Gimme some sugar, baby

The sweet, sweet story of the iced tea tradition in America’s Deep South.

If you’ve ever been to the Southern United States, you’ve almost certainly been served a frosty glass of sweet tea. This extra-strong, extra-sweet, extra-cold black tea beverage is a cornerstone of the South’s culinary culture and social traditions.

“Sweet tea isn’t a drink, really. It’s culture in a glass,” Florida-born-and-bred journalist Allison Glock once declared. On April 1, 2003, Georgia State Rep. John Noel introduced a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for a restaurant not to have sweet tea on its menu. It turned out to be an April Fool’s joke, but the prank shows just how serious Southerners are about their favorite sweet libation.

Like every tea tradition around the world, the story of how sweet tea conquered the hearts and palates of Southerners is steeped in history. Tea was first brought to American shores by European colonizers in the 17th century, though it would be quite some time until this traditionally hot beverage would be drunk chilled. The oldest known sweet tea recipe is found in Marion Cabell Tyree’s 1879 manual “Housekeeping in Old Virginia,” calling for a liter of boiling water and two teaspoons of green – not black – tea, left to steep all day. Two spoonfuls of sugar, a squeeze of lemon, and plenty of ice finished off each glass.

drinking sweet tea

Ice and sugar were expensive commodities back then, but once they became commonplace, sweet tea really took off among the masses. The summer of 1904 was a particularly steamy one, the legend goes – and in St. Louis, Missouri, visitors at the World’s Fair were wilting in the heat. A man named Richard Blechynden, India Tea Commissioner and director of the East Indian Pavilion at the fair, had the enlightened idea to cool down his free tea samples by running the liquid through chilled pipes. The iced tea was a big hit. The Prohibition would soon begin, which some say also whetted Southerners’ taste for sweet tea, since quaffing a cold beer was out of the question.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America’s subsequent entry into WWII, imports of Asian green tea all but ceased. The American tea supply was soon being sourced almost entirely from British-controlled India, which produced only black tea. By the end of the war, 99% of the tea drunk in the United States was black, and the sweet tea formula had been altered forever.

Try for yourself the beverage that Dolly Parton’s character in “Steel Magnolias” called “the house wine of the South.” We recommend a strong infusion of our Kipling’s Cup, a Sri Lankan black tea that is most commonly used in the South. Brew it strong and stir in sugar while the tea is still hot – Southerners aren’t modest with the sweetener, and neither should you be. Chill thoroughly, and while you wait, put on a Johnny Cash album. To serve, fill up a glass – or that old favorite, a Mason jar – with ice, pour over the sweet tea, top up with extra water if desired, and drop in a thick wedge of lemon, squeezing it with your fingers as you go. Close your eyes and take a long, deep swig. Best enjoyed on a sunny porch.

Oak Alley

Images:
Cassia Noelle / Rachel Carrier / Gwen Harlow.