Good Ole Southern Sweet Tea is the epitome of Hospitality! You cannot entertain without offering a tall cool glass of sparkling sweet iced tea. That is truly a tradition here in the south.
There’s no simple answer to why Southerners have such an affinity for sweet tea—or, as Dolly Parton put it in Steel Magnolias, “the house wine of the South.” Sure, there’s the taste—the balance between sugar’s sweetness and tea’s tannic bitterness (and, optionally, the bright, sour spark of lemon or the cool fragrance of fresh mint) is perfect, especially when accompanied by a plate of pulled pork, fried chicken or deep-fried pickles. And yes, sweet tea cools scorching summer temperatures like no other.
But sweet tea has been a Southern staple for nearly 150 years, and there’s something deeper than simple refreshment in its appeal. To those who’ve grown up with it, sweet tea is pure cold comfort, the condensation cooling your fingers while the sugar melts in your mouth.
How Sweet It Is
Every day, throughout the South, “Sweet or unsweet?” may be politely asked of diners ordering iced tea, but the regional palate puts plenty of responses in the sugar column. Across the broad swath of land stretching from Virginia to Tennessee and Louisiana, and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts you’ll always find sweet tea.
Sweet tea is so integral to Southern culture that you’ll even find dueling stories about its origins. Summerville, South Carolina, proclaims itself as “the Birthplace of Sweet Tea,” and the local Chamber of Commerce launched a Sweet Tea Trail in 2013. At stops along the trail, visitors can get a sweet-tea facial, lunch on a sandwich made with a sweet tea–marinated pork chop, or hit a few balls on a golf course at the Summerville Country Club, the site of a former tea farm.
But Summerville’s claim to being sweet tea’s birthplace hasn’t been adopted by everyone. “There’s a story about iced tea being invented at the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s probably safe to say the World’s Fair helped make iced tea more mainstream, but iced tea as we know it goes back to the late 1800s, and probably even to the late Antebellum period. By 1904, it would have been old hat.”
Iced tea was made with green tea originally, because green tea was more common than black tea, by the 1890s and the British colonization of India, black tea became much less expensive.
The British Raj wasn’t the only influence on sweet tea’s evolution. During Prohibition (and continuing after Repeal, as many Southern counties and towns remained “dry”), restaurant owners needed something to serve diners other than water. Given the heat and the Southern preference for all things sweet, restaurants began offering chilled tea with bowls of sugar on the side. This practice shifted starting in 1942, when fighting with Japan cut off trade routes in the Pacific. Cargo vessels to Hawaii—a chief source for domestic sugar—were redirected for military use, and sugar became the first food designated for wartime rationing. Even after the end of the war, the price of sugar remained tempestuous, forcing restaurant owners to rethink their approach to iced tea.
Even today when a Southerner orders, “Tea, please,” it means tea served
over ice, unless specifically stated, “I’ll have a cup of hot tea.” Furthermore ‘iced tea’ also meant ‘sweet-tea.’ Sugar soothed tea’s natural bitterness and heightened the caffeine
jolt for workers returning to hot, un-air conditioned offices. Tea room
owners knew that sugar dissolves best in tea still hot from brewing.
Pre-sweetening in the kitchen meant they could use less sugar and
Today whatever one’s region, gender, race, class or religion, we can meet at a common American table where drinking ‘ice tea’ is popular all year long and a global table where some form of tea is enjoyed every day symbolizing friendship and hospitality.