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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.

When it comes to making a proper pitcher of iced tea, it’s not surprising that Southerners are the most outspoken about how to do it. Keeping cool is crucial in the South, where the four seasons have been described as almost summer, summer, still summer and Christmas.

There are two basic techniques for making iced tea: hot-brewed and cold-brewed. Hot-brewed — pouring boiling water over tea bags, letting them steep a few minutes, removing the bags, stirring in sugar and cooling in the fridge — is somewhat faster. But many believe that the slower, cold-brewed method results in a smoother, more flavorful iced tea that doesn’t turn cloudy. For cold-brewed, the tea is steeped for 30 minutes or more in cold water, or longer in the refrigerator.

Because sugar doesn’t dissolve easily in cool water, making simple sugar syrup (dissolving sugar in boiling water, then letting it cool) is the best way to sweeten cold tea.

Cold-brewed tea has been growing in popularity for the past decade, and now those who want the best of both worlds, meaning quick but cold-brewed, can find cold-brew iced tea bags from major brands — such as Lipton and Twinings — that brew as quickly as hot tea.

An important note: cold-brewed tea does not mean sun tea, a potentially unsafe method that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn against using. Sun tea involves putting a jar of water and tea bags outside in the sun and letting it stay there for several hours. The danger is that bacteria can grow unchecked in the warm water and cause those who drink the tea to become ill.

Tips on Making Iced Tea

Food writer Patricia Mitchell, who writes for, says she drinks iced tea 365 days a year, even when it’s snowing (a rare occurrence in Texas, but still). She has these tips for making the perfect pitcher of iced tea.

  • If you’re using the hot-brewed method to make iced tea, use a glass or glazed ceramic pitcher that can handle having boiling water poured into it. Plastic and metal containers may be able to take the heat, but they often impart flavors that interfere with the best tea taste.
  • Tie your tea bags together so they'll be easier to remove from the pitcher.
  • Don't let tea sit in the refrigerator for more than a couple of days. Fresh tea is the best tea. Pour it out and make fresh.
  • Make sure your tea is really cold before you serve it. If you add ice cubes to warm or even room-temperature tea, they'll just melt and dilute the tea.

Candy Sagon, who writes about food and health for the AARP Bulletin, developed her sweet tea habit while living in Texas.

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