In the South, the energizer of choice is not coffee—it's sweet tea.
Wonderfully democratic, sweet tea avoids traditional tea stereotypes. While other revered tea preparations might involve hunting down rare leaves or special tea pots and whisks, sweet tea combines just three things: very cheap black tea, white sugar and ice.
A pitcher of sweet tea remains a fixture of southern kitchens and restaurants. "Somebody comes over to your house, and you offer them sweet tea," says Matt McClure, executive chef of The Hive in Bentonville, Arkansas. "It's the daily drink in the South—a nice, ice-cold pick me up that doesn't feel as bad for you as soda."
Sweet Tea History
McClure says that tea's general popularity in the South started in the late eighteenth century in South Carolina, the first place in the United States to grow tea commercially. The oldest recipe for sweet tea can be found in the 1879 cookbook, Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree. The recipe calls for green tea—the most commonly available (albeit expensive) variety at the time. The other elements, sugar and ice, were also pricey commodities (and refrigeration was a new concept), making sweet tea something of a luxury drink.
Soon, however, the drink started to become more accessible. In the 1900s, people discovered black tea, a relatively cheap import from Asia, and started using it in lieu of green tea. According to McClure, "because black tea had more tannins and a stronger flavor," tea makers added much more sugar to make the mixture easier to drink—thus creating the beverage as we know it today. Sweet tea exploded in popularity during the twentieth century, though there is much debate over when, exactly, that happened. Many point to Prohibition, when southern bartenders started serving sweet tea to bring in patrons during hot summer months. Regardless, as the ingredients became more available, southerners adopted sweet tea as their regional drink. "It became woven into the fabric quickly," McClure says.
Sweet Tea Recipe
With sweet tea, start with an affordable black tea since you'll be adding plenty of sugar. Arkansans, according to McClure, prefer Lipton, followed by Luzianne (whose blends are specifically made for iced teas like sweet tea).
Then steep the tea (about 8 to 10 tea bags per 3-quart pitcher) in hot water. Steeping for longer time is important, as the next step—adding ice—will significantly dilute the flavor.
The final and most important element is sugar. The quote, "frightening" amount of sugar distinguishes sweet tea from regular old iced tea. While southerners used to sweeten their tea with sorghum molasses (a cheap, accessible ingredient during prior centuries), McClure says that cane sugar is now the flavoring of choice, for its "pure sweetness." His family recipe includes a full cup of cane sugar per each pitcher of sweet tea.
Sweet Tea Cocktails
Sweet tea lends itself well to fruit-based flavorings, and it's not uncommon for someone to throw in whatever seasonal fruit, or its juice, is on hand. At Hive, McClure infuses sweet tea with dehydrated peach, one of the more popular combinations. He's also seen watermelon and apple, both of which bring "floral notes that go well with the natural flavor of the tea."
Another popular flavor enhancer? Alcohol. Bourbon or whiskey infused sweet tea cocktails abound in the South, and many liquor brands now sell specific sweet tea flavored varieties.
You won't find dainty sandwiches or cakes served alongside sweet tea. Sweet tea is tailor made to pair with southern staples like casseroles and barbecue, as "the tannins in sweet tea can cut through really rich food," McClure says. The beverage is a staple at potlucks and cookouts, served in big pitchers with long spoons, for remixing the sugar.
"It's a hospitality beverage," says McClure.