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Sweet Tea Nation

Southern zeal for beverage migrates north

En español | In 2003, as a joke, a Georgia state representative introduced a bill making it a misdemeanor for a restaurant that serves iced tea not to serve sweet tea. Surprisingly, it didn’t pass, especially considering that in Georgia — and the rest of the South — sweet iced tea is probably drunk more often than water.

See also: Ice cream and other summer treats.

Or as some folks put it, sweet tea is the house wine of the South. And in the past decade, its popularity has been spreading across this thirsty country. McDonald’s is now selling sweet tea, for goodness sake. When that happens, you know that sweet tea has ceased being just a regional favorite. With so much so-called sweet tea showing up in bottles and cans and even as a flavor of vodka, a true Southerner can tell the difference between real brewed and sweetened iced tea and all that other concentrate stuff.

But first, here is a little bit of sweet tea history.

Southerners have been taking their tea cold and sweet for a long time. Some of the oldest recipes for sweet tea can be found in 19th-century Southern cookbooks, including an 1878 one from Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree, a granddaughter of Patrick Henry. The rest of the country caught on in the early 1900s, particularly after iced tea was popularized at the 1904 World’s Fair in steamy St. Louis.

But sweet tea pretty much remains the national beverage below the Mason-Dixon Line. In fact, some call it the Sweet Tea Line — north of that boundary, tea commonly comes unsweetened and you have to say “sweet iced tea” if you want it that way. South of the line, you just say “tea.” Saying anything else is simply being redundant.

In the past five years, Americans have been cutting back on soda and instead drinking beverages such as smoothies, flavored water, specialty coffee drinks and iced tea. The NPD Group, a consumer research company, says iced tea sales at fast-food and casual dining restaurants have gone up about 12 percent since 2001, while soda consumption slipped 2 percent last year

According to the Tea Association of the United States, an industry trade group, Americans have been gulping down tea at a record rate, especially the already-prepared kind. “Ready-to-drink tea has virtually exploded in the last 15 years,” says Joe Simrany, Tea Association president. Sales have jumped from $200 million to more than $3 billion last year, he says, and iced tea makes up nearly 85 percent of the tea Americans consume.

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