belief that stress plays a significant role in weight management. Chronic stress disrupts our sleep and blood sugar levels, which then leads to increased hunger and comfort eating.
With comfort eating comes further disrupted sleep, even higher levels of stress and even more disrupted blood sugars. This not only leads to unhealthy levels of body fat but also, very potentially, type-2 diabetes. A nice glass of Fruit Iced Tea, meanwhile, stops stress at the source. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. Because, after all, what could be more relaxing than sitting outside in the sun with your favourite beverage to hand?
How to Make Iced Tea
Found the Iced Tea right for you? If not, we have many more choices including Jamaican Rum Iced Fruit Tisane, Summer Fruits Iced Fruit Tisane, Passion Fruit Iced Tea and Mango and Bergamot Iced Tea. And once you have decided, or if you have already decided, you will need to know how to make your very own Iced Tea from the comfort of your home:
- Add 2 teaspoons of loose leaf Iced Tea, per person, into a cup.
- Pour in freshly boiled water to the point where it just covers the Tea – No more. No less. (If you have chosen a White or Green Tea, wait for the boiled water to cool. Ensure the temperatures between 80 and 90 degrees before pouring).
- Brew for 2 to 3 minutes if you have chosen a White or Green Iced Tea. 3 to 5 minutes if a Black Tea and 5 to 10 minutes if it is a Fruit Iced Tisane. Be sure to refer to the brewing guide of each individual product to determine the best brewing time.
- Strain the Tea leaves before adding cold water and ice cubes. You can also add further additions and decorations such as fruit, mint and alcohol.
- Not sweet enough for you? Add sugar or honey when adding the boiling water or use chilled lemonade instead of cold water.
Which tea should you try?
The flavor of iced tea comes from the tea leaves themselves; black teas, green tea, white, herbal tea, Pu-erh, chai tea and rooibos are some of the most popular choices.
Choose tea leaves that are carefully grown, harvested and dried. Organic teas are the best choice if you want to avoid synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The practices used in growing organic tea result in better flavor, overall nutrition and are better for the environment.
Sweeten things up
Shaken, stirred, blended or straight up over ice you can’t go wrong. Pick a tea or tea blend, brew and serve as is or add a sweetener:
Or, if you’re avoiding sweeteners of any kind, cinnamon, citrus zest and gently macerated mint or ginger will add a touch of sweetness and zing without added sugar.
Add a splash of coconut water to your green tea and top it off with basil or mint.
Tea around the world
Traditional teas from around the world are showing up in iced versions.
Tea made from barley is found in China, Korea and Japan and traditionally served hot but also delicious chilled.
In Singapore, an iced lemon tea is made with black tea and fresh lemon.
Thai iced tea, brewed with Ceylon or Assam tea, with coconut milk or condensed milk and sweet spices like star anise, cardamom and anise or sugar and orange blossom is served over ice in a tall glass.
Mix things up
- A half and half is a non-alcoholic drink is half lemonade and half black tea, named after famous American golfer Arnold Palmer.
- Green tea lemonade is of course made with green tea instead of black tea.
- Moroccan tea or Maghrebi mint tea is a blend of green tea and mint with sugar.
- Yerba Mate, known as the “Drink of the Gods,” hails from South America and is served in a small gourd and sipped through a special straw.
- Taiwanese bubble tea is made from black, green or jasmine tea, sweetener and powdered milk. The bubbles are small balls of tapioca starch. Bubble tea can now be found in many specialty tea shops. Honey, mango, passion fruit and strawberry are some of the most popular flavors.
- Kombucha is a lightly fizzy and fermented drink, traditionally made with green or black tea, sweetener and flavorings. Make your own or buy it already brewed and bottled.
- If you want to keep it simple, brew up a batch of sun tea. Choose your favorite tea or tea blend, add to a large jar, cover with water, set it out in the sunshine and let nature take over while you kick back and enjoy the lazy days of summer.
Orange Iced Tea
Orange iced tea is a refreshing and delightful drink perfect for lazy summers. Made with fresh orange juice, mint leaves, and black tea, this drink is a great thirst quencher, loved by all.
TIPS & TRICKS
- Adjust the quantity of tea leaves depending upon how strong you like your tea.
- You can also add some orange or lemon zest for a more refreshing citrus flavor.
- Adding sugar is optional. If you prefer having Iced Tea without Sugar, just skip it.
- A healthier version of sweetener like honey or maple syrup may also be added to the orange tea.
- When in a hurry, no need to keep the iced tea in the fridge for long hours. Just fill the glass with lots of ice cubes and it will get chilled. However, then consume it immediately otherwise if the ice melts completely the tea will taste over-diluted.
- You may make iced tea with other fruits too like peach, lemon, berries, apple, etc.
- 2.5 tbsp black tea leaves adjust the quantity depending upon your taste
- 6 cups water
- 1/4 cup sugar adjust the quantity as per taste. You may also skip it if you don’t prefer sweet tea or add honey or maple syrup.
- 2 cups orange juice
- 1 small orange sliced
- Mint leaves for garnishing
- Ice cubes
- In a saucepan add water, sugar, and boil until the sugar gets dissolved.
- Add tea leaves to the pan, switch off the gas. Cover the pan and keep aside for at least 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, strain the tea in a pitcher and discard the tea leaves.
- Once the tea reaches room temperature, add orange juice to it. Mix well and keep in the fridge till serving time.
- To serve, add orange slices to the pitcher. Pour the tea in ice-filled glasses. Garnish with mint leaves and enjoy.
- Adding sugar is optional. You can skip it or add any other sweetener of your choice-like honey or maple syrup.
- Adjust the quantity of tea leaves depending upon your taste preference.
Celebrate one of summer’s favorite drinks on National Iced Tea Day
For those new to these parts who didn’t cut their teeth on sweet iced tea, here’s a simple recipe:
- Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat
- Place 3 family-sized tea bags into water and steep the tea for 5 minutes
- Add 1 cup granulated sugar to the tea
- Pour the tea base into a pitcher
- Top off the pitcher with water
- Refrigerate until very cold
- Serve over ice
For those wanting a twist to an old recipe, try this recipe for Three-Herb Iced Tea with Chamomile Syrup.
- 2 cup sugar
- 3 chamomile tea bags
- 8 sprigs fresh mint
- 8 large basil leaves
- Bring 3 cup water to boil
- Pour over mint and basil
- Let cool and sweeten with syrup
Recipe For Syrup
- Boil 2 cup of water
- Add 2 cups Sugar and dissolve
- Add 3 chamomile tea bags to sugar water and let cool
Sparkling Iced Tea with Lemon, Cucumber, and Mint
- 1 liter water
- 2 tea bags (choose a green tea or an herbal tea that you like)
- 2 lemons
- 2 limes
- 1/4 cucumber, sliced
- 1 bunch fresh mint leaves
- 1 liter unsweetened seltzer
- Ice cubes
- Boil water. Let it cool for 10 minutes. Add the tea bags and half of the mint leaves and let it steep for 5 to 10 minutes. This will make a less bitter tea infusion, which is perfect for iced tea.
- Squeeze the lemons and limes, reserving a few slices for decoration. Add the lemon and lime juice to the tea infusion. When the mixture has cooled down, add the cucumber slices and the rest of the mint leaves.
- Mix 1 part of the tea infusion with 1 part seltzer just before serving. Decorate with mint leaves, a lime or lemon slice, and some cucumber slices.